Rose border  

 

border
border
border

 

Who Is My Neighbor?

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 7, 2002

Bar
Readings

Leviticus 19:11-18
Laws on how to treat our neighbor

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall rebuke your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 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.

Bar
Luke 10:25-37
The Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Bar
The Heavenly City #84-86
Who is our neighbor?

Unless we know what it is in other people that we are to love and show kindness to, we might show kindness to harmful people in the same way we show it to good people. Then our kindness would not really be kindness, since harmful people use anything good done for them to hurt others, but good people use it to help others.

A common view these days is that we should consider all people to be equally our neighbor, and that we should help people who are too poor to support themselves. But good Christian sense tells us we should take a close look at how people are living and show kindness to them accordingly. Deeply religious people make these distinctions, which means they show kindness to people intelligently. But superficially religious people cannot make these distinctions, so they show kindness to people indiscriminately.

The difference in people has to do with the good qualities in them. This is something every religious person should understand. Since all goodness comes from the Lord, he is our neighbor in the highest sense and on a level above everyone else. We get our ability to be one another's neighbors from him.

So the more people have the Lord inside them, the more they are our neighbor.

Bar
Sermon

"And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29)

This is the question that the expert in the law asked of Jesus.

Apparently, his initial question, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life," hadn't produced a sufficiently complicated response. In fact, in the Luke account, Jesus turned the question right back on the lawyer: "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" And the lawyer had a ready answer: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,'" both quoted from the Hebrew scriptures. That was enough talk for Jesus, who simply replied, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live."

However, if everything were that simple, lawyers would soon be out of business! So Jesus' questioner had to make it more complicated. "In order to justify himself," the story continues, "he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" This provided the setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Of course, we are all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In fact, if we asked the average person to name a parable, this one would probably be the first one (and perhaps the only one) to come to mind. However, we may not realize just how pointed--even barbed--this parable was for Jesus' listeners. Priests and Levites were the top of the social ladder in Jewish society; to make them the villains of the piece (after the robbers themselves) was social blasphemy. And it was even more blasphemous to make the hero a Samaritan--one of the hated group of Holy Land residents who mixed Jewish and pagan practices in a way that was spiritually adulterous to any good, practicing Jew.

Because the parable itself is so engaging, it's easy to miss the fact that a funny thing happened on the way to answering the lawyer's question. Did you notice it? Jesus didn't quite answer the original question--at least, not the way we would expect it to be answered. The lawyer had asked, "Who is my neighbor?" For him, the obvious answer would be, "My family and friends, and the people of my race and nation." But Jesus didn't say that.

We, of course, live in much more enlightened times. We would never limit the neighbor to people in our own family, community, or country. (Or would we?) We, instead, would expect Jesus to say that the neighbor was the person who fell among thieves. In other words, anyone who is hurting and in need is the neighbor we are to love. But Jesus didn't say that, either.

What Jesus did do was to adroitly turn the answer around, in a kind of spiritual aikido. He turned the momentum of the lawyer's question--which was intended to put Jesus off balance and trip him up--back on the lawyer himself, giving him, not the answer he wanted to hear, but the answer he needed to hear. He gave the lawyer an answer that would not allow him to continue pretending that his intellectual, legalistic arguments constituted true religion. He showed the lawyer that true religion always involves active engagement in love, kindness, and compassion toward our fellow human beings. "Go and do likewise," Jesus told him. The lawyer had no clever response to this simple, powerful command.

But we still haven't answered the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus, in his spiritual aikido, turned the question around to read, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" And the lawyer was obliged to respond, "The one who had mercy on him." Though the lawyer still couldn't bring himself to say "the Samaritan was the neighbor," he did get to the core of the matter: it was the Samaritan's mercy--his love, compassion, and goodness--that made him a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers.

