Who is My Neighbor?

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By chance a certain priest was travelling down that same road. He saw the man but passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite came to the spot, saw him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan traveling on the road came up to him. He saw him and felt compassion. He approached him.

Luke 10: 31-4

Today’s gospel reminds us that the Law is clear and simple, even if not easy in practice. To really live the eternal potential of the human person means to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. If the scriptures and the teachings of all the great wisdom traditions are true, this “Law” is fundamentally within the human person as a gift of the Spirit (Galatians 5).

Yet, although communion is the deeper law and call of human life, it does not come easy to us. In practice we are all something of the lawyer who tests Jesus. We make the simple reality complex, constantly negotiating within ourselves the question: “But who is my neighbor?” Some years ago, I was walking through Harvard Square in Cambridge and came upon one of the many people who were begging there. As I passed by, ignoring this person, he said, I think to me, “Don’t live in fear.” The truth of his comment penetrated deeply. It was fear that led me to “ignore” his very existence, and, in truth, the presence of many of the human beings I’d see in a day. And after ignoring another, at least when I would become aware of it, I would often spend time justifying my actions. But the simple reason for it was fear.

We ignore others not only on a crowded street but in the ordinary situations of our day to day lives. We are so caught up in our own thinking, rationalization, and self-justification that we increasingly come to see ourselves as separate from the others and as threatened by their vulnerability and need. The ultimate “Good Samaritan” is Jesus who empties himself of all that distinguishes his difference and distance from us and deeply acknowledges and accompanies us in our human condition of finitude, contingency, and suffering. So, we too are called to empty ourselves of the hyper-activity of our minds that distances us from the nature and the Spirit in which we are one with all.

The call to love God and neighbor with all we are is a call to approach the other, not to distance. All the ways that others remind us of our own vulnerability make us fearful and that fear causes us to distance from and ignore them. It takes constant practice to stay in and live from our hearts, where we know that the suffering of another is our suffering, and the joy of another is our own joy.

In a reflection on the creedal statement “He descended into hell.”, Noel Dermot O’Donoghue writes:

The loving Father cannot escape from his unloving and destructive children: he is imprisoned by his love as surely as they are imprisoned by their hate. This is the pathos of God so constantly and disconcertingly apparent in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.

It is easy to talk of love, easy to fall in love, easy to think of loving as the most joyful and creative of activities. And indeed one mistakes the nature of love if one does not see it in the company of joy. But love is first and last the heart open to be wounded, again and again and again. Call it “heart”, “sensibility”, “the emotions”, “the principle of communion”, whatever, however one names it, that in us which opens to other persons is deeply and increasingly vulnerable, and a God open to free persons, persons free to hate or love, above all persons with an original bent towards hatred and destruction–such a God is infinitely vulnerable and infinitely wounded.

Heaven in Ordinarie, p. 146

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