Where is my Neighbor?
[Sermon delivered at the annual retreat of the members of the Order of Malta, Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo, Danville, CA, 23 October 2011.]
It’s a bit of a puzzle to me that the Pharisees in Matthew 22 would ask Jesus to name the most important of the laws. They already knew the answer of course, and they suspected that Jesus knew the answer as well. But perhaps they wondered if Jesus might be a fanatic or a zealot who had assigned primary status to a lesser law, or whether He rejected the law altogether. Whatever the case, Jesus gave them the answer they expected, and for the moment they must have been satisfied. Love of God and love of neighbor were primary in the law. But we know from reading the gospels that Jesus had a lot more to say about this than He did that day. If the entirety of the law rested on these two commands, so did the way of life that Jesus preached to his disciples.
Neighborliness and hospitality are widely accepted as positive values in our society, but that has not always been so. We seldom realize our debt to generations of preachers and teachers who hammered away at these Christian ideals, and it took a very long time before the majority of people absorbed them as their own. In the early 700’s, for example, Saint Boniface preached to a society in which there was a very narrow sense of neighbor. For his Saxon audience, a neighbor was someone in my extended family. Perhaps my neighbors included the people in my village, but at its widest the concept of neighbor did not include anyone beyond my tribal limits. Outside the circle of family, village and tribe, no one else qualified to be my neighbor. No one outside of those circles should expect my hospitality or respect, and certainly they were not entitled to a shred of help in time of need.
And so for these 8th-century Germans the teaching of Jesus on love of neighbor was an entirely alien concept. What Boniface preached to them was incredible and dangerous; and people beyond my small circle only deserved suspicion or hostility.
Five hundred years of preaching the gospel slowly transformed the people of western Europe, and by the time of Saint Francis the climate was much different. Boniface’s audience could not comprehend what he meant by love of neighbor. But when Francis preached about love of brother and sister, and love for the the neighbor whom you had never met, they knew something of what he was talking about. While they may have fallen short in living out the Christian ideal, they at least knew the values that Saint Francis urged on them. By the 13th century this was no longer a brand new message, and so Francis’ words fell on fertile soil.
Whether we’ve lived well or poorly what Jesus taught about love of neighbor, we now know that Jesus expects a minimum standard of behavior from us. As Christians, then, we are not free to ignore our neighbor. As believers in the Word of God, we are not free to ignore completely the alien in our midst, nor the widow, nor the orphan. We are not free to turn in on oursleves and our families and say that the boundaries of neighborhood stop at our property line. Not if we profess to be Christian.
Elsewhere in his preaching Jesus addresses the issue of neighbor, and nowhere does He do it more brilliantly than in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story the priest, who knows the law inside and out, walks on. And he can cite the chapter and the verse of the law that makes it imperative that he ignore this person in need. He’s so rationalized the situation, in his own mind, that he’s convinced it would be a sin to help this poor guy in the ditch.
Ironically, it is the despised Samaritan who stretches the definition of neighbor. On a personal level, he has not the slightest idea who this suffering person might be. On the other hand, he knows that this person is his neighbor and spiritual brother. He is the family member he has never met.
We are tempted to believe that the issues we confront today are unique to our time and to our place. But even a quick glance at today’s reading from Exodus 22 tells us otherwise. Aliens have always had a difficult time of it. Widows and orphans have always struggled. And followers of God have always agonized about what to do. But we know in our hearts that we stand convicted if we — like the priest in the parable — decide that these people are not neighbors to me.
Neither the Bible nor the Church dictates public policy to us. But what they most definitely do is preach the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. On them rest the entire meaning of our lives.
On too many occasions we can leave a church on Sunday feeling terrible because we’ve done little or nothing to help people six thousand miles away. Or we’ve been confronted with a problem that is simply impossible for one person to do much about. And what’s sad is that we’ve forgotten entirely the notion that the best work we can do is the work right in front of us.
The good news is that God gives us the command to love our neighbor, and He also gives us ample opportunity to do it. It is indeed true that it’s difficult to serve the neighbor who lives six thousand miles away. It’s always hard to serve the neighbor whom we cannot see. But the good news is that God gives us more than enough neighbors whom we can see. It is the neighbor with whom we rub elbows every day whom we must help. It is the neighbor in the faces of the sick and the poor whom we must love. It is these people whom we can and ought to help — and often we need do it in the simplest of ways.
And if God gives us plenty of neighbors to love, He also gives us the gifts and talents to be of service to them. Many of us grouse that we’ve not been blessed as others have been blessed. Many of us complain or excuse ourselves that there is little we can do to make a difference. But God sends His Son to remind us that He’s not left us orphans. He’s bestowed on us gifts in abundance, and He’s commissioned us to share in the work of His Son. So when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, that serves as a subtle reminder of all that God has done for us. To whom much is given, from them a great deal is expected. Let us thank God for all He continues to do for us. But let us thank Him especially for sending so many neighbors into our lives, and for giving us the talent to make a difference in the life of at least one of them.