Do You Prove Neighbor to Others?

Who is my neighbor? Who is the least of my brothers and sisters? Who is the other? Holy Scripture often highlights this question in various Gospel readings when Jesus Christ equates himself with our neighbor. “Whatever you do to the least of our brothers or sister, you do unto me.”

Yet in today’s well known Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, we hear Jesus change the question. When a lawyer asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” our Lord tells a story and then ends it by asking his own version of the question, “Which of these three – the priest, the temple worker, or the Samaritan - proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" In other words, which one acted like a neighbor to the person in need?

It’s interesting how Jesus changes the dynamic from focusing on understanding “Who is my neighbor” to “Which of these three people proved neighbor to the man in need?”

Sometimes we choose to look at other people in different ways, and thus separate them from our neighbor. Maybe we look at a person differently because they don’t believe the same way we believe, or they don’t vote the same way we vote, or they simply look different than we do, or they have a vastly different life story or experience, one with which we have difficulty relating. I often talk about the labels we place on one another and how we use these labels to distinguish others from ourselves, to separate us from one another.

Yet, in today’s story of the Good Samaritan, our Lord changes the question from “Who is our neighbor? to actually “Am I acting like a neighbor toward anyone and everyone in need?” This puts the emphasis not on the other person – it really shouldn’t matter if they are different than me anyway – but instead highlights my own actions and how I perceive my relationship with the other person. Am I acting like a good neighbor to this person?!?

Remember, to fully understand the story of the Good Samaritan, we must realize the context of Jesus’ time in which the Jews hated the Samaritans. Theses literal neighbors of the Jews were ethnically impure, religiously heretical, and historically at odds with the Israelites. Thus, they were the enemy! And this is precisely the reason why Jesus casts the Samaritan as the protagonist of the story.

A “Good Samaritan” was an oxymoron for a Jew. A Samaritan couldn’t be good in the eyes of a faithful Jew! Yet, Jesus consciously tells a story where he highlights that this despised and hated enemy is the one who acted in a loving and merciful way, much more so than the priest or temple worker. Imagine, a hated, impure, heretic showed greater mercy and compassion than the religious leaders, and this Samaritan was on a path that leads to eternal life before the others!

The question for us should never be simply “Is he or she my neighbor?” but instead “How can I act as a neighbor to anyone in need, regardless of whether someone is different than me. How can I act as a neighbor to the one who holds politically different views than myself? How can I act as a neighbor to the liberal when I’m a conservative, or to the republican when I’m a democrat? How can I act as a neighbor to the immigrant from Mexico or the foreigner from China, even if I consider myself an “America first” patriot? How can I act as a neighbor to the secular non-religious co-worker as well as to the militantly atheistic colleague, even though I’m a person of deep faith? And how can I act as a neighbor to the one who may be pro-choice, even when I am deeply pro-life?

We see Christ placed the emphasis on us and on how we act, regardless of who our neighbor is or what they believe. It doesn’t matter who the person in need may be. Christ looks at our actions, at our behavior, on our decisions, on the way we treat others, and asks us, “Are we proving to be a neighbor to the one in need?”

Archbishop Anastasios of Albania reflected on this parable by saying: “A Christian should never have enemies. Never call someone a ‘bad communist,’ ‘a bad atheist,’ or a ‘bad so-and-so.’ Every person has the image of God in them, and they are all children of God! Every day we pray ‘for those who hate us and for those who love us.’ Thus, how can we have enemies? If others want to see us as enemies, that is their choice, but we never consider others our enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us. Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Christ, or failing to love Him, in the least person. The message is clear. Our salvation depends upon respect for the other, respect for otherness. This is the deep meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan; we see not that someone is my neighbor, but how someone becomes my neighbor. It is a process that teaches us how to respond to hatred?

Saint Maria of Paris emphasized a similar point: “Christ’s earthly life is nothing other than the revelation of the mystery of the love of God and the love of humanity. These two great truths are two parts of a single whole. Destroy either one of them and you destroy truth as a whole.” Mother Maria goes on to explain how our communion with people is a deep mystery that turns into authentic communion with God. We are given a perfectly real possibility to experience to commune with Christ when we commune in love with our neighbor.

Saint John Chrysostom emphasized that we should never pass on the responsibility of helping others to someone else. “When we see someone in need, don’t say to yourself, “Why didn’t someone else take care of them?” They are in front of YOU. It is your responsibility to act as a neighbor to them.

The Gospel today begins with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? Our Lord answer very clearly – Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor, prove to act as a neighbor, to whoever is in need in front of you!

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