There’s a 2014 Netflix documentary called “The Overnighters” which relates the story of one pastor’s efforts to love his neighbors during the North Dakota oil boom. At the heart of the story is the struggle the pastor has with himself, the congregation, and the city as he attempts to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” As the film comes to a close, an enormous plot twist blows the story to pieces, and the viewer is left wondering (or at least, I certainly was), “After all that I’ve seen in this documentary, can I really love my neighbor?”
I watched this documentary a few days ago, and then listened to a podcast where two hosts interviewed the pastor in the documentary. I haven’t been able to get the story out of my head, and I’m constantly returning to the question the film asks:
“Who is my neighbor?”
Here’s the deal: I really want you, dear reader, to stop reading this and go watch the documentary. I really don’t want to give spoilers, because I think you have to experience the documentary without knowledge of how it ends in order to get the true effect of seeing how hard it is to love your neighbor.
So do yourself a favor. Stop reading this blog. Go queue “The Overnighters” on Netflix and pop some popcorn. Then come back and finish this blog.
*** SPOILER ALERT *** *** SPOILER ALERT *** *** SPOILER ALERT ***
At the end of the documentary, within the last 10 minutes, the viewer finds out that Jay Reinke, the pastor, had an affair sometime in his past (the timeline is not clear). Throughout the entirety of the film, I was rooting for Jay, hoping that his radical efforts to love his neighbor would win the day, and the city and the congregation would come alongside him and support him. Obviously this doesn’t happen. Jay has to shut down the ministry. He steps down from his official position as a pastor, and has to confront and deal with the wreckage found in the wake of an affair.
If you were anything like me, when you realized that he had an affair, several things happened. The love and emotion that Jay had won over in me was instantly lost. I had a decision to make. Do I extend Jay the same kind of love and acceptance that I had just seen him hand out to drug addicts and sex offenders? Or do I withhold my love because of what he has done? I was torn. I am still torn.
“Who is my neighbor?”
A long time ago, someone asked Jesus of Nazareth this question, and his response is beyond vital for today’s political and cultural climate, a climate that by all appearances is seething with hate for the “other.” Jesus’ answer, essentially, was everyone. Anyone and everyone who you deal with daily, weekly, monthly, once-in-a-lifetime encounters, friends, relatives, enemies, conservatives, liberals, people who have same-sex attraction, transgenders, presidents, beggars, children, parents, and yes, even members of racist organizations.
My natural reaction is to ask, “How can I even get there?”
How can I even get to a point where I can look at someone who had an affair and hurt his family and still extend him genuine love? At what point do I stop offering love and grace? Do I only offer love and grace if this person will see the way I see things, if they will believe as I do? Do we too often play God, wanting a payment for the ways in which we were offended by someone? Will I say, “Okay, you can come back into the fold, only if you really do repent and change this time?” Is that unconditional love? Did Jesus ever have a love like that? At what point did Jesus retract his love for us? Did Jesus stop loving the rich young ruler, even though the man would not follow Jesus? Look it up! It says that Jesus loved him, even as the rich young ruler was walking away from Jesus and rejecting what Jesus was saying.
Do you think Jesus loved Barabbas? The murderer who was set free instead of Jesus? Did Jesus ever talk disgustedly about the Pharisees or the tax collectors when it was just him and his disciples? What about prostitutes and the homeless? Do you think Jesus walked by them and cringed his nose at the smell and the sin? Do we talk disgustedly about groups who are different than us? Groups that we just don’t understand? What’s the difference if we love them while we are with them, yet bash them while they are gone? Did Jesus do that? Or worse, is it love if we post how right our side is on social media, and how the other side is getting it all wrong?
Look, these are lots of questions I have been sitting on. And I hope as you were reading through the list, you have realized ways in which you have not loved your neighbor, ways in which you retracted your love from someone because they were too broken to love. The Overnighters documentary caused me to ask all these questions, to look at the way I am treating those around me who are different than me. The Overnighters, at least for me, exposed the inclinations of my heart when I encounter someone who has done something that repels me.
Let me end with this: The command to love your neighbor, apart from recognizing what Jesus did, is one of the most crushing and impossible commands to live out. Let me say that again: If you have not recognized what Jesus has done for you, your efforts to love your neighbor will be taxing unto exhaustion. Ultimately, we will fail to love the “other” if we rely on our own human efforts and philosophies.
BUT. When we realize that Jesus came to us, and loved us as broken as we were, as wretched as we were; that even as we rejected him, Jesus emptied himself spiritually, emotionally, and physically on our behalf; when that truth sinks deep down into our bones, there can only be one response: joy. Joy that overflows into love for those who are so different from us. Joy that causes us to love even if we are rejected in our efforts. And even if that joy fails to show when we need it to, we can act out, even with impure motivations, because God can use even our impure motives for his glory and our good. I believe in a God who is faithful to change my heart, even as I struggle to love those around me.
“Who is my neighbor?”
Indeed, a poignant question for our time. Lines are being drawn. Positions are being fortified. We are shooting each other down with our words and wordless actions. In our lack of response, in our too often frenzied responses, we are forgetting to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” because at the heart of it, I think we are really forgetting to answer the question, “Did Jesus see me as a neighbor?” Remember friends, it’s not about us. It’s not about who’s “right” or who’s “wrong” politically. Jesus did not come to be “right,” but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. In light of the grace he has extended me, how could I not serve and give my life away for others, even for those who reject me?
As always, let me know what you’re thinking! Who is the neighbor in your life you know you should be loving? What keeps you from loving them?
Check out the Virtue in the Wasteland Podcast where they interview Jay after the film has been out for a while. Let me personally say, it is well worth your time to listen to this podcast: