In my first year of marriage, I planned a birthday surprise for my husband, complete with a few friends and a special cake. I was all set to make the multi-step brownie-and-peanut-butter layer cake when I realized we had not put round cake pans on our wedding registry; thus, we did not own any. Stuck at home without a vehicle, I finally realized our next-door neighbor was likely to have a well-stocked kitchen. I timidly knocked on the door of the elderly woman, who was happy to lend me two pans, and the resulting cake was as delicious as the magazine picture had promised.
The writer of the piece of wisdom literature in Proverbs 3 provides instructions for relating to neighbors. When we hear the term “neighbor,” our minds often rush to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan when he responds to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In reading Proverbs 3, though, Christians should resist the immediate impulse to apply Jesus’ definition of neighbor to a text written well before his time. While Jesus’ explanation deserves our attention, we should first seek to understand the given text on its own terms. Indeed, the two perspectives correspond with one another.
Here in Proverbs, we have a literal next-door neighbor – someone we see daily, someone who trusts us enough to make their abode in close proximity to us. In a time long before locks and home security systems, immediate neighbors had open access to one’s home and family. If you didn’t trust your neighbor, you had better sleep with one eye open!
Those who are wise, this passage urges, will readily do good to their next-door neighbors, extending generosity and not inciting harm or quarreling. This is done “when it is in your power to do it” (verse 27, NRSV). The wisdom writer assumes that neighbors indeed have power to act righteously, power that has limits, but also great potential. The root of the Hebrew word here translated “power” has connections to the hand – a hand that can open in generosity or strike a closed-fisted blow. The open, generous hand is characteristic of the home of the righteous; the closed hand that withholds good and inflicts violence (which can occur in more than one way, the text suggests) is characteristic of the home of the wicked.
Just who are these next-door neighbors? The writing and editing dates of Proverbs allow for the possibility that Israelites lived among diverse next-door neighbors in the context of this passage. While these neighbors may easily have been fellow Israelites, even members of one’s own tribe, we do not know this is the case. In fact, verse 30 applies the instructions toward “anyone”, suggesting that neighbors of any identity can be worthy of kind and fair treatment. The identity of the neighbor does not predetermine the action they should receive.
Since moving from our first home as newlyweds, my husband and I have encountered increasingly diverse neighbors in the communities where we’ve lived. We now display a sign created by our friend that reads, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in three languages. When we recently visited the town where we spent our initial years of marriage, we passed our neighbor Evelyn’s house and I remembered her kindness in loaning me those cake pans. Her small act of generosity illustrates the spirit of Proverbs 3. It begs the question of me, to whom would I be willing to lend my own cake pans? Toward whom will I exercise the power to do good, wherever I live? With every encounter, I have the choice to open my hand in generosity or to close it in violence.
God of peace, give me the courage to approach my neighbors.