Who Is My Neighbor?
If you met Jesus on the road and had just one chance to ask a question, would you ask something intensely personal – “Jesus, what do I have to do to be saved?”
That’s what the lawyer in Luke’s gospel asked when he met Jesus and got to ask one question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a good question. It’s an important question. But, like any good teacher, Jesus doesn’t just give the lawyer the answer. He asks the lawyer, “What do YOU think you should be doing to inherit eternal life?” And the lawyer answers immediately. He quotes from Deuteronomy 6, “Love God, with heart and soul and mind and strength. And he quotes from Leviticus 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus commends him: “See, you already know the answer to your own question,” Jesus says. “Just do that!” But the lawyer pushes back, trying to make it more complicated than it needs to be. The lawyer refuses to take responsibility for knowing and doing the answer he himself provides: “Love God, and love neighbor.” So he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Fifty years ago, the PBS television series, ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ helped me learn the answer to this question. Mr. Rogers began every day of his show with his lyrical question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” It wasn’t really a question as much as it was an invitation – to be part of a neighborhood, a place where everyone was loved and welcomed and included just exactly as they are – not for what they have done, but just for who they are. Apparently, children can learn the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But, when we grow up and become lawyers and adults and want to justify ourselves, we can’t quite seem to remember the answer to this very simple question.
Oh, we think we know the answers. Like the lawyer we can quote them verbatim. We can justify ourselves with the best of them. But when it comes to living the answers, somehow we seem to fall short. In our present-day climate of fear and uncertainty, we allow our fears and hatreds of those who seem different from us to rule our behavior and limit our compassion. We avoid those whom we think are less than perfect, those whose skin is a different color, those whose lifestyle is oriented differently, those whose social and economic status is below ours, those whose language we can’t speak, those whose belief system is beyond our understanding. And then, like the lawyer, when we are confronted by the reality of the Living God calling us to live the answers we have learned, we hesitate, we argue, we question, we seek to justify, until there is nowhere left to hide from our own hatreds and prejudices that keep us from doing what we know God wants us to do. We know what God wants from us; the lawyer’s answers ring true in our ears. We can assent to his answer, because we know it is the right answer. But we become uneasy and wanting to justify ourselves, like the lawyer, we ask, “And who is my neighbor?” It is this question that that we are still asking, some twenty centuries later.
Why don’t we know who our neighbors are? The lawyer isn’t asking Jesus, “Who lives next door to me on my street?” He is asking, “Tell me, Jesus, who do I have to love? Who do I have to care about? Who do I have to take some responsibility for their well-being? Who is God going to hold me accountable for, when all is said and done?” The lawyer doesn’t really want to be held responsible for anyone else’s well-being. But Jesus refuses to let him off the hook. Jesus knows that this lawyer’s salvation depends on the well-being of others. And, the lawyer knows it too! He just doesn’t want his salvation to be tied up with the salvation of all those other people in the world! So he tries to justify his refusal to care for and about others, by trying to distance himself from other human beings, by refusing to accept them as neighbors.
We can’t really avoid the question any longer, even if the answer makes us uncomfortable. Who is my neighbor? The desperate family at our Southern Border is my neighbor. The man suffering from opioid addiction and living on the street is my neighbor. The forgotten veteran who feels cast aside and unappreciated is my neighbor. The family who has to move because they can’t afford rent in my community anymore is my neighbor. The person who looks different from me, who worships differently than I do, who speaks a language I don’t understand, is my neighbor. And I am told to love each of them, as if they were me!
Who is my neighbor? Who is your neighbor? We already know the answer to that question. The real question is not “Who is my neighbor?” The real question is “How are we going to love our neighbors? What are WE going to DO about it?”