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Archive for November 5th, 2018

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Who Is My Neighbor?

I’ve always thought of the Ten Commandments as the be all and end all of Old Testament law.  They are clear, concise, and to some extent measurable.  Either you’ve killed somebody, or you haven’t.  Either you’ve stolen or you haven’t.  Either you’ve sacrificed to idols or you haven’t.  And as for the others, there may be some grey area, but for the most part people know where they stand vis-a-vis God, at least as measured by the Ten Commandments.

But when you factor in the Two Great Commandments it’s a whole new ball game.  How do you know if you’ve loved God with your whole heart and soul and mind?  Can you ever be sure if you’ve loved your neighbor quite as much as yourself?  Of course therein is the problem — you can’t be sure.  You can only try, and then you hope for the best.

6EFAD66C-3190-43E6-82B9-983D3B5BEBDBJesus cites the Two Great Commandments as the epitome of the law and the prophets.  He reaches back to Deuteronony 6 and quotes them word for word, and he exalts them — not as yardsticks by which to measure behavior — but as ideals through which we reach out to an infinitely loving God.  And as a necessary corollary we, as deeply flawed people, extend ourselves in love to our equally flawed neighbors.  Clearly it is a legal burden too much for us to bear, but that’s the point.  It’s really meant to be an invitation to share somehow in a communion with God, this side of paradise.

In some respects we can embrace the Two Great Commandments as ideals that are beyond us, and so we do the best we can.  After all, no one expects perfection from us.  But it also strikes me that there’s something here that can really disrupt our lives, and the issue relates to the second of the two commands.  Specifically it has less to do with the command to love and more to do with the definition of neighbor.  Who, exactly, are our neighbors?  Are they the people next door?  Are they the people down the block or across town or in another city altogether?  That’s the crucial question which we all must answer.

As a medieval historian I’ve often speculated on the reaction that the early missionaries elicited from the German villagers when they introduced the command to love one’s neighbor.  Cultural historians suggest that when the missionaries said the word neighbor that their listeners were not at all on the same page.  The preachers likely intended neighbor to mean the stranger or any human being, because in the Christian perspective all are created in the image of God.  In the language of those villagers, however, neighbor meant a person from their village.  Anyone from beyond the limits of the village did not count as neighbor.

FC9357FF-52C7-418E-A03E-ABA90548856CIt was a big cultural leap for these people to expand the boundaries of the word neighbor.  At first it must have been a stretch to accept as neighbor someone from a nearby village.  The next stretch was to include someone from the region and then someone speaking a related language.  Only after a few generations could people comprehend the notion that anyone and everyone whom they might meet is a neighbor.  But once they understood that, then much of the gospel started to make sense.  So it was that they could finally appreciate the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus said that a neighbor could even be someone whom people scorn and despise.

It’s a perennial temptation to shrink the boundaries of who it is that is our neighbor.  It’s much easier to think of our friends as the limit of the word neighbor.  It’s tempting to push out of that circle the stranger or the poor or the people with whom we disagree.  And when we go so far as to demonize such people, then we have dismissed the second Great Commandment as not applicable to us.

Now more than ever we as Christians need to reaffirm with our Jewish neighbors our commitment to the Two Great Commandments.  And more specifically we must live out practically and on a daily basis our belief that all people are created in the image of God.  All people deserve our respect and our love.

But living out such an ideal is not easy.  It takes determination.  Still, Jesus asks us to stretch ourselves.  He asks us to reach beyond ourselves.  And he promises that the Spirit will be with us in those moments when we prefer to close our eyes to our neighbor.

CDC0489A-CD18-49E4-96D3-18BB3E602F51All this can be done, and there are moments when we’ve all done it.  Now more than ever our communities, our nation and the world need people who will try to be a neighbor to all, and we are some of those people.  So let us pray today that God who has begun this good work in us will bring it to completion.

NOTES

+On 30 October I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+At evening prayer on the eve of All Saints we hosted a large number of friends, staff and students.  It’s always wonderful to fill the choir stalls on such an occasion.

+On November 2-4 I gave a retreat to the Allentown, PA, members of the Order of Malta.  Today’s post is the sermon that I preached to them on Sunday, and it is based on Mark 12: 28-34.

+The photos in today’s post are a real mix.  Autumn in central Minnesota went very quickly and it was not one of our best in terms of colors.  But my weekend in Pennsylvania seemed to have coincided with some of the best color there.  The photo at top shows a scene from the grounds of our retreat at Mariawald Retreat Center, outside of Reading.  Further down the page is a photo of the convent, where we took our meals.  The second photo shows some of the last lingering color at Saint John’s, and below that are some ivy vines on a wall outside of the abbey refectory.  At bottom is the great clock in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.  Over the years I’ve taken many photos of time pieces, and I include this one to note the passing of Daylight Savings Time this past weekend..

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