Who Is My Neighbor?

“Brother Sun, Sister Moon I seldom see you seldom hear your tune. Preoccupied with selfish misery.  Brother Wind and Sister Air open my eyes to visions pure and fair. That I may see the glory around me.  I am God’s creature, of Him I am part.  I feel His love awakening my heart.  Brother Sun and Sister Moon I now do see you, I can hear your tune.  So much in love with all that I survey.” 

These words are the lyrics by Donovan that are part of the soundtrack for the 1970s movie, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” which is based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi.  These lyrics beautifully and simply capture the spirituality of this great saint as they reflect the sentiments found in his Canticle of the Sun.

St. Francis reminds us that the essence and beauty of God emanate from within God’s creation and are not imposed upon it.  All created things are mirrors of the Divine that reflect back to the viewer the life and love that is its Source.  The author of the Book of Deuteronomy provides a glimpse of this when he discusses the “command of the Lord.”  “It is something very near to you,” the author says, “already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”  The very essence of God, his command, is already within us.  It is not our task to “put it there” or “welcome it in” as it exists there already.  This is a profound reality to ponder and the primary reason Jesus is so insistent that we keep the love of God, neighbor, and self-bound together as one.  They cannot be separated because they are essentially and intentionally the same.  Our neighbor reflects God back to us.

We listen to this weekend’s Gospel once again that details Jesus’ commandment on love.  This is not new teaching by any stretch.  However, it is given a new twist when the love of neighbor is elevated to the same status as the love of God.  The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that God is the master reverser of roles!  Those hearing this story for the first time would have certainly been caught off guard when they heard that the Samaritan is the hero.  Those whom we least expect are the ones who often do the will of God the most.  Saint or sinner, we all receive the same abundance of God’s mercy.  God’s mercy, as with God’s love, is at the core of who we are.  We cannot merit it, increase it or escape it.  It is simply there.

All of creation is on fire with God’s presence.  St. Francis knew this so very well.  It is for this reason that he shared such an intimate connection with all people and things, often addressing them using familiar terms.   It was his firm conviction in and knowledge of God’s love within that gave him the courage to persevere, a reason to hope, a cause for faith, and an inexhaustible ability to love.  Francis knew exactly who his neighbor was and responded without hesitation.

Deflecting our responsibility to actively respond to the needs of our neighbors by simply engaging in discussions about philosophies, theories or political ideologies is not helpful. Simply talking about the problems our neighbors encounter does not relieve us of the responsibility to actively respond.  Our neighbor is not just a particular social group or nation but the people immediately before us with immediate needs.  For example, we can have a political philosophy about immigration we wish to advance, but it does nothing in response to the person seeking asylum who is scared, hurting, crying, sick, hungry, or being held in unthinkable environs.  Do we simply say there is no room, go away or turn around and go home?  An expectant family heard these very words loud and clear many years ago. These are complicated matters for sure.  But, just because they are large does not mean they cannot be addressed.  Every person is unique and each of our neighbors has their own distinctive place in God’s world. Doing our best to respond to immediate needs and continuing dialogue about more permanent solutions are ways that we can help our neighbors who are most in need. 

Our neighbor is found as life unfolds for us, not in theories.  As good as theories are for understanding and moving through our difficulties, they can also prevent us from actually dealing with the reality before us.  They can even fool us into thinking that we are somehow off the hook for responding.  Our neighbors live in Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Texas, and the people we meet each day.  We have a vested interest in and concern for all of them.  Many of our neighbors do not have a voice.  They need ours. 

Our neighbor’s face is different for each one of us depending on our station in life.  It can be our family members, coworkers, bosses, pastors, associates, people living on our street, those living in other lands, people on the road, and the folks in the supermarket with us, those who want to hurt us, our enemies and those who think they can control us.  They are all our neighbors.  Describe your neighbor’s face that you saw yesterday.  Who was she?  Who did you meet today?  What do they look like?  What is going on in their lives?  How do they make you feel?  How did you respond to them?

The mistake many people make is that as important as loving our neighbor really is to accomplish God’s work, it cannot stop there.  Stopping there leads us to a well-camouflaged form of relativism that has the Golden Rule at its base and thus appears acceptable.  The task of discipleship is not just about bringing “love” to my neighbor both in thought, word and deed but in seeing the Love that is at their Source and falling in love with the Author of that Love, God himself.  This relationship that I then develop with God becomes my anchor and benchmark.  In this way, we have the litmus test we need for making sure that we are focused and on track with all of our relationships.  This love can then be brought to all of our neighbors, even those who hurt us.

God’s Word as it is revealed through Sacred Scripture and safeguarded in the teachings of the Church are the ways our relationship with God’s command stays fresh and accessible.  Doing loving deeds for people isn’t enough nor is living life as if there are no guidelines, benchmarks, or common goals to achieve.  Living God’s commandment does not find its expression in an “if it feels good do it” or “if it’s where I am accept it” philosophy of life.  It is quite the contrary.  God has some definite ideas in mind for us and for the world.  We need to figure out what those are all the while keeping faithful to both Scripture and Tradition, the foundation of our faith.   The beatitudes, justice, and mercy are all essential components.

Love of neighbor becomes particularly challenging when our neighbors are the perpetrators of suffering, violence, and war.  Jesus refers to all people, saints and sinners, as neighbors.  We are asked, then, to be a neighbor to all, without exception.  How can we be a neighbor to people who hurt us or others and use violence against innocent people, especially children and the poor?  It remains for each of us to honestly discern how best to compassionately and lovingly respond. 

All that being said, loving our neighbors is not easy.  It is messy, confusing, conflicting, sticky, and uncertain.  There are no easy ways to respond.  We need to be attentive and listen carefully to what people need.   We need to work at building systems, economies, and social structures that promote equity and safeguard the well-being of all.  This is no easy task and involves sacrifice.  We bring ourselves dimly through life, relying solely on the light of Christ to enlighten our way.  The psalmist is correct again!  “Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.”  When we need guidance, support and direction the Lord and the community of the church are always there.  May we always seek new and more effective ways we can listen and respond to the needs of our neighbors!  St. Francis of Assisi: Be our inspiration and our guide!