Who is our Neighbor?

I am a bit of a religious geek. I enjoy studying religion and reading a wide variety religious texts in diverse traditions. Thus, I recently found myself reading some of the writings of St. Augustine.

St. Augustine quotes as passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans where Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Obviously, St. Paul is referring to the Jesus teaching to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

good_samaritan_wattsThe question that follows naturally is, “Who is our neighbor?” Jesus is asked just this question in the Gospel of Luke. He responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a very compelling exchange between Jesus and the questioner, because ostensibly the questioner is asking about how he can “inherit eternal life.” The answer Jesus evokes from the questioner is, “Love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, for Jews living in Jerusalem at that time, there were a lot of purity rules. There were people who fell outside the Law and thus were not considered one’s neighbor. So the questioner asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus launches into the parable of the the Good Samaritan.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

Now if you are like me, and went to Sunday School and attended a lot of Church, you know that the parable of the Good Samaritan is often taught in a very moralistic way, which is unfortunate. It misses the heart of what Jesus is teaching us. It is not a moral to be learned, but instead a profound insight into a spiritually rich life of love.

At the end of the parable, Jesus ask the questioner, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The questioner responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then instructs the man to, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus does not identify any particular group as neighbors. He does not give a long list of who is a neighbor and who is not. Rather, he points out that if one has compassion—Mercy—in one’s heart, then everyone is potentially one’s neighbor. Our neighbors are determined not by outside circumstance but by the love in our hearts. Love is how we, to use the biblical phrase, “inherit eternal live.” Without love for others, we are spiritually dead.

Love of neighbor is the forge in which the love of God is honed. Any hate or dislike in our heart limits our ability to love God. Hate makes it impossible to love God with “all of heart..and all of our mind.” It divides the heart against itself. Our flesh and blood neighbors show us the fullness—or lack thereof—of our love. If we cannot love our neighbor or, alternatively, be neighborly towards all, then our love of God cannot be “full hearted.”

Jesus is reminding us that the spiritual life is a matter of the heart. “Eternal Life” is inherited by those whose hearts are so consumed by love that hate cannot find a foothold. When love is complete—perfected if you will—“Eternal Life” exist in each and every moment.

Thus the path to “Eternal Life” is the daily practice of love towards friends, family, strangers, and enemies; all of whom are neighbors to the one whose heart if filled with love.

Peace, Paul

Photo: By George Frederic Watts – A collection of Symbolist art postcards, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2919777

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2 Responses to “Who is our Neighbor?”

  1. Dr Bob Rich Says:

    I agree. Jesus’ message, and the Buddha’s message, are the same. This is also part of enlightenment.

    • Peace Paul Says:

      I was particularly struck by the fact that the questioner is asking how to “inherit Eternal Life.” Since Amitayus is the the Buddha a Measureless (Eternal?) Life, would a Pureland Buddhists be able to reinterpret this questions as a question about entering Amida’s Land of Love and Bliss?

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