15th Sunday of Ordinary Time
“But who is my neighbor?” asks the lawyer in today’s Gospel. In other words, “Who is the neighbor I must love next to God?”? It’s a very honest question that needs to be answered in every age. Just who is to be included in the that circle of neighbors whom I must love as I love myself and whom I must treat with compassion? How far must that circle of neighbors extend; who am I to embrace in the circle of my love in order to fulfill God’s commandment that I am to love my neighbor as myself?
It was certainly a difficult question in Our Lord’s day for devout Jews. Indeed, the people of Israel were surrounded by numerous enemies, peoples who had been deadly hostile to them for centuries by the time of Jesus. That’s why most Israelites would have excluded the external enemies of Israel from the neighbors to be loved next to God. Excluding one’s external enemies, then, reduces the question to how far the circle of neighbors to be loved extends within one’s nation or within one’s tribe, or even within one’s own family, how large is the circle to be?
Jesus’ answer was shocking then, and is still shocking today. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that God certainly expects us to consider every person who is in serious need to be our neighbor, but Jesus will go further and make it clear that every man is our neighbor, without exception, including ouyr enemies. Jesus begins to drive home this point in his example by having a Samaritan be the good neighbor to the man who was beaten half dead, not the Jewish priest or Levite who choose to pass by the man. The religious men of Israel did not help the stranger, and whether he was Jewish or pagan we do not know. But they clearly did not consider him a neighbor, and they did not act as a neighbor toward him. But the Samaritan, from an apostate people despised by the Jews, did consider the man a neighbor and did so without asking him who he was.
The application of the golden rule applies here. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you – and applying that rule Jesus extends the command to love thy neighbor to every man. Certainly if any of us were in dire need, like this poor man, we would want help from any person. We would not ask him his nationality or religion or place of birth. We wouldn’t close the circle of “who is our neighbor” one bit if it was a situation of our own life or our death! So likewise, we must not close that circle when it comes to treating others in need, in need of our compassion, and indeed in need of our love. But the circle must go beyond those who are in dire to need to include every man.
So the Golden Rule seems to be the initial basis for our responding to the commandment to love our neighbor as our self, to treat every person as we would have every person treat us, to treat every person as our neighbor – that is, as one deserving of our love and compassion.
However, in the Sermon on the Mount we see that Jesus goes even further than the parable teaching and includes even our enemies in this commandment to love our neighbor: “but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5) and “do good to those who hate you”. (Luke 6) Loving everyojne in dire need with compassion may have the Golden Rule as its basis, but what is the basis for loving our enemies and persecutors ? Does the Golden Rule cover that ? Why must we love our enemies and show them compassion ?
In this light, the commandment to love our neighbor is seen in its full scope, and is obviously not easy to understand, let alone fulfill. So just what is the basis of Jesus’ teaching that we must not close the circle of our love and our compassion with the suffering, but must extend it to all, including those who hate us and persecute us, to our enemies?
There can be one truth capable of grounding this commandment of an all-inclusive love, and it is the truth about every man supplied by Divine Revelation, by God’s Word. It is the truth that Jesus taught, and that His Church will teach till the end of time: that every single human person is created by God and has a tremendous value in the eyes of God. Every person, then, without exception, is my neighbor, worthy of my love and compassion, for one basic reason: not because he is suffering, not because has somehow earned my love or respect by his actions, but simply because of what that person is due to his or her creation by God, what every person is in the eyes of his or her Creator.
Our faith teaches us unerringly and unhesitatingly that every human person is created in the very image and likeness of God, and is, for that reason alone, worthy of our love and compassion. Since every person is created in the likeness of God, every person bears by nature the image of the divine persons who created him. That fact alone establishes every person as our neighbor and makes every person an obligatory object of our love and compassion. We cannot love God if we do not love his living image in creation.
