13 January 2021

On Making Neighbors of the "Other": Jesus' Most Fundamental Commission

I try not to get political on this blog but the truth is that Jesus spoke truth to power on all levels, religious, political, personal etc., and given my own standing, it is important that I remind myself and us all that at the heart of the Gospel is the mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. Of course, there is another step involved here which discipleship requires, namely, that we make neighbors of those whom the "world" calls aliens or "other." Jesus did not honor with a direct (and simplistic) answer the sly question of the young man who asked him "but who is my neighbor"? (In an honor/shame culture like the one known by this young man, where one's own prestige was enhanced by certain relationships and lost by others, making neighbors of everyone was radically countercultural. This young man was not asking who his neighbor was in order to include others but to exclude them.) Instead he told a parable, one of those stories which asks us to drop our own baggage as we enter (including our religious and political baggage!), and step obediently (openly, attentively) into a different world, the world of the story Jesus is telling and the world of the Kingdom of God he hopes we will embrace. Before we can love our neighbors (or as part of truly doing so), we first have to make neighbors of those we consider alien to us. In order to help us chose this stance toward others Jesus tells the parable of the "Good Samaritan."

We all know the story. A man was travelling to Jericho on his way from Jerusalem and was fallen upon by robbers who "stripped and beat him". They then took off leaving him for dead. A priest travelling to Jerusalem saw him and, perhaps not wanting to be defiled by the victim's condition, passed on by --- on the other side of the road. Following this a Levite did likewise --- again moving to the other side of the road in the process. Finally, a Samaritan spotted the man by the side of the road and, moved with compassion, cared for him, bound up his wounds, took him on his own beast to an inn and paid for his care there. Following this story Jesus turns to his audience and asks, "Which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man who had fallen among the robbers?" The answer was obvious, but also very challenging: the Samaritan --- one who would ordinarily have despised and been despised by the Jew who fell to the thieves.

Jesus chooses people who have very good reasons for disliking or avoiding one another in this parable. For the priest who is on his way to serve his turn on the Temple Rota, he cannot allow himself to be defiled and rendered incapable of serving; for the Levite the Law also requires he keep clear of defilement with a possible dead body. Meanwhile, as noted, the Samaritan was despised by Jews and might well have reciprocated or at least lived among those who would have. But for this man compassion allowed him to see a greater truth, the truth of shared humanity and perhaps too, the truth of a God who loves all of his creation with an unreserved love. It was these two truths which Jesus lived and died to witness to exhaustively, and it is these two truths we who call ourselves Jesus' disciples are called to live out with integrity.

Compassion is the basis of truth, the way in which we each truly encounter the real every person embodies and reflects, and it was compassion which moved the Samaritan to make a neighbor of someone he would ordinarily have met (and who would ordinarily have met him) with hatred. But over the last four years and culminating in the events at our Capitol on the Feast of Epiphany we have seen a progressively growing failure of compassion and too then, a growing tendency to define those we meet who differ from ourselves in politics, world view, and so forth, as "aliens", "others" or "them". Our mindset is revealed in a rhetoric which is constantly peppered with the dynamics of  "us vs them", "we vs they", red vs blue, and any number of other designations which are meant to mark people as enemies, and to denigrate them as idiots, brainless, uncaring, unpatriotic, and generally unworthy of our care or respect.

There is no Christian, except those of us who fail in our discipleship, who can allow such a dynamic to continue to mark and mar our relationships with others.  After all, Jesus called and commissioned us to make neighbors of these "others" and to love them as we love ourselves. I am not na├»ve in reiterating this commission. I understand the tremendous challenge it poses and I know personally the failure my inability to live it out during these past years -- and recent days especially -- indicates. But called to this I am. Every Christian is called to this! 

Once upon a time I saw myself as "different" than most folks I knew --- and, in some less foundational ways, there are still good reasons for that. However, one of the most important prayer experiences of my life revealed to me that I was truly "the same" as everyone else; on a level much more fundamental than those marking me as different, I came to know myself as the same--- as similarly human, similarly hungry for life and meaning and love, similarly loved by God and similarly insecure and sometimes even dangerous without that love. The occasion was a joyful one for me, and deeply compelling. At that point I became more truly capable of using the terms "brothers" and "sisters" (and certainly the title Sister) as God was calling me to do -- as, that is,  a creative and courageous Christianity actually does. When I read Jesus' parable now, I wonder if perhaps the Samaritan had had a similar experience which made compassion for his Jewish brother possible.

There is only one power which can confront the horrific dynamic of "partisanship" and division which has been  exacerbated, focused, weaponized, and turned lose in our country during these past years and that is the power of love. No, not a sentimental rose-colored-glasses type of "luv", but a serious, determined, clear-seeing, truth-speaking-in-compassion Love that is rooted in God's own Life and love for us, and expressed in the commission to make neighbors of the "other" and treat them as we ourselves yearn to be treated. This is the Christian vocation and, God knows, it is very different from what passes for "Christianity" in much of our country and world today. I sincerely pray that those who call themselves Christian can, in the Christ, find the courage to accept this radically countercultural commission and carry it out with integrity. It has, perhaps, never been more critical that we do so.