Caritas Corner | Who is My Neighbor?

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I love my neighbors.  They are an older couple who have lived in the house next door for over 40 years.  She bakes us the most incredible cakes in exchange for shoveling their walks.  He waves to me in the mornings when we are out getting our respective newspapers.  By virtue of our shared property line, we look out for and take care of each other.

If the word “neighbor” were defined only as the folks in the house next door, it would not have warranted one of the most important questions in scripture: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10,29).  We are told that this question, asked of Jesus by a legal scholar, is part of a test.  The answer illuminates Christ’s teaching on both the greatest commandment (Luke 10, 25-28) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, 29 – 37).  Sandwiched between such rich and well-known texts, it is easy to overlook the importance that this question continues to have in the present day.

Our English use of neighbor comes from the Anglian word “nehebur” which translates to near (nehe) and dweller (bur).  It is a definition fundamentally related to proximity.  This way of understanding “neighbor” in common use complicates the message in the Gospel of Luke, as well as the way in which we respond in our daily lives.  While it may sometimes be challenging to love the person in the house, office, or pew next to us, there is enough similarity by virtue of shared space that we understand why we should love them.  It is harder to love those who are not next to us and with whom we have very little in common.  Yet this is what Jesus asks of us.

Here again, a closer look at language can be instructive.  The original Greek scripture has two words that are like the English “neighbor.”  The first is “geiton,” which means living in proximity but goes further by also implying friendship.  While “geiton” occasionally occurs in scripture, the more common word translated to “neighbor,” and the one used in Luke specifically, is “plesion.”  Plesion has nothing to do with the location of a dwelling.  Instead, the word is defined as a fellow member of the community and, in use, connotes those who share in the covenant with God.

As the Greek translation and the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, the definition of neighbor in scripture has nothing to do with fences or property lines.  It is unconcerned with nationality or tribe.  (The Samaritan, after all, is traveling outside his home region in Judea:  there was no reason to assume that the man he encountered was a fellow countryman.)  Nor do health conditions, socioeconomic levels or livelihood have anything to do with being a neighbor.   Neighbor refers entirely to encounter and engagement with our fellow human, especially when he or she is in need.

Loving our neighbor and tending to those who are in need is so much bigger than just doing what is right.  Jesus’ reminder of the greatest commandment in the Gospel of Luke is in answer to the question of inheriting eternal life.   That alone is a compelling reason to act accordingly.  However, tending to those in need is also a matter of the common good.  Defined in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”  Put another way, as members of the human community; we are all linked.  The suffering of any will ultimately affect the fulfillment of the whole.

We need only to look around or read a newspaper to see how the common good is undermined by turning our backs on neighbors in need.  Ignoring the problems of those experiencing poverty leads to homelessness, followed by the camps that spring up in our parks:  looking away from the poverty and crime of Central American countries leads to refugees overwhelming the U.S. border.  Certainly, there are policy arguments, founded in law, for hardline responses to these crises.  Those conversations are difficult and necessary; however, I believe Jesus would remind us that the people in camps and amassed at the border are, first and foremost, plesion — our neighbors.  And we are called to love them as we love ourselves.

Sometimes, the most important question you can ask is the easy one.  Surely that first-century lawyer could have come up with something far more challenging than “Who is my neighbor?.”  Yet it is in the asking of that simple question that we receive some of the most important guidance to our Christian faith.  To that end, perhaps we should revisit that question, and its answer, regularly to ensure that we do not become like the priest or the Levite on the road to Jericho, passing by our neighbors in need.  The Good Samaritan treated a stranger, his neighbor, with mercy.  Jesus says to all of us, “Go and do likewise.”

Andy Barton is the President and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado.  This article first appeared in the Colorado Catholic Herald.

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