Saturday, October 22, 2011

Please won't you be my neighbor?

A few years ago there was a billboard advertising campaign that received some notice. You might have seen some of them. They were billboards offering messages from God. They said things like: "Don’t make me come down there again.” - God or, “We need to talk.” – God or “Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour even longer.” – God or “You think it’s hot here?” – God or “Have you read my #1 best seller? There will be a test.” – God or finally on that would fit today’s Gospel, “That `Love Thy Neighbor‘ thing? I meant it.” – God.

Let me give you an image that many of you will be familiar with. A plain sweater, white canvass sneakers, a warm smile and a simple song that welcomed us every day. Sing it with me: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?” Every day Fred Rogers welcomed us to his neighborhood. As a child I watched Mr. Rogers and still have such fond memories. Over the years not much changed with the show; it was the same house, the same trolley to take you to the world of make believe, and the same puppets like King Friday. In every episode Mr. Rogers always asked the same question: “Would you like to be my neighbor?”

Today’s Gospel follows after last week’s passage in which we had the Sadducees trying to trap Jesus with their question about paying taxes to Ceasar. This week, the Pharisees take a stab at trying it testing him again with a question about the greatest commandment. The textbook answer, of course is love of God. But, again like last week, Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to give a more practical answer, one that challenges His listeners. Just like last week, Jesus gives the other side of the coin, which, in this case is love of neighbor.

Jesus makes the point that anyone who truly loves God must necessarily also love their neighbor; and that these are virtually one in the same thing. You cannot truly love your God unless that loves shows forth in love of neighbor. As Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Or as we hear in the First Letter of John, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”

Jesus is reacting against the Pharisees one-dimensional understanding of love. For Jesus, true love must express itself in three dimensions: the love of God; the love of neighbor; and the love of oneself. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself presumes that you first love yourself as a beautiful person created in the image and likeness of your God. That you see your dignity and beauty as a unique part of what God has created – as unique and beautiful as the oceans, the stars and the sky, the mountains or any other part of the created universe.

Last week, Jesus wasn’t so concerned with what was due to Ceasar, instead He was more concerned with what was due to God, something the people were forgetting. In the same way, the emphasis on today’s question about the greatest commandment is not on the obvious love of God but on the love of neighbor, which, again, was being ignored.

Just look at the treatment that Jesus received. He and His followers were persecuted by well-meaning religious people motivated by what they believed to be zeal and love for God. The same people asking about the most important commandment are the ones trying to trap and eventually kill Jesus. They are so conscious about love of God. Why then are they so insensitive when it comes to love of neighbor?

This is, of course, a concern that reaches our ears and our world today. The error of the Pharisees is still with us. We don’t have to look further than the ever growing divide between rich and poor, the continuing problem of homelessness, the ongoing scourge of prejudice, violence, war, death and destruction that are so much a part of our world to wonder where is our love of neighbor?

There are many Christians who try to separate the love of fellow human beings from their love of God. Their commitment to faith does not include commitment to issues of human rights; to economic and legal justice; to the call for peace; to equality and the ending of prejudice and persecution. We do well to heed Jesus in today's gospel: true love of God and true love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. Any attempt to separate them is a falsification of the message of Christ.

Again, we hear in the First Letter of John, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Or the reflection on faith and works from the Letter of James, “What good is it…if someone says he has faith but does not have works? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? Indeed someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works…For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Let us pray today that God will shake loose from us any indifference we may feel towards our brothers and sisters in need. We ask God to give us the same loving and compassionate relationship towards our neighbors that Jesus had. We pray, not only for the knowledge of how to love, but the wisdom to want to love in all circumstances.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Won't you be my neighbor?

May the Lord give you peace.

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