Even if a person is my enemy, someone who hates me and persecutes me, he does not cease to be a person who has been made, like myself, in the very image of God. To deny the value of that person’s humanity, is to deny my own value as a person. To deny that even my enemy is worthy of my compassion, is to deny that I am worthy of anyone else’s compassion, including God’s. Did not Jesus make God’s mercy toward us dependant on our having mercy toward others? Unless we forgive our trespassers, God will not forgive us, as we pray in the Our Father!
This great truth about human dignity and human worth was revealed to man by God from the very beginning, and this value was confirmed for Israel in the Book of Genesis, and then by Jesus in the most wonderful way of all, by God the Son freely choosing to become a man. His person was divine, but his humanity was also an image of that divinity. As a result, we cannot deny the value of the humanity of our neighbor without denying who Jesus is, without denying that He is our God, our Lord and our Redeemer.
In today’s second reading, God’s Spirit, speaking through St. Paul, teaches us that Jesus Christ is the perfect image of the invisible God, first and above all as a divine Person himself, but secondarily and truly in the image inscribed in his humanity. As God, He is the Eternal Word, the perfect image of the Father, through whom the whole universe was created. And as man, He is the perfect image of the Divine Image who is Son, and He is the one for whom everything was created. So, as the Eternal Son, He is the perfect uncreated image of the Father, and as man he is the perfect created image of God.
But the fact that as a man He is the perfect created image of God, the Father, has its very foundation in the truth of man’s creation, that humanity itself is made in the image of God. To deny that man as such is made in the image of God, would be to deny that Jesus, as man, could possibly be the image of God, let alone the perfect image. To deny that every man is my neighbor, then, is to deny that this person is also made in God’s image, and that is in fact ultimately to deny our faith in Jesus Christ.
But there is more. When Jesus became man, by this act he entered into a true universal solidarity with our humanity, with the humanity of every single person, made in the image of God. We believe that his passion and death was offered for the redemption all, of every human person without exception, for his purpose was to rescue and renew the image of God found in every human person, without exception. Jesus died for every man, even for my enemy, and thereby His redemptive activity teaches us to recognize the image of God even in my enemy, for whom he also died, and thus also to recognize Christ’s solidarity with that man. To hold that any man is not my neighbor is to deny Christ’s universal redemption, to deny that Christ died for that man, because Jesus recognized what I clearly do not, the image of His Father in that man’s personhood.
Thus the truths of creation and the redemption demands that the circle of my neighbors must not be closed, or I am closing myself to Christ, and to His offer of salvation. I must have compassion on all, as Christ died for all, or I am not worthy to be his disciple and do not belong to Him. I must have compassion above all on the weak and defenseless, or I have no hope of ever fulfilling His commandment of love in all its universality, and thereby meriting Heaven. But if I can begin to love all men, at least in their extreme need, like the wounded man in the parable, then maybe I can learn to love them period, in whatever circumstances. But, if I cannot find compassion in my heart for the suffering, the weak and defenseless neighbor, what hope have I got that one day I will love sufficiently to enter Christ’s company in heaven?
Today the suffering are everywhere around us, and the weak and defenseless, especially the unborn images of God, but also the abandoned person, the aged person, the sick person all cry out for our mercy. They are all our true neighbors, and if we would hope to be Jesus’ neighbor for all eternity, we must “go and do the same,” as He tells us. We must love all as we love ourselves.
But Jesus alone can give us the true capacity to love in this universal way, and He will do so if only we sincerely ask him. With the gift of His love, we can all fulfill that commandment to love all persons, as Jesus has loved them and us. He included us all in his circle of neighbors. We must do the same. Love must show compassion, must pray for every neighbor’s salvation, and must show respect always, even when we must defend our lives, our faith, our culture, our country, our family and friends.
Not all our neighbors fall within these immediate circles which demand our first duties to love. But no one must be hated, nor abandoned in need, nor treated with contempt, nor be excluded from our prayers. They are our distant neighbors perhaps, but as God’s image our neighbors nonetheless.