Won’t you be my Neighbor?

Do you remember Mr. Rogers?  I recently saw a trailer for this new documentary about Mr. (Fred) Rogers.  I imagine that most of us have either seen Mister Rogers Neighborhood as a kid or watched with your kids.  If you have, you’ll agree he’s not easy to forget.

I got to thinking about my perception of the man.  If I am honest, I have to say that I probably thought he was a bit of a flake.  Really, is this guy for real?  But, like a lot of things I used to think, age, scripture and thoughtful consideration have peeled away enough layers of world view for me to glimpse the real truth.  I may have thought that he was a little too gentle, a little too kind.  (Like there’s such a thing as being too gentle or too kind…There’s that world view thing again.)  I may have even thought he was a wimp.  But now (thankfully) I see him as he truly was – simply as a disciple of Christ (he was a Presbyterian minister) preaching in the best way that he could the message of Jesus Christ.  Now I have a new-found admiration for the man, partly because of his commitment to the message, and partly because he probably knew that people like me would see him as a flake but never wavered.

And what about the message?  I think we all know the song sung at the opening of the show:

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood; a beautiful day for a neighbor;  Would you be mine? Could you be mine?…

Now the Old Testament concept of neighbor was rather restrained, limited to ‘those of their own nation, or to their own friends; holding, that to hate their enemy was not forbidden by the law’ (ATS Bible Dictionary).  Then Christ comes along and flips everything upside down, summed up with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  (Just a reminder that the Samaritans were despised by the Israelites, considered enemies, and in no way what any Jew at the time would consider a neighbor.)

In the parable (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus redefines the term neighbor from one of proximity or friendly association, to one of universal relationship.  Basically, he tells us to remove the limits we place on our compassion, our tolerance and our love to include even those we consider our enemies.  We should have no enemies, in that at the very least, everyone we encounter should receive our good wishes and prayers.  And with this definition, we all can be neighbors regardless of where we live, if we all choose to first live in the Kingdom of God.  So, when Brother Fred asks us in the song’s final reprise, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”, the invitation is to share a relationship rather than a zip code.

The true brilliance of his approach is that it comes at the level a 5-year-old can grasp, with the glorious hope that the message will take root and withstand the attacks that ultimately come with worldly living.  Neighborly love, or agape love, is the message, unconditional and without thought of return, simply because we can choose to.  As God chooses to love us, regardless.

“Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” – Fred Rogers

Oh yeah, and he wore some snappy sweaters!