Perhaps the most famous of all of the parables of Jesus is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Jesus told parables, or stories, to convey a moral meaning. His parables were told so that people hearing about how others behaved would have a guide for how to behave in their own lives. In this often told parable a lawyer came up to test Jesus because he did not believe Jesus was a man of great knowledge and power and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him what is written in the law of the prophets, and the lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him he answered correctly. But the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus told him this parable:
“A man was going down from Jericho, [The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was steep and winding, a place where criminals regularly assaulted travelers at the time when Jesus lived] and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest [A holy man] was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, [a religious leader] when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan [Samaritans were people who were despised by the ethnic group to whom the lawyer belonged.] while traveling came near him, and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, [two coins equal to two days wages] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”
Then Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said to Jesus, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” The moral of this story is that if one wishes to have eternal life one must be a good neighbor.
The medieval Christian monk Bernard of Clairvaux shares the great theme of the love of God with the Sufi master Rumi. A big portion of Clairvaux’s writing includes the idea that of all the attributes of God, the one most important to humankind is love. Father Clairvaux was not a poet like Rumi but a fine scholar of the Bible and found many important verses of Scripture that speak about the idea of God’s love being manifest through the actions of human beings. This love of God is expressed most graphically in the activity of being a good neighbor. He writes, “True love is precisely this: that it does not seek its own interests. And you cannot love your neighbor unless you love God. God must be loved first in order that we may love our neighbor in God” (from, On the Love of God).
From the Christian perspective neighborliness is one of the most important characteristics a follower of Jesus can possess. The two sections of the Bible, the book that gives Christians their primary guidance for living, are the Old Testament and the New Testament. These two parts of the Bible are full of verses that emphasize the high moral value placed on the practices of love of God and of neighborliness.
The Old Testament concept of neighbor often referred not only to the person who lived in the house next door to you but to anyone in your tribe. The good deeds of neighborliness were emphatically applied to care for the widow or orphan and those in need of one’s help.
God says, “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:26–27). Later in this same Old Testament book, speaking to the Israelites, God says, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse a widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:21–22). It is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “Cursed be anyone who strikes down a neighbor in secret” (Deuteronomy 27: 24). The prophet Jeremiah writes, “Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3). And the prophet, Micah says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
The New Testament concept of neighbor becomes even more universal through the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul of Tarsus. These ideas are derived from the thought that if God loves all people we should, in turn, love ourselves and especially others, including our neighbors, our enemies and those in need, the widow and orphan.
Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22: 37–40) And Paul writes, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13–15).
Therefore, to be a true Christian one must take care to obey the first and second commandments, to love God and also to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
We Christians have to be alert to what some call the constant presence of evil, others call this negative force in our living the devil, and still others call it the distractions of daily living; such things as television and the media in general, the North American impulse to consumerism, self-aggrandizement, preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth, politics and the list goes on and on. These distractions, against which Christians must be constantly alert, are what our holy Scriptures refer to as our “having other gods before the one God.” The reason we want to be alert to distractions such as these is that our primary goal as Christians is to first love God and second, to love our neighbors and not to place a higher value on worldly things than we do on neighborliness.
The spiritual director and Presbyterian minister, Diana Nishita Cheifetz, writes about ways people can be good neighbors in a world where air travel and the internet have brought a great diversity of culture, political ideology, ethnicity and religion together. She talks about “graceful neighboring” which is a kind of interpersonal “dancing with our diversity.”
Graceful neighboring recognizes differences while at the same time it dwells on the positive nature of our similarities. Through the art of graceful neighboring we become more aware of people different than ourselves who are on this metaphorical “dance floor” with us. This is an important, other-focused view observed in the more accomplished “dancers”. That more mature, other-focused view, dear reader, can be possessed by you and your families and friends, and by me and mine when we are all committed to interfaith dialog. When we engage in the dance of life we do not see the stranger as black or white, Christian or Jew, rich or poor; we acknowledge them as partners, people of equal value in the eyes of the one God, people who are moving to the rhythm of life with us. We gaze into their eyes, and smile and thereby recognize their humanness and our collective joy in our living together. To behave this way is to understand what Rumi and Bernard of Clairvaux would call a kind of whirling dance of faith, a moving out of darkness into light.
Graceful neighboring also recognizes differences. We do not stand too close and invade the boundaries of the others whose culture and religion ask for more room on the dance floor. Being a good neighbor is to be willing to respect the needs and differences of the dancers.
If we are able to be vehicles of graceful neighboring in these ways others will observe our joy, we will be the good dancers whom others watch and respect, and the one God will bring all of us together into a great dance of life.
Sam is a Presbyterian pastor, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a friend. He is actively involved as a member of the Advisory Board of the Austin area Institute of Interfaith Dialog, an avid bicycle rider and environmentalist.