In the readings this week, there is a real focus on our neighbor… who we think of as neighbor and who God considers our neighbor. As we heard, there is a gap in definitions. Let’s take a look.
We cannot control who lives on our street or next door to us, people come and go based on their own needs and jobs and life situation. We see a for sale sign go up and within a few months, presto we have new neighbors. The common thread here is we think of neighbors as a person who lives in close proximity to us.
God has a different definition of neighbor, and it is not just those who live near us. God puts people into our lives every day, and He considers all of them to be our neighbor, but do we? Or do we use our own definition of neighbor and not God’s?
So, who is our neighbor? You know, it is easy to view those we like and those who are like us as neighbors. We have a lot in common, we have similar interests, our kids are the same age, so we share similar experiences. For other people who are very different from us, we sometimes don’t view them in the same way, we don’t consider them neighbors. And then there are those we find real difficulty with, those who we label as something opposite from us, or we label them as taking a position we don’t agree with. They’re not our neighbor… right?
In the Gospel today, Jesus takes this head on. He is challenged by a “scholar of the law” who asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” A question all of us should ask. Jesus asks him how he reads the mosaic law on the subject and the man says one must love the Lord your God with all you heart, being, strength and mind, and you must also love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says, “Yes, that is it exactly!” But the man persists and asks the question we are also contemplating this morning… “who is my neighbor?”
Jesus proceeds to tell a story as he so often does. In it, he tells of a man who is on the road to Jericho and is robbed, beaten and left for dead. Three people pass by him lying on the ground and two of them cross to the other side of the road to be as far away from him as possible. The third man who comes by is a Samaritan traveler. Now Samaritans and Jews do not get along. Jews label Samaritans as outside of the law, as unbelievers, as so different they want nothing to do with them. Like labels we may sometimes put on people too….
But the Samaritan traveler views neighbor the same way God does, and he stops to help the severely injured man. He brings him to an inn and cares for him and sees that he is nursed back to health. At the end of the story, Jesus asks his challenger, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” After he replied, “The one who treated him with mercy,” Jesus tells him and us, “Go and do likewise.”
So, what gets in our way of doing likewise, of showing mercy to those who we find difficult? To those who we’ve labeled as something or someone polar opposite to us? Do we pass by on the other side of the road? Sometimes I think we may simply put our own needs ahead of others and pass by on the other side of the road. Or we may get distracted by things of this world and not things of the world to come, so we make those things more important than neighbor, maybe even more important than God. Or maybe we are busy and commit in our own heads that we will view neighbor the same as God does… once we have a little more time… once we get through the summer… once we retire. I’ve used that one…
Moses in the first reading points out the folly of these viewpoints. This reading comes near the end of his life when the Jewish people are about to enter the promised land. Moses pleads with them, “If you would only heed the voice of the Lord, your God, and keep his commandments” which are the same commandments Jesus talked about in the Gospel today. The people instead, though, can’t wait to get to this promised land and get on with their lives, interested more in themselves and not neighbor. Moses tells them that the commandment to love God and love neighbor is not some remote idea that is way out there or that we can get to in the future, it is imprinted on our very hearts. He says, “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts, you only have to carry it out.” Sounds very much like what Jesus said in the Gospel, “Go and do likewise.”
As we think about this today and this week, let us challenge ourselves to go and do likewise, to treat the wounds of our neighbors – physical, spiritual or emotional. Let us show compassion to those who are very different from us and who we don’t normally consider our neighbor. And let us particularly challenge ourselves with those who we have labeled as polar opposite from us because when we are kneeling in the presence of Jesus Christ in heaven, will any labels really matter?
Well maybe one will. Saved.