God in Your Neighbor
According to a Russian folktale, a cobbler once woke up in the middle of the night hearing a voice. The voice said to him that on the following day the Lord Jesus Christ would pay him a visit. The next morning he who woke up ecstatic about this promise, and went about his business eager to meet Christ. A little time goes by, and he hears a knock on the door. He rushes to it, but to his surprise, it’s only an old beggar with a rattling cough. A little disappointed, but without hesitation, he took in the beggar, set him by the fire and gave him a little food. More time passed, while the cobbler waited for Jesus Christ, and he heard another knock. This time he found a half frozen woman with a baby in her arms seeking shelter. He took her in too and brought her by the fire. In a little while he heard again another knock still. There was an old woman angry because a boy had tried to steal her apples. He ushered her in and sat down to listen and comfort. Eventually, they all went home, warm, fed, and loved. The cobbler sat down in his rocking chair tired and a little disappointed that he didn’t see Christ. He nodded off gradually, and then, just as he was falling asleep he heard a voice speak, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you ministered to me.”
We come to church and sing hymns like, “All Glory, Laud and Honour,” and, “Humbly I Adore Thee,” and these are beautiful and inspiring hymns. When you go to church regularly you get used to having all kinds of pious thoughts and noble visions, and this is all very good. But when it comes down to it, how are we living out what we sing and believe? Do you walk the talk?
God looks at the heart. How much do we ‘adore God humbly’? Are we giving Him all glory, laud and honour in our hearts on a daily basis? Fortunately, we aren’t left to speculate about that. We have a very simple and concrete test.
Your love for God can be measured by your love for your neighbors.
Today, we read from the Gospel of Luke about the Good Samaritan. Christ was hanging out with some men and women and discussing the Kingdom. He summed up the Law in two commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:27). Then a lawyer asked a very good question. “Who is my neighbor?” So Christ responded with this parable.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three,” Jesus asked, “proved to be a neighbor?”
Then our Lord said something very profound: “Go and do likewise” (10: 23-37)
We’ve heard this parable so many times that we can lose some of our first wonder about its message. The man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is you and me. In one way or another life has a way of beating us. It leaves us depressed and empty. The priest and Levite represent everything the world has to offer. At that time, they stood for the nation’s laws and religion. If you put this parable into our modern world, you can replace the priest and Levite with all kinds of things. Some look for help in the gospels of Oprah or Dr. Phil, others look to meditation, medicine, political parties, humanitarianism or vegetarianism. It’s all the same. As an end in itself, nothing in this world can really do us a lick of good. Then the Samaritan comes in from another place. He bends down to our level, binds us up, anoints us with oil and wine, and brings us to a place of healing. That’s Jesus Christ who meets us where we are and takes us to the Church to recover and grow.
All this is marvelous.
But we aren’t left there. It’s not enough to just wonder over the goodness of God. We too have to do something. We have to do exactly as the Good Samaritan did.
All the reverence, all the moving hymns, all the efforts we make on Sunday and our quiet hours of praying come down to straw if we aren’t willing to bend down and love the people in our lives actively and unceasingly…that is, to at least keep on trying to love actively and unceasingly.
So how do we do this?
I want to talk about it in three steps.
What is the challenge?
Who is your neighbor?
And how do you love him?
First, you have to acknowledge the problem.
It isn’t easy loving your neighbor, and it’s critically important to do so.
The scriptures are straightforward about this. In his first epistle, St. John writes, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (4:19-20). We learn to love God by learning to love our neighbor. St. Basil preaches, “Where charity fails and disappears, beyond any doubt hate will take its place. And if, as John says, God is love (I John 4:16), it then must follow that the devil is hate.” Hate isn’t neutral. It’s demonic.
Every Christian needs to be consciously aware that to refuse to love someone is to refuse to love God. To refuse to forgive someone is to refuse to accept God’s forgiveness. To shun a person is to shun God. As we do to our neighbor, we do to God.
That’s what the old cobbler learned. He expected a visit from God. Meanwhile, he was visited by a beggar, a forlorn mother, and an angry old woman. God visited him in the people who walked through his door.
Your love for God is measured by your love for your neighbors.
Second, once you’ve acknowledged this rule, you have to come to terms with who is, in fact, your neighbor.
How do you think the Samaritan felt when he saw the Jew on the road? The Samaritan had spent his whole life being reviled and insulted by Jews. Yet he bent down and loved him regardless. Now think about this in your own life. Who has hurt you the most? Who annoys you regularly? Who insults you sharply? That is your neighbor.
We fool ourselves sometimes by thinking that we’re loving people because we love our friends. But Christ taught, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you…love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:32-25). He didn’t sum up the law by saying, “Thou shalt love thy friend.” He commanded, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor.” This is the love that God asks from us.
G. K. Chesterton makes a very pithy statement about loving our neighbors. He’s writing about the spirit of philanthropy so common in our times. We’ve all heard the commercials about sponsoring the starving child in Africa and our duty towards humanity. However, that usually has very little to do with loving our neighbor. “We make our friends,” he says. “We make our enemies; But God makes our next-door neighbor…we have to love our neighbor because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. [Our neighbor] is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”
Your neighbor is the cashier at the grocery store. Your neighbor is your co-worker. Your neighbor is the person in the pew next to you. Your neighbor is the person in your life whom you didn’t ask for.
Do you want to love God? Stop and think about those people in your life whom you least want anything to do with. God put them in your life. Oftentimes, that is our very gift from heaven to learn how to love.
So, finally, you’ve accepted the challenge and you’re looking at your neighbor. Now, how do you go about loving him? What can you do?
I want to end with a word by C. S. Lewis who took this commandment very seriously. He writes,
"Do not waste your time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor. Act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less." C.S. Lewis
We learn to love…by loving.
It isn’t an emotion. It is a free act.
So go and do likewise.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.