The Shalom of God is dependent on our relationships with our neighbors

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2007

To be human is to be in relationship. The powerful sense of Shalom, that sense of peace and wholeness that we experience grows out of an appreciation of our connectedness and interconnectedness. We acknowledge this interconnectedness in four areas of relationship: with our Creator, with our family and neighbors; with our selves; and with the environment we live in. When Jesus was asked which of the commandments is the greatest. He said, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with your entire mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments" (Matt. 22:36-40). After we have worked at loving God with heart, mind, and soul - our whole being - we come to the question of our relationship with our neighbor

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I can see myself, being the smart-aleck lawyer in the Gospel of Luke asking Jesus, if it is true that the whole Jewish law can be summed up in loving God and neighbor, then who is my neighbor? Because I know that Jesus quoted from Leviticus 19:18 that explicitly points out that neighbor refers to "your kin," "your people." I am caught off guard by the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The parable of the Samaritan is often interpreted as a pleasant moral lesson about helping others in need of kindness. Yet looking a little closer it is a shocking story about prejudice and discrimination. For ethnic and religious reasons at the time of Jesus, the Samaritans and Jews were bitterly opposed to one another, even though they were distant relatives because Abraham was the father of faith for both groups.

Because of all the complicated purity laws involved in being a priest, helping the robber's victim is out of the question. Since the victim may be dead, or worse a non-Judean, the priest would be defiled if he rendered first aid, so he rides on down the road. The Levite, not wanting to get involved for many of the same reasons, also passes by. The Samaritan is the shocking third character in the story. Listeners would have expected "a Judean layperson" who would be more free to render aid to come next, yet it is this hated enemy who is the first to feel compassion-or "womb love" for the robber's victim. It is the Samaritan who offers first aid, who places the victim on his animal, and takes him to an inn. Then in contrast to the others who do not want to get involved, the Samaritan promises to return and pay any additional expenses. It is not the priest or Levite, leaders in the community, but the enemy who becomes the hero of the parable.

The thrust of the parable would have not been lost on the lawyer, who is now caught in the trap he had set for Jesus. Jesus now asks the lawyer a question: "Which of the three became a neighbor to the victim?" The lawyer's question was: "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus' question is: "To whom must you become a neighbor?" The lawyer realizes to be in right relationship with God, one must get involved and become neighbor to anyone and everyone in need. One must reach out with compassion to all people without discrimination or prejudice, even to one's enemies.

It is the radical call to love my enemies that I find to be one of the most difficult things about being a Christian. Jesus said earlier in the Sermon on the Plain: "But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, ... love your enemies and do good to them" (Luke 6:27-29, 35).

Admittedly, my first reaction when attacked is not to turn the other cheek, yet how else will the cycle of violence that the human family is caught in ever come to an end. By loving my neighbor, especially if that be an enemy, with the same heart, mind and soul that I love God, I break the habit of violence, discrimination and prejudice. By getting involved in helping my neighbor, the walls of indifference are broken down and I come to see the other as truly kin - my brother or sister in the human family.

The Shalom of God takes root and grows in one human heart at a time and yet is connected and dependent on those relationships with our neighbor. Shalom may seem peaceful, but it is anything but passive. We can actively seek it, grasp it, nurture it, value it and help it grow. Incredibly, because of our free will, the Shalom of God is in each of our hands to plant, to cultivate and to treasure.

As we remember the fourth anniversary of the March 19th 2003 invasion of Iraq, let us pray for our neighbors worldwide.


• Father Thomas Weise is the rector of the Cathedral of the Nativity.

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