Religious Blog

Who Is My Neighbor?

Amos 7:7-17                                       Luke 10:25-37                                     Psalm 82

I think we all know that we need to love the neighbor.  The question is very real, though, as to just how our neighbor is.  That was the question of the expert in Jewish law.

The question of the expert in Jewish law is valid.  When Jesus asks him what he reads in the Jewish law, the expert refers to Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  For this talk, the passage from Leviticus is our special interest.  The expert in the law had real grounds for asking who the neighbor is.  Leviticus seems to say that only the people of Israel are the neighbor.  That is, the neighbor is the same tribe that you live in.  Let’s look at the Leviticus passage.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:17-18).

See the wording.  The first line says not to hate your own kin, your relatives.  The next line says not to take revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people.  Then it says to love your neighbor as yourself.  So the context in which the command to love your neighbor appears is one of family and tribe.  The expert in the law knows this, and legitimately asks just who the neighbor is.

Jesus frames His answer in stark terms.  In His answer, Jesus shows that the neighbor is everyone.  He shows this in His story by making Orthodox Jews look uncompassionate and by making a member of a hated foreign tribe—the Samaritans—the example of love for the neighbor. In Jesus’ story, a man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, in the nation of Israel.  He is robbed, beaten and left for dead.  A Jewish priest not only passes the man by, but he crosses the street to avoid him.  Then a Levite, from the priestly tribe in Israel, does the same thing—he crosses the street to avoid the beaten and robbed man.  What is striking in this story, and ironic, is that the priest and Levite cross the street because of their Jewish religion.  According to Jewish law, contact with a dead body rendered the individual ritually unclean.  Leviticus 22:4-7 dictates that coming in contact with a corpse renders a person unclean, and a priest cannot perform rites and sacraments in the Temple while unclean.  In fact, a priest cannot even eat the food in the Temple, which they lived on, while ritually unclean.  They would remain unclean until sunset and after they had washed in water.  So to prevent ritual uncleanness, the priest and the Levite cross to the other side of the road to avoid contact with what they took to be a dead man.  So the leaders of the Jewish religion avoid the beaten and robbed man.  But a foreigner, from a heretical tribe, who were hated by the Jews, shows compassion and becomes the example of love for the neighbor.  By the end of the story, it is not the religion of the Jews that is the example of love for the neighbor, it is not even the status of a foreigner that is the example of love for the neighbor, but it is the capacity of compassion, which everyone can possess.

This is a uniquely religious message.  I think that most people show compassion to their friends and family.  This is a kind of self-love.  One’s friends and family belong to them.  They are extensions of self.  They exchange love for each other and they care for each other’s welfare.  But what about other people whom one has no special connection to?

Ethics philosophers have written much about this.  They talk about care for “near and distant” neighbors.  Who deserves our care most?  Is it our friends and family first?  Is it the people of our city?  Is it our Province?  Do we take care of our Country first?  Those would be considered near neighbors.  They are close to us.

But what are we to do with distant neighbors?  That is, people with whom we have no special connection.  Strangers.  People of different countries.  People we don’t know.

I would like to tell two stories about these issues.  One story is about me a long time ago at Urbana University.  The other is about an experience Carol and I had in Chicago, not even a week ago.

I was very rule-oriented when I was young.  I had principles I followed.  I had strict interpretations of Christianity and ethics.  One of my principles was that I treated everyone equally.  I had no room for particular recipients of good.  I showed good-will to everyone equally.  At least that is what I tried to do.  Well after I had been at Urbana University for a year, at the start of the next new semester a Swedenborgian student enrolled.  One of the Swedenborgian professors who knew her and her family, asked me to take her under my wing, and show her the ropes in order to make her feel at home at this new school, new place.  Well, due to my philosophy, I said that I would treat Debbie the way I treated everyone else at the University.  I had no room in my ethics to give Debbie special attention.  Kind of heartless; but that was how I saw things back then.  Distant neighbors deserved the same kindness as near neighbors.  The professor and everyone else didn’t get my ethics.  And, of course, now I would do things much differently.

Fast-forward 40 years.  Carol and I are schlepping our big suitcases down a sidewalk of downtown Chicago.  We were trying to get to the subway, to catch a train to the airport.  In Chicago, almost all the doors are revolving doors.  We tried to get into an office building because they had an elevator down to the subway and we didn’t fancy lugging our heavy suitcases down a flight of stairs.  Well the particular office building we were going into had one of those revolving doors.  I stumbled and lurched in the revolving door, trying to get me and my suitcase around in the narrow partition of the revolving door.  A security guard in the office building saw my difficulty.  I managed to get through, but he saw what a struggle it was.  Carol was still outside.  He told her to hold on a minute, and he opened another door—a regular door—with his keys, and got her into the building through a secure door which he opened for her.  Then he used his key to access the elevator for us.  We didn’t know that the elevators weren’t for the general public!  This was amazing for us.  He didn’t know us.  It was obvious that we didn’t have business in the building.  We were clearly tourists from distant parts.  Yet this security guard went out of his way to help us get into the building.  He was being a real neighbor to us.  Distant neighbors.

We got into the elevator and down to the subway turnstile.  The attendant there helped us use the handicap doorway to get our luggage through to the train.  Then we looked at the tracks and saw a long stairway down to the train tracks.  We weren’t ready for this.  Well as it happened, a Latino man and his daughter were going down to the tracks, too.  And the man stopped Carol, took up her suitcase and carried it down the stairs for her.  He didn’t know us, would never see us again, and he helped us, anyway.  And Carol wanted me to add that he and his daughter earned a hug from her for this.

The security guard and the Latino man were good neighbors to us.  I wasn’t much of a good neighbor to Debbie at Urbana University.  Situations to be good neighbors present themselves to us all the time.  We help our friends and families without a second thought.  But when we help someone who isn’t friend or family, it is entirely that they will become friends.  There is a man in my condo complex whom I have seen in the halls.  I say, “Hi,” and sometimes get a, “Hi,” back.  But recently someone had jammed some paper in the door lock into the complex to keep the door unlocked.  The guy I had met in the hallways was picking at the paper with a key, trying to get it out of the door.  I went back to my car and got out a dart I kept there for when Carol and I used to play darts.  The dart worked well, and the man got out all the paper.  That one moment bonded us a bit.  We now have a closer connection that we had before.

The neighbor is everyone, everywhere we can do good to.  Do you know who the closest neighbor is?  It is God.  God is the greatest neighbor.  Whenever we do good, we are doing good for God.  Jesus said, “When you have done it to the least of these brothers of mine, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  With God as our spiritual parent, we are all children of God.  So from a spiritual perspective, everyone is a near neighbor.  Care for distant neighbors doesn’t prohibit us from care for near neighbors, too.  Our friends and family are natural neighbors.  God and the people around us are spiritual neighbors.  Let’s keep our eyes open for the privilege of doing good whenever it presents itself to us, to everyone to whom we can do good.

 

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