Who is My Neighbor? – After Some Thought

In my last post, I wrestled with the complexities of what it means to love our neighbor in a globally conscious world. This is a problem that I've been struggling with this summer, as I directly experience poverty of all kinds in other countries. When I have no choice but to look directly at poverty and injustice, I can't just look away or say that I don't know how to solve the problem. I must accept that I'm looking at the face of my neighbor--the face of Christ--and I am commanded to love.

 

After finding myself perplexed about this, I realized that I'm looking at the issue all wrong. I am presupposing that loving neighbor is about doing. Perhaps it's part of my personality or maybe I inherited it from the workaholic American mindset, but I often think that only concrete acts are worthwhile. When I see someone hungry, I think, "I could feed them." But then, who will feed them tomorrow? And who will feed the thousands of others who are starving? When a friend comes to confide in me a personal problem they're struggling with, often I can't say or do anything to make it better. So I think to myself, "Why are you telling me this? I can't fix your problem!"

 

But that's not the point! God has not given me the ability or the command to fix all the world's problems. He asks me simply to love. Don't get me wrong...there are times when action is necessary. As St. James says, "If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16). But if our first response is one where we must be the superhero, the skilled doctor, the savior, then that is not love. I suggest, as I'm gradually finding out myself, that love of neighbor is synonymous to what we call solidarity. With solidarity there is a progression from awareness to compassion and eventually action, but that action must be always based in compassion and a desire to serve for the glory of God.

 

To illustrate my point, please allow me a creative interpretation of the gospel account of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Jesus was at a wedding, a common event of human life, with his mother and his disciples, that is, with community. The crisis is that the wine has run out. Wine is a drink of joy, and when that joy is gone, the normal flow of life is interrupted. This is what happens when people must suffer injustice and violence - they cannot live normally and with the dignity and happiness that God wishes us all to have.

 

Then Jesus' mother tells him, "They have no wine." The first step in loving our neighbor, in living in solidarity with others, is knowledge. We must be made aware of the situation in order to respond with love. If we refuse to listen to those who announce that our neighbors are suffering, then we will never love. We will remain isolated within our own selfish lives and wonder why we feel so miserable. But to listen, to seek to know our neighbors will cause us many inconveniences and risks, and the others' suffering will be our own. This is hard to bear, but it is necessary to our living fully in communion with God and others.

 

Jesus' response is jolting: "Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come." We're relieved to hear Jesus say something so familiar to us: "That's not my problem. What do you expect me to do about it? I don't have the time or the energy, let alone the ability!" We're also disturbed by the thought that the Son of God would neglect to help his people, that God would let his people suffer. But I do not think Jesus is being complacent here. When he says, "My hour has not yet come," he is rejecting our impulse to act first. Even as omnipotent God, Jesus does not magically fix all the problems of the world. He chooses to love--he IS love. To love, we cannot put ourselves in a place of superiority, as the self-announcing good-doer for those below us; we love by being with and sharing with others. So Jesus does not act right away, but waits for the right time.

 

What happens next? It seems that there is a discontinuity between what Jesus says and the action that follows. I'd like to splice in here a passage from Matthew's Gospel: "At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest'" (Matthew 9:36-37). When seeing so many troubled and abandoned people--people without joy--he is moved deeply with pity and compassion. He feels with them their sorrow. This same man would come to know what it is like to be troubled and abandoned so profoundly on the cross. He is the one who will be the shepherd, the one who truly knows his sheep. We are not to be shepherds but simply laborers for the harvest.

 

Then Mary simply says to the servers, "Do whatever he tells you." After becoming aware of the problem, surrendering our pride so as to find ourselves as equals with our neighbor, and admitting, "I am not God," we must be open to God's will. When we hold our horses and let God speak, we will know the way we are supposed to love.

 

At the very end, finally there is action. With the help of the servants, Jesus performs a great miracle. Jars are filled nearly to overflowing with water. Water is a source of life, and we are filled to the brim with that gift of life, but on its own, it is bland, tepid, and easily contaminated. However, when the water of life is mixed with the ingredients of knowledge, humility, surrender, compassion, and openness, it becomes wine. This is the recipe for solidarity, for true love of neighbor. Life is infused with joy, and the celebration can continue as it should. And people will be astounded, because they had given up hope that there would be any more wine, any more happiness.

 

"Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him." This will be just "the beginning of the signs." When our love of neighbor comes to fruition, we will not be the ones praised and thanked. The party will go on, even though suffering has not been eliminated. The wine will be both sweet and bitter, but it will bring joy. And many will glorify God and believe in him. We will then love God with our whole being, and we will know without a doubt the answer to that puzzling question: "Who is my neighbor?"