It was an unplanned stop at The Dollar Tree. I was waiting for my oldest son to be done with his homeschool co-op classes, while I entertained my two youngest. I let my one year old exercise her little legs around the store, while my four year old grabbed some boxed character themed valentines. The front of the store was drowning in red and pink hearts, candy, and cupids. All the things we associate with a commercial holiday.
The books I’ve read to my children about St. Valentine and the origins of this holiday, make me wonder even more why we bother to celebrate it. My cynical side says it’s just another opportunity for the big candy businesses, card companies, and retail stores to get our money again; for us to consume more stuff. My mommy side likes the cutesy crafts, gifts, cards, and valentine exchanges. I want my kids to have fun and enjoy themselves too. But then real life situations hit me with something deeper, like what happened at the dollar store.
By the time I was done at the store, I was feeling a bit frazzled from my children. With two bags in hand, and my littlest one on my hip, we all headed out the door. But then I was stopped by a man sitting in front of the store (who I immediately assumed wanted help), and I was ready with my typical response, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash,” when he said, “I’m not asking for any money, honestly. I just want some breakfast for my family. I’ll take anything from inside.”
I was stunned. I told him I’d help him, but I needed to at least put my bags in the car and get my baby secured in either her car seat or stroller. Still feeling frazzled, and now inconvenienced as a mom of little ones, the thought crossed my mind that I should probably just drive away. This is too hard with my kids right now. More thoughts ran at me as I thought about what I was about to do. Maybe he’s lying? Maybe this is just a scam? (Highly plausible thoughts in the city of Philadelphia.) Maybe I would be enabling some type of bad behavior? Maybe I’m being taken advantage of? I pushed aside the flood of thoughts and just went back inside with him, my children in tow. He had a basket full of breakfast cereal, then he asked me if he could grab a PowerAde. “Sure,” I said. And I placed my chip card in the reader.
As I drove away, I felt glad about what I did, but also still wondered if I was taken advantage of. I’ll never know. I don’t know that man’s life, and if his story was true. But I know a week before Valentine’s Day, I chose to love my neighbor. And I was reminded of the story Jesus told about The Good Samaritan.
In Luke 10:25-37, a lawyer puts Jesus to the test in order to justify himself when he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In reply, Jesus tells a story of a Jewish man who is robbed, and left for dead, on the road to Jericho. All the typical “holy” Jewish leaders come by, like a priest and a Levite, but they don’t even mind him. Instead a Samaritan, a man who is hated and scorned by the Jews, and has no ethnic heritage or shared nationality with the mistreated man, goes above and beyond in his care of him. Jesus was showing this lawyer that he falls much shorter from the law than he thinks. Yes, it’s easy to love your neighbor at times, but not easy when they are different from you or have mistreated you. Jesus takes it up a notch when he tells us to love our enemies (Matt 5:43-48). Jews and Samaritans were practically enemies. The question the lawyer should have asked was, “How should I love my neighbor?” not, “Who is my neighbor?”
Everyone is our neighbor, those close and those far, those like us and those unlike us, those related to us and those unrelated, strangers and friends, and those who are nice to us or mean to us. That man at the dollar store was my neighbor, even if he was taking advantage of me. Sometimes, loving our neighbor means being taking advantage of or inconvenienced. Don’t get me wrong, in certain circumstances, it’s good to draw healthy boundaries for ourselves and others, but at the same time, we are all called by Christ to be at peace with a certain level of mistreatment and still love our neighbor. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, and if someone wants to sue us (or take something from us), we just give them more (Matt 5:38-42). This is a hard call, but Jesus didn’t tell us to take up our cross for nothing.
None of us are perfect at this kind of neighborly love. Many of my thoughts at the dollar store were more akin to the priest and Levite than the good samaritan. But thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that our Savior has loved all his neighbors perfectly. He loved his neighbor to the point of death (Phil 2:8). He picked up a cross for us, and he commands us to pick up our cross for others (Luke 9:23). For our neighbor. For a man asking for food the week before Valentine’s Day. We are called to love, not just on the “love” holiday, but every day for the rest of our lives. And the love bar is set much higher than anything Cupid’s arrows could pierce. Only the love of God, in Christ Jesus, could fly that high.
This originally appeared on Morning by Morning.