Loving Our Distant Neighbor

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“Which commandment is first of all?” Jesus answered: “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31

There is a rabbinic story told of a Gentile who approached Rabbi Hillel and said to him “Make me a proselyte on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel answered him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” As a matter of ethics, Hillel’s answer is more accessible based on daily experience that that of Jesus. It is not all that difficult to know what is hateful to ourselves; what it is that we do not want to experience from others. To attempt to live by not doing to others what we don’t want done to us is a challenging and ethically fulfilling way of life. A contemporary version of the teaching has been uttered by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips when he counsels: “Never humiliate another human being.”

Jesus’ answer, however, links the two great commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures. The second cannot be separated from the first and requires the first. It may be Luke’s version of this episode that most reveals the link. For there, it is not a docile scribe but a hostile lawyer who asks Jesus the question in a typically lawyerly attempt to trick him. Following Jesus’ answer the lawyer then asks: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ reply is the parable of the Good Samaritan. My neighbor is not merely my kin or those who live in my village or neighborhood but rather everyone, especially those who are most alien to me. There are natural bonds of affinity with one’s blood relatives and close and good friends, but love of those who are distant, different, and even threateningly foreign requires a love of a different order. That love can only come from one’s  recognition and realization of the love of the One God, the God in whom all are one.

After reading this morning’s gospel passage, I paused to listen to a several minute recap of the morning’s news. After several stories involving the distraction and nonsense of American politics, there was an update on the drive of Iraqi and Iranian forces , with the aid of U. S. airpower, to re-take the city of Fallujah from ISIS. It was pointed out that 50,000 civilians including 20,000 children were trapped in the city, with no real way to escape the slaughter. Unfortunately this is no different from every day, where a comparable threat from war, natural disaster, or famine is faced by countless of our “neighbors” throughout the world.

I realized that, as I move ahead into my own day, the challenges and unpleasantness that I will face is of a very different order from those in Fallujah. I will act and react based on how my own sense of pleasure and gratification is satisfied or not, relatively mindless of my relationship to those who live this day with the threat of extinction due to war or hunger or disease. So, what does the commandment of Jesus to love our “neighbor” as ourselves really mean. In Jesus’ time the “distant” neighbor was the traveler or the non-Jew or member of a despised or hostile tribe who was at the gates or on the border. In our time, we awaken to news of the thousands and millions who are threatened and suffering throughout the entire world. How do we, in the course of this day, love them as ourselves?

First of all, I need to come before God in prayer living this painful question and quandary. We are told that every person is our neighbor and that we are to love them. Yet, most often I cannot fathom the meaning of this “commandment” in the global sense, and so I choose to dissolve the tension of the question by forgetting it. Yet, this morning, as I heard of the imminent threat to the people and the children of Fallujah, I was momentarily filled with a deep sorrow. I tried, not totally successfully, to imagine myself and my family and those I loved living this day under the threat these people face. What would I do; how would I keep living and working facing not just the possibility but the probability of losing those I loved and my own life in a violent way. In truth, I questioned my ability to live, to love, to trust and to hope in such circumstances.

Somehow, what began to emerge was the sense that the people of Fallujah are not “they” but rather that all of us are “we.” I have temporary security and affluence, but “my” day will come. The threat to the people of Fallujah is vital and imminent. Yet, the sense of security, distance, superiority that any of us have at times is mere illusion. We are all fragile, vulnerable, and mortal: the one body of the suffering Jesus.

We are to love our neighbor as ourselves because our neighbor is ourself. The sense of distance that we experience is built on an illusion. To love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and soul and mind and strength is to love the One. it is to know the communion of all in the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” To recognize and then to begin to live out this truth of who “we are” is to become slowly by slowly transformed from a person who lives violently in an attempt to dominate and manipulate the world and the others to one who longs to take care of our common fragility, vulnerability, and suffering. Jesus continues to suffer on the cross what we do to each other. As those few who remained at his death to gently and lovingly receive, tend to, and bury his body, we are a capacity to take care and to love his body, which is our body, today.

The suffering and the violence in our world really seems to be too much for us. So, our default position is to experience what some term “compassion fatigue.” We know too much about what goes on in the world, more than we are able, at the vital and rational-functional level to cope with. So, as often with our own trauma, we dissociate from or repress it. Yet, our hearts, our capacity to love when formed by our spirits, can do what our bodies and heads cannot. It can bear our common suffering and, as a result, reform and transform our way of being from the defensive, self-centered, and violent, to the vulnerable, gentle, and caring.

In our homes and workplace today, may we live, be present to each other, and work in such a way that in one small corner of the world as part of the body of Christ care increases and violence decreases. As we pray for the people of Fallujah today, we can allow that prayer to form our hearts, so that our words and actions in some small way may bring love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness.

If we do possess God in the immersion of love—that is, if we become lost to ourselves—then God is our own possession and we are his, eternally and irretrievably immersing ourselves in our own proper source, which is God himself. This immersion is essential and is characterized by habitual love. It therefore continues whether we are asleep or awake and whether we are aware of it or not. This immersion accordingly does not earn for us any new degree of reward, but it maintains us in the possession of God and of all the good that we have already acquired.

This immersion is like a river, which constantly and without turning back flows into the sea, which is its proper resting place. In the same way, if we have come into the possession of God alone, then our essential immersion through habitual love is always and irreversibly flowing into an experience which is without ground. We possess this experience as our own resting place. If we were always simple and unified and if we always saw with the same wholeness of vision, we would always have the same experience.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, II,C

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