Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Who is my neighbor?"


“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule, which we hear in today's Gospel is well known to us. What might not be so well known is that the Golden Rule is not just a Christian thing. Nearly every religion and culture in the world has the Golden Rule in one form or another. Here are some examples. In Judaism, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the law: all the rest is commentary.” In Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” In Hinduism, “This is the sum of duty: do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” And in Islam, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”

So, if the Golden Rule was so well-known in ancient cultures why did Jesus spend so much time teaching it as if it was a new thing? Well, it’s because as so often happens, Jesus is teaching a completely new understanding of this well-known command. The Golden Rule is understood differently in different religions and cultures. And the key to its understanding lies in the simple question that the lawyer asks Jesus in today's gospel, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is this neighbor that I have an obligation to love?

Among the Jews of Jesus' time there were those who understood “neighbor” in a very limited way. One group, the Essenes, for example, required new members to swear to love the sons of light and hate the sons of darkness. For them, your neighbor is the one who shares the same religious persuasion as yourself. Other groups, such as the Zealots, would understand neighbor to include only those who shared the same nationality and ethnicity with them. And so, in our Gospel passage today, the average Jew of Jesus’ time would not regard the Samaritan as a neighbor. This is something completely new. For them, Samaritans are outsiders and the circle of neighborly love clearly does not include them. Jesus came into a world of “us” and “them,” “us” being the circle of those recognized as neighbors, and “them” being the rest of the world regarded as hostile strangers and enemies of the people.

This radically different interpretation of the Golden Rule in Jesus' teaching of neighborly love is in His insistence that all humanity is really one big neighborhood. Jesus broke down the walls of division and the borders of prejudice and suspicion that humans have erected between “us” and “them” throughout time. To bring home this point He tells the story of the Good Samaritan. This man regarded as Enemy Number One by the establishment for no other reason than that he is a Samaritan, is ironically the one who truly proves himself to be neighbor to the Jewish man in need. Thus to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus offers new and challenging answer to His hearers: Anyone and everyone is your neighbor – without exception.

We all know that this is a message that we need to be reminded of as well. Jesus ends this passage about being a neighbor with a command, “Go and do likewise.” This is a challenge that He means for us as well. How often do we restrict our understanding of neighbor. We, too, like to think in terms of “us” and “them. ” The “us” being people like us spiritually, politically, economically – sometimes even racially or ethnically.
But, Jesus reminds us that our understanding of neighbor must be expanded to include even the so-called nobodies of society. We all need to be reminded that the Christian understanding of “neighbor” has no borders or boundaries. Today we are called to identity and tear down all the borders we have erected between those who belong to us (and are deemed deserving of our love and concern) and those who don't belong to us (those we somehow allow ourselves to ignore or marginalize). The gospel today challenges us all to dismantles these walls. This way we work with Jesus to realize His dream of the world as a neighborhood without borders or boundaries.

Jesus' story tells us that when we truly love our neighbor, we must be willing to help no matter how the person got into their situation of need. It also shows us that our love and concern to help others in need must be practical. Good intentions and empathizing with others is not enough; we must do good to one another. And lastly, our love for others must be as wide as God's love. No one is excluded. God's love is unconditional. So we must be ready to do good to others for their sake, just as God is good to us.

Jesus said, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Let us love our neighbors as ourselves without restriction, without boundaries.

May God give you peace.

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