Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:25–29
This question is the one which echoes the loudest for me in these last few weeks, with so much suffering and so much dissension in the news—the famine in Syria, the horrific attack at Tree of Life Synagogue and the migrant caravan approaching our border. Today I read this article in Sojourners, which concludes with a recent troubling quote from Rod Dreher, a well-known Christian blogger:
“The Bible tells Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves. But who is their neighbor? The man next door? Yes. The people who live across town? Surely. Those who live in another part of their country? Okay. People from another country who want to settle in their country? Erm… .
If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.”
The scripture passage from Luke’s gospel is the conversation that prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan: A man, a Jew, is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is set upon by robbers and left for dead. The religious leaders of the man’s own tribe who see him by the side of the road on their way to work or worship avoid him and do not stop. The person who helps him, who carries him to safety, bandages his wounds, and pays for his care is the enemy of the Jews, the one who is not like him, the one Jesus’s listeners would have been most surprised to hear named as the rescuer. Jesus’s entire point was that our commonalities do not make us neighbors. Showing compassion makes us neighbors.
Our neighbors have been the women who are shelter guests at Crossroads Community Services. During the day, most of these women are busy learning skills that will prepare them to transition out of homelessness. At night, they come to Crossroads for a meal and a place to sleep where it is safe, warm, and sheltered. As with so many programs, this one relies on volunteers. When we volunteer, we don’t actually do much. We chat over dinner and spend the night in a room nearby. The women leave very early the next day because the church also hosts a breakfast program in the same space. Those few mornings I hope we are more aware of our own privilege, more aware of how little it takes to be a good neighbor.
Expanding our children’s circles of concern from family and close friends to others whose lives and experiences may be very different from their own is a key element of developing empathy, according to researchers. A recent study—part of the “Making Caring Common” project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education—involving 10,000 youth ages twelve to eighteen, found that 80% of respondents valued personal happiness and success over caring for others. Empathy is defined as the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” but it is more than that: it is valuing and responding with compassion to other people and perspectives. Giving our children the opportunity to know, listen to, and actively help others is essential, not only to our Christian identity and formation but to changing the society in which we live, or as Ed Bacon, the former rector of All Saints Pasadena likes to say, “turning the human race into the human family.”
Wondering how to start? Writer and activist Glennon Doyle Melton wrote a letter to her son the day he began third grade. In it she tells him about a boy in her own third grade class, whom her classmates teased and she ignored, and the regret she feels about that every day. “I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us,” Glennon tells her son. “The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you. So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.” She gives her son some concrete examples of how to be compassionate to his friends, like making room at the lunch table for someone eating alone, or choosing someone first for the team who is usually chosen last. That sounds like Jesus to my ears. Glennon also tells her son about his teachers and classmates, “You Belong to Each Other.” I’m pretty sure God says that, too.
Our upstairs neighbor Hoora spent the morning of her birthday translating a baptism class I was teaching into Farsi for a family who recently emigrated from Iran. Her husband later told me she spent hours in preparation, reading about baptism and watching videos on the Internet. I wish I knew as much about Islam as she knows now about Christianity; the best way I can think of to honor her gift of time and effort is to learn more about her beliefs and culture.
My sister’s husband is Hindu, and we have been learning about his religion to better understand the traditions that my niece and nephew are growing up with. A dear friend who converted to Buddhism and is now a monk shares with us teachings and practices that she thinks will resonate in our lives. Throughout the years so many Jewish friends have welcomed us into their homes for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover. I have had the privilege of both working in an interfaith center and teaching children’s interfaith classes. I cannot overstate how important I think it is for all of us to better understand each other’s religions, our common values as well as our differences. Yes, it is important that we articulate our own faith to our children, but in this global age, we are connected as never before, and cultivating respect for one another is essential to the health and well-being of everyone who calls this planet home.
Once, we met an Israeli engineer on a flight from New York City to North Carolina and much to his surprise, my son Peter, then 9, sang him the Shema in Hebrew: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” We are, each of us, made in the image of God and when we look for God in everyone we meet, we are reminded of who and what makes us one.
At every baptism, Peter has heard this vow and at his confirmation, he made it for himself:
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“I will, with God’s help.”
The particular gift of knowing people of all ages and colors and religions and walks of life was easy to give Peter, and one that becomes a gift he can give to others. This, I think, is one of the most important things we can do for our children: teach them to draw the circle wider, help them make the world a little bit smaller. This is what the kingdom of God looks like; we are building it together and it won’t be finished until everyone, everyone’s in.
Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents. This post is adapted from Chapter 8, Meeting God in Others.
Image: Gertrud Mueller Nelson