Who Is My Neighbor?
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April
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
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.
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
"You have answered
correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will
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
The expert in the law replied,
"The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do
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
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.
"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,
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
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
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.