Who Is My Neighbor?

Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

click here for readings

The Good Samaritan by Aime Morot
In this Sunday’s gospel (Lk 10:25-37) a scholar asks the most important question any of us could ever ask: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  No other concern could be more important than this — how do I enter into eternity?  How do I live forever?  If we lack this one thing, then we lack everything.
Just as important as asking the right question, the scholar is asking the right person, Jesus Christ, addressing Him humbly as “teacher.”  A good scholar is one who knows he has a lot to learn, and who submits himself to those who can teach him.
Jesus, the perfect teacher, doesn’t give the answer directly, but rather leads the scholar to where that answer lies.  He asks him what he has read in the Law.  Our scholar knows the scriptures well — something we all should strive to do — and gives the correct answer, quoting the Torah: “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“(Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18).
The scholar gives the correct answer.  To inherit eternal life requires love of God and love of neighbor.  But then he asks a very important follow-up question.  “And who is my neighbor?”

You cannot love your neighbor unless you know who your neighbor is.  Is it the person living next door?  Are your neighbors just those whom you like and hang out with a lot?  Is it limited to your classmates, coworkers and friends?  Just how far does this concept of “neighbor” stretch?  To the whole world?  To say we are to love everyone is not very helpful.  It’s difficult to love “everyone” because “everyone” is an abstract concept.  We don’t love abstractions.  We love people.  So who are the people we are called to love?
Jesus’ answer to this question is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which should be familiar to most all of us.  A man is attacked by robbers and is in need of help.  A priest and a Levite pass by and do nothing to aid him.  But a Samaritan sees him and offers assistance — far more than anyone would expect.  He cleans and dresses his wounds.  He carries him to an inn and stays the night with him.  Then he pays for his room and lodging and offers to cover his expenses for as long as he needs.  The Samaritan shows him the abundance of love that Jesus wants us to offer to one another.
This parable is Jesus’ answer to the scholar’s question who is my neighbor.  And there is one thing you need to know to properly understand the meaning of this parable.  The Jews and Samaritans hated one another.  
While the Samaritans worshiped God and observed many of the same religious customs as the Jews, they did not follow Judaism entirely and so were considered outsiders, generally despised by the Jews.  Jewish people travelling between Judea and Galilee would take a longer route to avoid having to pass through Samaritan territory.  They were separate.  They were “other.” 
Jesus, by having a Samaritan be the one to render aid to the traveler in need is offering us an important lesson.  Even one you despise or who despises you is your neighbor.

It is very easy to be nice to those who are nice to you.  It is easy to love those who love you.  It is very difficult to love those who hate you, and even more difficult still to learn to love those whom you hate.  But this is what we must do.  This is the answer to the scholar’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Who is your neighbor?  We can certainly read the parable of the Good Samaritan and come away with a greater understanding of our duty to love those society considers outcasts — immigrants, minorities, refugees, the homeless, and the infirm.  We can think of this in terms of social justice, and we should.  But the call to love your neighbor is more intimate than that.  It should hit us close to home.  
Your neighbor is your suite-mate who leaves nasty notes on your door.  Your neighbor is the classmate who teases you for being different.  Your neighbor is the one down the hall who spreads false gossip about you.  Your neighbor is the boyfriend or girlfriend who broke your heart.  Your neighbor is the uncompromising professor who seems to have it in for you.  Your neighbor is the mentor who let you down.  Your neighbor is the friend who wasn’t there for you when you needed them.  
Who do you not get along with right now?  Whom do you harbor negative feelings for?  Whom do you seek to avoid as you walk across campus?  This is your neighbor whom you are called to love.
But that’s impossible! you say.  No, it’s not.  Jesus does not command the impossible of us.  You don’t have to like them, or become their “bff.”  But you need to love them — this means desiring, and acting toward their good.  It means praying for them.  It means offering them help when and how they need it.  It means going beyond what you may feel compelled to do and offering an abundance of love and mercy, as the Samaritan did in the parable.  It means, above all, recognizing and loving the image of God in them.
I encourage you today to read the parable of the Good Samaritan and ask yourself who in your life may be a neighbor you have neglected to love.  And pray that God may help you to learn to love that person with a generous spirit and abundance of mercy.