Last weekend I attended a retreat with the Church Council for planning and visioning who we are as a church and what is our purpose. Beyond those two questions, we were asked the important question of “Who is my neighbor?” We read about the Good Samaritan and his work to save the Jewish man who had been attacked on the side of the road. The powerful verse for me, in this question, is Jesus’ last question to the lawyer.
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:36-37
The calling of becoming a follower of Christ demands that we change our whole life, including our relationships with people we do not even know. For most people, the question “Who is my neighbor?” seems simple and straightforward. You might say that your neighbor is someone who is in need, or sick, or everyone you see. No matter your answer, you undoubtedly get the obvious point that Christ is making here: we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Otherwise, we do no better at following Christ than the world.
What struck me as odd here is that Jesus is not focused on the hurt man. We often focus on him in this story, at his wounds, his beating, and how he felt being rejected by both a priest and a Levite. If we do focus on the Samaritan man, we focus on his good works and his actions. We don’t ask the question of what makes him a neighbor. Now this is a different question than the last. Asking “Who is my neighbor?” makes me focus on those around me. Asking “What makes me a neighbor?” makes me focus on myself and my reactions. This is the same focus Christ had for the lawyer. “Who was a neighbor to the man?” The Samaritan was the neighbor, not the beaten man.
I recently read a letter from C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters. The plot is that an experienced demon, named Screwtape, is writing letters to his nephew, a younger demon, named Wormwood, giving instructions on how to treat his ‘patient’ who has become a Christian. Lewis describes the situation where the ‘patient’ has found humility and where God (known as the Enemy) is seeking to make the ‘patient’ a neighbor.
The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents–or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall … He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love–a charity and gratitude for all selves including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created, and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left. p. 64)
In order to be a good neighbor, we must first focus on ourselves and be sure that inside our humility we are excited and thankful for the gifts God has given to us. We should not put ourselves down or put up a false modesty. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, thus we must love ourselves to love our neighbors. Do you love yourself? Do you give yourself the time to grow in God and take care of your needs? Are you happy with your actions, or do you get depressed when you consider who you are? God loves you despite any problems you have, and if you accept God’s love, then love yourself with that same unconditional love. It is not a pride, but instead a love grounded in a Kingdom view that realizes that anything that brings glory to God is something to be celebrated. When you celebrate that, you’ve found yourself to be a neighbor to everyone else.