Who is my neighbor?
There have been so many terrorist attacks in the world in the last few years. I recall the truck that was driven indiscriminately into a large group of people who were celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, on July 14, 2016. More than eighty people were killed. There are so many attacks I could recall.
People are divided. People are afraid. People are becoming more and more defensive. Racism has risen dramatically. There is an us and a them—the native and the foreigner. Keep the foreigners out, send them home, are growing attitudes in many places today. Build walls. Erect barricades. Protect ourselves.
In the referendum in the United Kingdom about leaving the European Union, many people who voted in favor of leaving did so in the belief that, by leaving, the foreigners would be sent home. They would get their country back for themselves. They look forward to mass deportations.
A couple of weeks after the referendum, the Gospel for the Sunday was the story of the good Samaritan. Who is my neighbor? That Sunday I preached about racism and our attitude to those we call foreigners. I said that we tend to think and act in such a way that neighbors are fine—when they stay at home. It is when neighbors start coming into our houses that the problems can begin! We know the phrase “good fences make good neighbors.” So the implication is that bad fences make bad neighbors. Maybe that is the problem in the world today. There are bad fences. If everybody stayed at home, things would be much, much better. If everybody stayed in their own country, there would be less trouble.
I was preaching in Derry, Northern Ireland—a place, as you may know, that has seen its share of troubles.
“Send the foreigners home,” so many people seem to be saying just now. As I reminded my congregation, this is certainly no attitude for the Irish, because so many of us have been strangers in a foreign land. It was money made by Irish immigrants that enabled many Irish people to survive in their native land.
It can feel easy to love your neighbor—if they stay away from you. It can even be easy to give money to your neighbor—if you don’t have to meet them or form a relationship with them. Send the money to Africa, but keep the Africans over there where they most belong. What happens when they come here? What happens when people from Eastern Europe come here? People become upset.
Sometimes we have the attitude that they are coming into our country as if we own this place where we are, and as if we have a divine right to whatever we want from it. Everything here is ours and we will only give a bit away if we have more than we want.
In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke (see Lk. 10:25–37), we have a fascinating scenario. A man has been attacked. He has been left for dead. The leaders of society walk past him. They don’t get involved. It is messy to get involved. Then the outcast comes—the foreigner. He suddenly and inexplicably gets involved. He uses his own resources to care for him. Why would he do this?
The foreigner and stranger places the man who was left for dead onto his own mount and brings him to an inn. He pays the innkeeper to care for him, and he commits to come back to see how he is doing, and to cover any expenses.
Who is my neighbor? Jesus tells us very directly and without any ambiguity who our neighbor is. Our neighbor is anybody and everybody in need. This is radical and not a pleasant Gospel in the climate that we are living in today. Jesus doesn’t agree with good fences making good neighbors.
Good neighbors are people who will care for others at significant cost and upset to themselves. Good neighbors don’t mark out their territory and claim rights to the detriment of others. Good neighbors are people who engage with others—who help others—who care for others. Good neighbors are people who take down fences and walls and barricades and welcome others and share with them.
If we are Christians and take the Gospel of Jesus seriously, we must admit that we have no right to tell anybody to go home. We don’t own this land or its resources. We don’t have any exclusive rights to anything. We are here by an accident of birth, and everybody and anybody who comes here for whatever reason is our sister or our brother. We are called to care for them and love them and be grateful to God for them. If truth be told, we are all foreigners in this world because our true home is in heaven.
In the Gospel story from Luke, the lawyer asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. The answer he is given is very simple: love. The evidence that we want to go to heaven will be found in how much we actively and truly love here on earth.