Saturday, July 13, 2013

Please won't you be my neighbor?

If you’re like me and millions-upon-millions of other people of a certain age, you grew up each day listening to Mr. Fred Rogers sing a little song that went something like this, “It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?...Won't you please, Won't you please? Please won't you be my neighbor?  Hi neighbor.”  Every day, Mr. Rogers would invite his viewers, even beg them to please be his neighbor as he took us to the land of Make-Believe or taught lessons on how to be peaceful people or how to deal with difficult situations or just to meet the many different people in the neighborhood.  It was clear that everyone was a neighbor in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

I was thinking of that wonderful childhood memory today as I was reflecting on our Gospel passage about neighbors.  We heard Jesus proclaim the Christian Golden Rule, “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.”  This Golden Rule is well known to us, but it is not just a Christian thing. Nearly every religion and culture in the world has the Golden Rule in one form or another. For example, in Judaism, they say, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.”  In Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” In Hinduism, “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, 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 gives us a completely new understanding of this well-known command. And the key difference in the Christian understanding comes from that simple question asked today, “Who is my neighbor?

You see, 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 limited to those who share your religious view; you have no obligation to the rest. Other groups, like the Zealots, understood neighbor to include only those of the same nationality or ethnicity. And so, in our Gospel passage today, they would not regard the Samaritan as a neighbor; 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.

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; just like Mr. Rogers.  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.

In our own world – whether during times of war or debates over immigration law -  we need to be reminded that everyone is our neighbor – even the enemy; even the immigrant; even the one we don’t like or who doesn’t like us. They are our neighbor and we must offer them mercy. We must overcome our tendency to likewise think in terms of “us” and “them” and instead heed the command of Jesus today to, “Go and do likewise” – to offer mercy, to treat everyone with respect, to be neighbor to the world. 

Jesus reminds us that our understanding of neighbor must be expanded to include even the so-called “nobodies” of society. The Christian understanding of “neighbor” has no borders or boundaries. Today we are called to identify 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 dismantle 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.  Please won’t you be my neighbor?

May the Lord give you peace.

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