By Kelley Burns
In today’s Gospel, the scholar asks Jesus a simple question: Who is my neighbor? The answer should be simple, right? But it’s a question worth considering for more than just a minute. I suggest two ways of reflecting on the question at hand:
First, who do I feel most drawn to? What injustice strikes me right to the core of my heart? What person or group of people do I feel compassion toward or find it easiest to connect with? There are many, many people in this world who need our compassion and mercy. Scrolling through the daily headlines could tell you that much. Personally, I can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and the staggering statistics. It can be tempting to turn away and ignore suffering because we can’t solve it all. But love doesn’t win if we simply give up.
In 2016, I spent several weeks working in refugee camps in Greece. I saw families living in terrible conditions. I saw a system broken. I heard stories of trauma and heartache. It was overwhelming. During the trip I thought everyday: “This isn’t enough. We aren’t doing enough. They won’t even have what they need for tomorrow after this is gone.” And again God reminded me, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” If I allow myself to see through the eyes of faith rather than despair, I can see that this is true. Despair would tell me that our work is not enough — that it won’t make a big enough impact. Faith assures me that if each of us do our part today, there will always be enough. When I look through eyes of faith, I see God’s glory all over.
Since that time, I am learning that God puts particular passions on our heart for a reason. We can’t all give care to every neighbor in need. But we can focus our energy on the ones whom God has laid on our heart or put in our path. He has put them there for a reason, so that we can be his hands and feet in a world that desperately needs care. And if we each respond to God’s particular call for us, all of our neighbors will receive mercy and compassion.
The second way to consider the question of who is my neighbor is to reflect on who makes me uncomfortable. Is there a person or group of people who I struggle to understand? Is there someone to whom I really don’t want to extend mercy? This, too, is a worthy cause for reflection. It is certainly easier to show kindness to someone who does not challenge me. To someone who looks like me. To a person who shares my values, my political opinions, my nationality, or my interests.
Today’s Gospel tells us that the scholar asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” because he wished to justify himself. Essentially, he was hoping for a divine pat on the back — a holy high-five for following the law and a pass on acting neighborly to anyone who did not conform to the common standard of righteousness. But in true Jesus fashion, he turns popular opinion on its head with the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritans were a people condemned by the Jews. And yet, it is the good Samaritan who extends mercy to the Jewish victim in the ditch. In the Gospel of John, we have the account of Jesus himself conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well. All through the gospels we are witnesses of Jesus in places and with people that he “shouldn’t be.”
No one is outside of God’s mercy. No one is too unrighteous or too unclean to deserve care from or to extend care to a neighbor. Let us prayerfully ask Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And let us pray for the spirit of openness and responsiveness to the answers that he may give.