This is the basis on which Swedenborg says, somewhat more abstractly, "People are our neighbor according to the good qualities from the Lord in them. So goodness is our neighbor" (The Heavenly City #91). And a little more fully in another place:

Goodness is our neighbor in the broadest sense, since people are our neighbor according to the kind of good qualities they have from the Lord. And since goodness is our neighbor, love is our neighbor, because all goodness comes from love. So people are our neighbor according to the kind of love they have from the Lord. (The Heavenly City #88)

What is Swedenborg saying here? He doesn't leave us in any doubt. As we read earlier:

Unless we know what it is in other people that we are to love and show kindness to, we might show kindness to harmful people in the same way we show it to good people. Then our kindness would not really be kindness, since harmful people use anything good done for them to hurt others, but good people use it to help others. (The Heavenly City #84)

In other words, when we seek to follow the Lord's commandment to "love our neighbor as ourselves," we are required to use prudence and intelligence in exactly how we show love and kindness to our neighbor. We must consider the quality of the person's character, and show our kindness accordingly. And specifically, we must show love and kindness to bad and destructive people differently than we do to good and loving people.

I am well aware that many people these days think that assessing people's character and treating them accordingly constitutes bias and discrimination rather than love and charity. Some claim that we should act the same way toward everyone, equally distributing our favors and kindnesses, with no distinction between one person and another. And I am perfectly comfortable in saying that I believe this attitude and approach is dead wrong.

But instead of presenting a lot of theoretical arguments, let's consider a scenario (not original to me) that could easily happen in real life. Imagine yourself standing on a busy street corner in the city, watching the crowds of people passing by. Suddenly, you see someone tear around the corner at breakneck speed and rush down the sidewalk, disappearing into the crowd. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, someone else comes rushing up the same street the first one had arrived on, pauses at the corner, and looks in all directions, trying to see where the first one had gone. But he has disappeared by now. So the second person turns to you and says, "Which way did he go?"

Do you give the right answer? Your first impulse might be to say "Yes, of course I would point the second person in the right direction." But the fact is, I haven't given you enough information to make a good decision. It all depends on who these two people are.

If the first one was a crying child, lost and scared, and the second was a distraught and frantic adult, the answer would be quite obvious. If the first was a man with a bag of loot slung over his shoulder, and the second was a police officer in hot pursuit, the answer would also be obvious. Of course, under these circumstances, we would tell the pursuer which way the first one had gone.

But what if the first were a man fleeing in terror, and the second a man brandishing a knife, with murderous hatred and rage written all over his face? Or what if the first were a kid running scared, and the second was a local bully or gang member yelling, "I'm gonna kill him! Which way did he go?" Under these circumstances, if you were to direct the pursuer in the right direction, you would be helping him to harm another person. Legally, this would be considered aiding and abetting a criminal act. Morally and ethically, your "kindness" to the pursuer is anything but kindness, because it would not only lead to possible harm to the one being pursued, but it would also strengthen the pursuer in his wrongful behavior.

Of course, many of the situations we find ourselves in each day are not so stark nor so critical. Most of our decisions do not involve immediate, life-threatening situations. Instead, they involve milder--and often murkier--circumstances in which the answers aren't so clear. And yet, the same principle applies. Despite the popular saying (which was itself intended to turn around a very negative phrase), we are not to be random in our acts of kindness, but definite and thoughtful. "Kindness," says Swedenborg, is "doing good things sensibly so that good will come from them" (The Heavenly City #100).

In other words, living a spiritual life--one filled with acts of charity and kindness--does not involve turning our brain off and being indiscriminately "nice" to everyone who crosses our path. It involves engaging our thinking minds, evaluating each situation we face, and making decisions--sometimes very difficult decisions--about which course of action is likely to lead to the most good in the long run for the people involved.

When we are dealing with a difficult or destructive individual, this may mean practicing a "tough love" that the person will not appreciate at all, and that may be very painful for us, too. Yet if our ultimate goal is the person's long-term good, then taking the narrower road is practicing love toward our neighbor far more deeply and truly than simply going along with that person's destructive ways. Instead of supporting the person's evils, we are acting in such a way that the goodness in the person may ultimately be able to show itself.

The teaching embedded in the parable of the Good Samaritan that the goodness and love from God in another person is our neighbor can be a very challenging one. And yet, if we are willing to tune our ears to this deeper message within Jesus' well-known words, we will learn to truly love one another, deeply and wisely, just as the Lord loves us. Amen.

 
Bar

 

BackHomeNext
Music: No Truer Love
2002 Bruce DeBoer

Used with Permission


EyeForBeauty logo

Web set copyright © 2002 EyeForBeauty


About
Favorites
Webrings
Guests