Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

By Nicholas Soellner

Connecting Faith and Life

For those who have had a profound spiritual experience, loving Jesus is the easy part of being a Christian. Jesus loves us with such radical, reckless and unwavering love. Contemplate Jesus with me for a moment. Our Lord is patient, kind and humble of heart. Jesus offers merciful correction for our mistakes and forgiveness for our sins. His face is that of love itself, and offers up his very life for our sakes so that we might have eternal life. To love him back should be so easy and natural when he gives us all that is good. Easy, that is, until we are confronted with the truth that it is to the degree that we love our neighbor that we love Jesus (cf. Matthew 25:40). That being said, when reading the gospels we often feel inspired, and rightfully so, to love our neighbor as Jesus did while on Earth. This is one reason why the early church fathers so urgently implored disciples to encounter the scriptures daily. Why, even the word “neighbor” doesn’t seem so heavy. Surely this should be manageable with consistent motivation. The trouble arises when we stop to look in the eyes of our imperfect neighbor.

In the fictional classic, “The Brothers Karamazov,” Fyodor Dostoevsky reveals a truth quite common to the human condition: “The more I love humanity, the less I love man in particular … I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In 24 hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose.” Unlike when we contemplate Jesus, we quickly realize our neighbors are, frankly, not Jesus. Perhaps they talk too much about themselves, or share little, seeming distant or arrogant. Our neighbor may not look, speak, or act like us at all. They could be in a socio-economic reality opposite of ours, seen both in appearance and spending behaviors. Our patience might be tested by his or her bad habits and less-than-graceful quirks. Their undying allegiance to a rival sports team or political party may be all too much to bear. Many homilies have already covered the discussion Jesus had with the Pharisees when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” to which we know the answer was “everyone we encounter.” This shift from a vague concept of “neighbor,” to people with faces and names is where things become difficult. Our struggle lies not in loving every single person on Earth, but only with the people in our lives, right here in the present.

The wisdom of St. Pope John Paul II is a remedy to the contempt we might have for those who are hard to love. In his writings of “The Theology of the Body,” John Paul II emphasizes that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:27), and therefore not only does God want them to be here, but our neighbor is a gift from God himself. C.S. Lewis puts this into a concrete perspective, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” This truth reveals how both love and sin appear through our attitudes and choices. In Genesis, God creates every animal, the sea, the earth itself, and all of the universe, and “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25). But when God creates humanity, he saw that it was very good (cf. Genesis 1:31). God created us as sacred. He desires us to see one another the way he sees us. By embracing the other as a gift, we recognize Christ in our neighbor and participate in the redemption of the world, healing the wounds left by sin and restoring communion with God and one another. Pray each day that we might share in a similar gift to the one God gave to those on the way to Emmaus, that our eyes might be opened (cf. Luke 24:31) to recognize the image of God in our neighbor. Loving Jesus is easy on paper. Let us begin the hard work today.

Nicholas Soellner is program manager for the Diocese of Evansville Office of Catechesis.