In connection with the command to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself, an expert in the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus uses the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) to answer the question. After sharing the parable, Jesus asks the expert which of the three persons who passed by the man who fell into the hands of robbers was his neighbor, and the expert had to acknowledge that it was “the one who had mercy on him.” It was not the priest or the Levite, but a Samaritan, the person who would have been considered an outsider by the Jews of this time.
We face this same question whenever we encounter someone in need and have to make a decision how to respond. It could be a panhandler on the street, the person standing by a broken-down car on the side of the road, an intellectually disabled person having difficulty in the checkout line before us, a work colleague being treated unfairly by his or her boss, or a work subordinate who has violated company policy, to name just a few examples. It could also be someone as familiar and close to us as our spouse, one of our children or a close friend. There are no limitations in Jesus’ words on who we should love and show mercy.
At one point in my career I commuted on the trains to Grand Central Station in New York City and had to walk a block to my company’s headquarters at 42nd and Lexington. Nearly every day I would be confronted with people asking for money. Some could get pretty ugly, cursing at me if I looked at them or didn’t look at them, or if I did not respond to their entreaties for a dollar or two. Sometimes I would respond by offering to buy them a cup of coffee. Most of the time, I would just pass by quickly.
On one occasion, as I was entering St. Matthews Catholic Church, a block east of Grand Central, to attend a weekday mass, a much disheveled looking man asked me to help him. I blew right past him in my rush not to be late for mass. After getting inside, I thought to myself, “What did I just do? What was I thinking?” When I went back outside, he was bent over the bumper of a car, vomiting. “No way,” I thought and started to walk on to my office. But then something turned me around and I walked back and offered to buy him breakfast at a restaurant next to the church.
His name was Richard. He was from Hartford, Ct. He had been playing in a band, but was laid off and started drinking, was beaten up and robbed. He was a mess. We tried to get him connected up with the Salvation Army. A couple of days later I saw him again on the church steps. He was waiting for me. He was all cleaned up, had fresh clothes and was headed back to Hartford. I was overjoyed, but my joy was short-lived. A few days later, there he was again on the church steps, his clothes all tattered; he had obviously been drinking again. I told him I was going to buy him a train ticket to Hartford and to meet me at 43rd and Lexington at 10 AM. He never showed and I never saw Richard again. Perhaps my response to Richard needed to be more aggressive, more like the Samaritan.
Upon further reflection, I believe the answer to the question of who is my neighbor is not so much a matter of trying to discern who our neighbor actually is, as it is striving to see people with God’s eyes and to hear them with God’s heart, whether they are strangers, work colleagues or our closest family and friends. “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16)