We are all familiar with the question posed to Jesus by a scholar of the law: “Who is my neighbor?” Even more famous is Jesus’ response, the story of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:29-37). The message is clear: our love of neighbor should have no boundaries, no qualifications. Maybe this parable is so familiar today that it has lost it’s shock value. We frequently hear stories of the “Good Samaritan” who rescues the drowning child from the pool or volunteers regularly in the local soup kitchen or the doctor who spends his or her vacation bringing basic health care to people in developing countries. Good deeds like these are thankfully common in our society, perhaps even expected.
But does Jesus adequately answer the question? I think I know what being a neighbor means, and I pray that I will recognize the opportunities I have to be a neighbor for someone else. However, I struggle to know what I can do to be a neighbor for everyone. There is so much need in the world and I do not have the resources or will power to help the billions of brothers and sisters who are my neighbors.
I’m in good company if this question perplexes me. 1600 years ago, St. Augustine also tackled this question of how to interpret the command to love our neighbors. He concluded that, “all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.” (De doctrina Christiana, I, 28, 29).
I like Augustine’s honesty that we can’t solve all the problems we see in the world. What is reasonable is to take notice of those whose lives have crossed paths with ours and then act as far as we are able. If the Samaritan had never taken the trip to Jericho, he would not have passed by the man lying on the side of the road, and we certainly couldn’t expect him to have done anything for the man. But since he did encounter a neighbor in need, his faith compelled him to act. Whether you see it as God’s providence or just happenstance, the truth is that we cannot say that we love God unless we’re willing to act with love in those moments when we see a need and an opportunity to share the life and gifts we’ve been blessed with. No two people are expected to love in the same ways—each one of us has a unique life overflowing with once-in-a-lifetime chances to love.
But I’m still not satisfied. While St. Augustine would have had no way of knowing what was happening on other continents, we do. In our globally conscious society, we are daily blasted with news about our international neighbors: starving families, genocide, war, discrimination, natural disaster, and all manner of atrocities. Do you, like me, feel overwhelmed by this? Along with our global awareness, we also have a greater knowledge today of the interconnectedness of the human family—economically, diplomatically, culturally, and ecologically. I find the whole thing so complex and bigger than me, so I tend to just throw up my hands in exasperation. What could I possibly do to make even the slightest dent in the world’s suffering? Does God really expect me to be a neighbor to all these people thousands of miles away?
My temptation, then, is to reject the world we live in. I intuitively know that the problem is knowledge. If only I can ignore what’s going on outside of my immediate world, I cannot be held responsible. If I just avoid the news, avoid driving through the “bad” part of town, and maybe drop a few dollars in the basket when I can’t avoid that preacher asking me to rescue a starving child in Africa…I’ll be doing alright. Then I can pretend I’m living in simpler times, when it was enough to be a nice guy and to help the occasional needy neighbor on the side of the road. I can feel pretty good about myself then, being in good company with Jesus’ Good Samaritan and St. Augustine.
The only trouble is that pesky thing we call conscience. My conscience doesn’t like to be deceived or kept in the dark. I know deep down that my soul cannot thrive in the darkness of ignorance. Try as I might, I cannot escape the world in which God has placed me. If I have any hope of finding what it means to, “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27), then I’m going to have to attend to this nagging question. I’ll need to find a way to answer, “who is my neighbor?”—not for first century Palestine or for St. Augustine’s time, but for my own.
It’s kind of a big deal, you know. Remember the first question the scholar of the law asked Jesus?
“‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Lk 10:25)
It’s not an issue of soothing my conscience or creating a world where we can all hold hands and live in harmony. The destiny of our eternal souls depends on this one question: Who is my neighbor?