…[A]nd one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “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 neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ – Matthew 22:35-40
It seems that Jesus was always under scrutiny, especially from the religious hierarchy who saw him as a rabble-rouser and troublemaker but who could never pin enough on him to do away with such a nuisance — well, not yet, anyway. In the passage from which the excerpt above is taken, Jesus is being tested by the Sadducees about a woman who married seven brothers (consecutively, of course) and which husband would claim her once they got to heaven. Jesus answered that rather neatly (none of them, because in heaven there isn’t such a thing as marriage), but then he attracted the attention of a lawyer, a Pharisee to boot, who asked a question that got an answer we still wrestle with today.
We are told to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We intellectually understand the loving God part although it’s hard to love God as fully as that when there are so many other things vying for our devotion: money, sex, material goods, personal safety. We can sit in the pews on Sunday and feel we’ve shown God how much we love and honor we give God, but by the time we reach the parking lot we’ve gone back to who we were before we walked through the church door. Oh, there are lots of very good, very faithful Christians who honestly and truly do try to live up to the loving God part of Jesus’ words and there should be many more like them, but they are more scarce than we can imagine. You can usually spot them not by the Bible tucked under their arms or by their mentioning Jesus in every other breath (and not as an expression of injury, an expletive or an indicator of surprise) but by the quiet way they project the gospel message. It’s not how many times a person goes to church a week, it’s how many times God is immediately present in their life.
Then we get to the “[L]ove your neighbor as yourself part. This is probably a bigger sticking-point than even loving God with everything we have. A neighbor is traditionally considered to be someone living next door or even in a fairly close proximity to one’s own home. Each neighborhood used to be like a small community where people knew each other, would bring over casseroles and meals when there was an illness or death in the family, and generally looked after one another. That’s changed over the past few decades. Now most of us don’t even know our next door neighbor’s name much less anything about them other than perhaps what kind of car they drive or that they have a dog that barks at all hours. How can you love someone you don’t know? Jesus seemed to think it was a given, and no mention was made of exclusions.
If everyone is our neighbor, then everyone should have value in the eyes of those around them. Sunday morning I talked with our parish youth leader* who told me about the just-completed mission trip where the teens spent time helping at a very short-staffed adult day care center in another state. She mentioned the various activities like helping the elders with bingo and preparing for a real Senior Prom by making corsages and boutonnieres for the event. She also mentioned that some of them had thanked the teens for helping them, one even saying thanks for looking at him and seeing him as a human being, a real person. It validated their humanity as well as forged a connection between two people who were neighbors for only a short time.
We often walk through life like we do when walking down the street or through the mall. Generally we keep our eyes straight ahead or looking down, perhaps noticing things in the shop windows but not really noticing the people we pass. We don’t notice the beggar sitting with a hopeful look. If he weren’t so lazy he would be working for a living, we think. We never meet his eyes or even hear his voice but we judge him based on what? By keeping our eyes away from him we make him merely a part of the landscape like walk/don’t walk signal or a sidewalk trash bin. Is that how we are supposed to see our fellow human beings? Is that what Jesus was teaching?
As we avert our eyes from others we are not only rendering them invisible and of no matter or concern to us. The problem is that as we marginalize them by not really seeing them, we marginalize ourselves as well. We are protecting ourselves but from what? Challenges to our personal safety and integrity? Exposing some vulnerability that could be taken advantage of? We risk someone seeing something in us we don’t want others to see and we’re uncomfortable. We consider it giving others privacy as we would like them to do for us, but what it does is create a barrier, making a neighbor or potential neighbor a nonentity, a nothing.
It’s impossible to love what isn’t acknowledged, and a human being can’t be acknowledged if they aren’t seen, face-to-face and eye to eye. Loving our neighbors means being open to them, trusting them, really seeing them and not just scurrying by, eyes downcast, as if they were not present. We have to see them to acknowledge their humanity and their status as fellow children of God. If we do that, then we can’t ignore them and just walk by. Perhaps that is the part we want the least: the need to engage with people we don’t know. If we ignore them, the beggars, the street people, the immigrants, the handicapped, the wounded warriors, the children, we truly cannot call ourselves Christians because these are all neighbors of ours and we are called to love them, not ignore them because they make us feel uncomfortable. I don’t think comfort was a very big deal to Jesus whether with his disciples or with the crowds who came to see and be healed.
Jesus didn’t heal everybody, I’m pretty sure, or the gospels would have been the size of the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary or larger. What he did, though, was acknowledge that even people like Samaritans, Romans, or people from other parts of the middle east were neighbors to be met, face to face and eye to eye, to be comforted, taught, and healed. Even Jesus had to be reminded by a marginalized person whom he had rebuffed that even the dogs got the crumbs from the table. A crumb can make a big difference to a starving person or a hungry neighbor, just as it did to her.
So my job today is to really look at the people I pass, not just scurry by as if I were late for the second coming or something else equally urgent. I need to see each person as my neighbor and want the best for them as I would want for myself. Who knows, I may see the face of Jesus in one of them — or maybe all of them. Now wouldn’t that be something?
*Personal discussion with Shelley Anderson Byrnes, Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries, Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, AZ, 6/29/14.