Becoming a Neighbor to Others

Becoming a Neighbor to Others

Father Luke Veronis

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

A profound question with a simple answer: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. If we love, we experience eternity here and now; we enter into the realm of God’s kingdom by living under His divine love and sharing this love with others.It seems so simple and yet in our daily life it is so hard to practice. To love implies crucifying our ego and pride, overcoming our “default” fallen nature which tempts us to turn inward instead of turning outward toward others, responding to them with the same love that we receive from God. Always remember that love of God and love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. We can’t love God if we don’t love our neighbor; and we won’t truly understand what it means to love our neighbor if we haven’t been filled with God’s divine, unconditional, unlimited mercy, grace and love.

To explain what it means to love our neighbor, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. We all know that Samaritans and Jews were despised enemies because of past historical grievances and theological differences. For Jesus’ Jewish audience, it was a paradox to hear a story about a “Good Samaritan.” That was impossible. In their minds, one couldn’t be good and be a Samaritan. Samaritans were the enemy. The despised, hated enemy. Yet in the story of a man who was robbed, beaten, and left half dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the Jewish priest and the Jewish temple worker showed no compassion or love for the suffering compatriot. Only the despised Samaritan stopped, interrupted his travels and plans, showed compassion and mercy, and then even offered his own money to take care of this man. He showed what true love is. The priest may have talked about love but the Samaritan showed love by acting like a true neighbor to the suffering stranger.

Jesus shared this story in response to the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor.” Your neighbor, Christ revealed, is not simply the person who looks like you, who believes the same as you do, who comes from among your own people. Your neighbor is anyone you meet who has a need and to whom you can show compassion and mercy.

Actually, as Archbishop Anastasios of Albania highlights, “the deep meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals not only that someone is my neighbor, but how someone becomes my neighbor. It is a process. It is love without arguments. Sometimes it is even a response to hatred. 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.”

Becoming a neighbor to others! I remember an experience of becoming a neighbor with our youth group in Albania.

In the alley that led up to the Cathedral, there was always a dozen or two mostly Gypsy beggars, begging for help. One Sunday our youth group decided to invite all these beggars to a meal after our Divine Liturgy. Our youth center was right behind the church and maybe 20 beggars came As these Gypsies ate a hearty meal, our young people sat and ate with them. Conversations began, and very quickly one could see how our youth no longer looking upon the despised Gypsies (because there was a strong, negative stereotype toward Gypsies) but as people and children of God. We learned their names and listened to their stories. One of our students began feeding a crippled man. Another cuddled a beggar’s newborn baby. Christ’s love broke down barriers that day.

During this meal, we came to know Izmir, a paralyzed Gypsy woman, and her husband, Gezim. They told us of their three-year-old daughter, whose birthday was the following week. Several of the students asked the family if we could visit their home and celebrate Viola’s birthday together. Izmir and Gezim were shocked and honored. They had often felt the harsh prejudice many Albanians display towards Gypsies, and they couldn’t believe we actually wanted to visit their home. The following week, five of us visited their tiny one-room home in a slum of Tirana. Viola looked precious on her birthday and thoroughly enjoyed her cake, presents, and our visit.

Over the following months, many students greeted Izmir and Gezim weekly as they begged in front of the church, and occasionally visited their home. I went to their home to offer a house blessing. By late April, during one of our visits, they expressed a desire to become Christian, asking whether such a thing was acceptable. We enthusiastically encouraged them and explained the need for catechism before baptism. They seemed a little discouraged because of the difficulty Izmir would have in coming to the church twice a week in her wheelchair. It was quite an effort for her to come even once on Sundays. At that moment, Spiro, a fourth-year medical student, responded, “No problem. I can come to your house twice a week and do the catechism.” Although the school year was coming to an end and Spiro had finals, he joyously offered to go to their home and share his faith in Jesus Christ with them.

Over the following two months, Spiro discussed with me the lessons he would teach, and then came back afterward with interesting stories. The first week some relatives of Izmir and Gezim came to listen. The second week, ten people squeezed into their tiny one-room shack to hear the lesson. Another week Spiro told me, “They loved the story about the prodigal son and had so many questions!” By the end, Spiro was not only their teacher, but became their godfather. I was thrilled not only with the catechism of Izmir and Gezim, but also with Spiro’s enthusiasm. We pray this spirit of love and evangelism will grow among all our youth.

The baptism took place in July, attended by twenty students along with a number of other gypsies. A prayerful presence filled the room. Izmir and Gezim, together with their daughter Viola, were baptized.

A week later, though, Izmir and Gezim, who took the new names of Josif and Kristina, faced the reality of the world. The archbishop had warned me, when I shared this story with him, that although he rejoiced to hear of their baptism, he reminded me that not everyone in the church would be happy seeing Gypsies become a part of our church family. His words proved to be prophetic. At the end of their first Divine Liturgy, I came outside the altar only to see Kristina crying. At first I thought she was shedding tears of joy, but quickly realized she was upset. When I asked her what had happened, she told me that a woman had come up to her and told her, “You don’t belong here. Why are you here? Go back outside and beg. That’s where you belong!”

I was furious. I asked Kristina to show me who had told her this, and to my shock, I recognized the woman as someone who sat in the front row of the church every Sunday. She attended services regularly, yet, like the Pharisees during Christ’s time, she never captured the spirit of the Gospel. I proceeded to scold the woman, telling her that Kristina was a baptized Orthodox Christian and fully belonged in this church, just as much as I or she or anyone else.

I left the woman with a stunned look on her face. I apologized once again to Kristina, and reminded her that others might say silly things, but I wanted her to always remember that she was a beloved child of God and a special member of our church family!

What must we do to inherit eternal life? We are called to love God and love our neighbor. And the way we love our neighbor, whoever that may be in front of us, is by becoming a neighbor to them, as did the Good Samaritan, and as did Spiro to the gypsy couple Ismir and Gezim.

Let's go out today and strive to become neighbors to whomever crosses our path!


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