Who Is My Neighbor?

Costly_LoveMany countries and US states have Good Samaritan laws. These laws protect from legal prosecution for wrongdoing anyone who helps or tends to someone who is ill or injured. In a litigation-prone society, these laws are a necessary complement to the charity with which many of us naturally respond when we encounter another in distress. In a sense, these laws protect charity, protect our acting with compassion, mercy, and love toward those in need. These laws take their name from this Sunday’s gospel. This gospel not only expands the notion of neighbor, but also describes how, ultimately, we are to love as God loves us. Neighbor is not simply a victim, someone in need. Neighbor is anyone who deserves our love. And that is everyone!

The generosity of the Good Samaritan goes way beyond expected neighborliness and simple human compassion. He personally cares for the victim: tending to his wounds, carrying him non his own animal, caring for him at the inn. Yet even this is not enough: he leaves money for his continued care.

By this parable Jesus teaches that to inherit “eternal life” we must go beyond who we love and how we love them. We must love as God loves: personally, extravagantly, continually. Jesus’ commandment of love is not impossibly far beyond us because his own life manifests here and now how to live loving relationships with others. Jesus teaches us how far we must go in loving others. Love has no limits, as Jesus himself illustrated by his own life. He loved even to dying for us. Our own loving one another must go this far, too. This kind of boundless love redefines who our neighbor is (everyone) and sets no limits on our time or care for others. Further, we show our love for God “with all [our] heart[s]” precisely when we love our neighbor. [Living Liturgy 2013]
Ironically, the way we inherit eternal Life is by dying to self for the sake of another. The Samaritan in the parable isn’t moved to help the stricken traveler because of a commandment, but because he was a person of loving compassion and mercy—he illustrates unbounded love. This is the law written within our hearts (see first reading)—not details about keeping specific commandments, but a positive regard for the other that arises out of genuine love. Our love must be as wide as our universe and embrace all of God’s beloved. Only by loving in this way can we truly be neighbor. Only by loving in this way can we, like God, be defined as love.
Jesus’ view of neighbor is someone in need—a person who needs help, a person who needs my help. In our global society, who is not my neighbor? In our global society, how can any of us not be neighbor—loving personally, extravagantly, continually? This is how God loves us. “Go and do likewise.”

Probably in our society and church today we need to become more aware of the value of keeping laws. Our reflection, however, alerts us to the fact that simply keeping laws and commandments isn’t enough. All our actions must be directed to the good of others. Keeping laws promotes good order in any community; doing good for others promotes right relationships in those same communities. Love is the glue that binds us to each other, that helps us make sense out of just laws, that expands our notion of neighbor to include everyone. Love is of God. It must be of us.

Law is something external to us, rather easily measured. Mercy and compassion, love and care are internal to us and can be measured only in terms of the good we actually do for others. Laws are internalized—written in our hearts—when they are kept for the sake of others. We are to do as the Good Samaritan in the parable: let the law of love and compassion guide us and gain for us eternal Life.