I Am My Neighbor

When someone asks us, “Who is our neighbor?” we always feel we know what the right answer must be. Our neighbor is somebody absolutely obnoxious: the biggest jerk we can think of. Being neighborly to this character would be like taking castor oil.

It’s a loaded question, right? And it’s pointed right at you! But that’s just the thing. It is pointed right at you! You are your neighbor. And I am mine.

Does that seem selfish? Narcissistic, maybe? A case of self-esteem run amok?

If we aren’t supposed to think of our neighbor as the person we like least, then surely it should be whomever we pity most. Our neighbor is someone less fortunate than ourselves — someone who needs our help.

The one on the street corner with the tin cup — we like that idea better than the “love our enemies” stuff, don’t we? We feel better when we help people. Better, certainly, than the folks we’ve helped.

But the word “neighbor” implies equality. A neighbor is a peer. Who lives next door to the guy with the tin cup? He doesn’t even have a door!

You call me back to the Good Samaritan, star of the famous parable in which Jesus answers the big question. Why, the poor, beaten-up robbery victim — rescued by the Samaritan — was the real neighbor. Don’t I know that?

Of course I do. And he met both the usual criteria. He was unfortunate, and he was obnoxious, or at least potentially. He was a member of a populace that hated our Samaritan. Jews traveled out of their way to avoid Samaria, regarding these people as disreputable half-castes who worshiped in an improper and inferior way.

Jesus’ story must have shocked His disciples, good Jews that they were. A Samaritan, our neighbor? (For it works both ways.) Yuck! Call the realtor, and get that “For Sale” sign up in a hurry!

Jesus wasn’t simply trying to shock His followers just for the sheer, mischievous glee of freaking them out. He knew the concept of an integrated neighborhood would be a challenge to them. Perhaps even a scandal.

Even though the question He was answering was “Who is my neighbor?” He knew His hearers would identify not with the Samaritan (who was neing neighborly) but with the Jew who’d been cast as the Neighbor. That they’d flinch as He told of this unfortunate traveler’s beating at the hands of thugs, worry about what might become of him, bristle with indignation at the callousness of the supposedly-pious fellow-Jews who ignored him as he lay dying and breathe a sigh of relief when the Samaritan stopped to help. By the time this foreigner had dressed his wounds, taken him to an inn, paid for his board and care and even promised to pay any extra expenses, they couldn’t help but like the fellow.

Sure, Jesus wanted them to see the Samaritan as a positive role model. He wanted them to, as He liked to say, “Go, and do likewise.” But He didn’t want them to identify too much with this good man’s sense of comparative power and control. He wanted them to recognize that the poor, beaten wayfarer in the roadside ditch could just as easily have been themselves.

Actually, it makes you kind of dizzy trying to keep up with who’s supposed to be the neighbor: the Samaritan or the Jew. And the confusion is deliberate. Jesus knew that even though His listeners would “side with” the Jew, their moral sympathy with the Samaritan would lead them to root for him, too. He wanted us to understand that, no matter with whom we are dealing in our interpersonal relationships, our neighbors — ultimately — are ourselves.

“There but by the grace of God go I.” We hear that expression all the time. And we’re told it’s a good idea for us to think it, every time we see somebody else afflicted, persecuted or oppressed. When we contemplate Christ’s passion, and His nightmarish death on the Cross, we’re brought to the most startling revelation of all. There but by the grace of God goes God — and there God goes.

Trudging off in our place, under the weight of that huge Cross. Taking the road to Calvary, so we won’t have to. What a barbaric world He lived in, when He walked upon this earth. Mel Gibson’s lurid, Hollywood imagination probably didn’t tell the half of it.

Jesus did something more (if that is possible) than to “merely” die for us. He blazed the trail for a better, more loving and more compassionate world. Every time we turn on the evening news, we see how far we still are from His ideal. But we can’t begin to fathom how much farther we’d be from it had He never been born.

What is this great gift of understanding Christ has given us? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “The measure you mete out to others will be given back to you.” “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”

In the Asian world, they call it karma. It’s the law of retribution, by which you get back what you give. And why? Jesus would say it’s because God loves our neighbor as much as God loves us. What sort of a world would we have if we truly took that seriously?

We’d have Heaven. And we’re not there yet. In this life of toil and struggle, we merely journey on our way there. But every time we see ourselves in our neighbor (and our neighbor in ourselves), we take another step forward.

The world becomes what it is to be only because we help to make it so. The life of every Christian saint — his or her name now forgotten to all but God — has been a cobblestone along the road. God knew our names — and hoped and dreamed for us — before we were even born. And God will remember them forever.

There’s a very big part of us that would love to be as smug and comfortably self-satisfied as our adversaries. Part of our resentment — the part to which we usually won’t admit — is that we envy them the comfort they derive from feeling superior to us, from believing that all they need to do is be heterosexual (though, of course, they would be anyway) to be counted among the virtuous and the “saved.” If only we had happened to be born in the sexual “Holy Land,” instead of its “Samaritan” counterpart! There’s a part of us that would love to be able to avoid Samaria, or to simply cross over to the other side of the road.

Are we, indeed, more virtuous because we’re persecuted? Jesus did say “blessed are those who are persecuted,” but He meant only if they were treated so for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We are hardly “persecuted for the Kingdom’s sake” if we succumb to a grumbling resentment of others — just because, in their foolishness, they pride themselves on a circumstance nobody can help. Would we, honestly, be so different from Jerry Falwell or Dr. Laura if we walked on their side of the road? If we will admit to our own envy, then we must doubt that the answer would be yes.

But the good news is that none of us should despair. God made us all, and love all “He” has made. Jew or Samaritan, male or female, gay or straight — each of us is more precious to God than we are to ourselves — or to each other. All God is asking is for us to recognize the preciousness — the “neighbor-ness” — of those on both sides of the road.

The next time someone calls you “dyke” or “faggot” — someone who has forgotten (or maybe never known) that we’re their neighbors — please just remember that. God knows the number of hairs you have on your head. Those who would injure you do far worse damage to themselves. They can never take away from you the fact that God literally loved you into existence. With our Creator, there are no mistakes.

Without you, there would be a hole in the universe that nothing else could fill. You cannot “Love your neighbor as yourself” unless — first of all — you love yourself.

You are your neighbor, and I am mine. Shalom.