What You Owe Your Neighbor
“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor” (G. K. Chesterton).
God does not ask us to love humanity. God asks us to love our neighbors. Indeed, dig and search through all the scriptures and you find no mention of love in the abstract. Our vocation to love is always personal. The kind of love God wants in us is love for the person directly in front of your nose.
There was once a physician who loved humanity. He had dreams of giving it all up to serve humankind. Through each day, he contemplated ways that he could better the world. Yet, he could not stand people. As soon as someone grew close to him, that person got on his nerves. His acquaintances all took too long to eat, or blew their nose too frequently. "I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.” It is silly, is it not? Yet, does this ring true?
We are good at fooling ourselves. We think we are loving, because we love the people who make us happy, or we love the idea of loving. We have all seen those television ads. There is a starving child in Africa, then a phone number, and a chance to change a life. We watch it. We feel compassion. We entertain a little thought about giving money. Because of that noble thought, we pat ourselves on the back, saying, “You know, you’re a good guy.” Then we forget about the ad afterwards, but we sure feel righteous. Can you see how subtle this is? We praise ourselves for our fantasies. But love has nothing to do with fantasy. Love has nothing to do with thoughts. Love is action.
Christ tells us in a parable what true love looks like.
“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.’ Then our Lord tells us: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10: 23-37)
What was going through the minds of the Priest and Levite? They were probably not bad people. In fact, I am ashamed to admit, they were probably like most of us, myself first and foremost. We can only imagine what was happening in their heads. They had important work to do, compassionate work, holy work. They were probably on their way to a grand religious service or to cut an inauguration ribbon at a new charity.
Did they notice the man bleeding on the road? Probably not. They might have winced for a moment. A quick thought passes, “How sad,” as they walk forward whistling. They were too caught up in their own important things to do, too occupied by thoughts of loving humanity, and they could not even notice a person in need.
Two words stand out about the Samaritan. “He saw him, and he had compassion.”The Priest and Levite never saw the person. They saw a bum, a loser, or just some guy in their way. They did not see him truly: a living breathing, fellow man; a child of God. The Samaritan saw him. When God looks at us, he sees the core of who we are. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samual 16:7). This is how we need to learn to look at one another. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has said, “I become truly alive when I look into your eyes and you look into mine.” Seeing is living.
Only when we learn to see the person in front of us, as a person, are we fully alive.
“He had compassion.”
He had “εσπλαγχνισθη” (in Greek). The word comes from the root σπλαγχνη, which literally means the guts or bowels. To have compassion is to be moved in the gut by the reality of suffering. This goes deeper than intellectualism. It is not about having some lofty idea about human good. It is recognizing a fellow human being and sharing his burden. Compassion is an ache in the heart and the determination to help.
Do we see one another? Do we have compassion?
What is Christian love, true Christian love? There was an old ditty in the early Church: “No Christian is an alone Christian and an alone Christian is no Christian.” This sentiment runs thick in Orthodoxy. There is no Christianity apart from Christian community. There is no such thing as individualistic faith, faith cut off from a parish, a faith simply between me and Jesus. You cannot have a relationship with God that is not shared with your fellow parishioner. Our relationship with Christ is our relationship with one another; our relationship with one another is our relationship with God. So Christ tells us: "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
St. Paul says boldly:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (I Corinthians 12:12,26).
To whom is he speaking? He is speaking to Christian community. He is speaking to a parish, a random assortment of people from different walks of life, who come together for a purpose. We are not here to get “my Jesus fix.” We are here to die for one another. We are here to share each other’s personal burdens and to celebrate one another’s joys. If Christianity were only about “me and Jesus,” then we might as well stay home, tune into a screened-in service, and sip our Starbucks latte. Church is our chance to learn to forgive and love.
Why do you think it is called “Mass”? The very name “Mass” shatters any idea that we go to Church on Sunday for a personal fix. Sunday is the day for amassing. It is the profound moment in the week, when the Christian body comes together to see one another and to have compassion on one another. This mass love culminates when we break bread together. We encounter God in the act of sharing.
“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor.” G. K. Chesterton explained this as he looked at the real struggle in our hearts to learn to love. He continues:
“The old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when [it] spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. . . . But 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.”
You see how simple it is. God calls us to love the person directly infront of our nose, not that person far off in a distant country, not your best friend who always says the right things and wears the right clothes. That is all nice and good, but it is not the quality love God desires. We must learn to love our neighbor, to see and have compassion — starting here in parish community, and then to each and every person we encounter through the week.
How on earth can we do this? It means dying to oneself and filling up with Christ.