The riddle of my neighbours and yours

Neighbours are an enigmatic reality of life, a sort of riddle to solve. Many people are of two minds when it comes to “neighbours” in the larger sense of the term found in the Gospels.

May 02, 2014

By David Gibson
Neighbours are an enigmatic reality of life, a sort of riddle to solve. Many people are of two minds when it comes to “neighbours” in the larger sense of the term found in the Gospels.

People the world over welcome Pope Francis’ call for a more loving world where neighbours are never left alone to suffer life’s wounds. Neighbours of all kinds deserve love, respect and care, the pope affirms. He repeatedly accents the dignity of the poor.

The positive reception accorded this message astonishes many commentators. For even though few people want a neighbour-free existence, many nowadays do not even know their next-door neighbours’ names and do not consider that an issue.

Pope Francis laments the fact that in today’s urban centres, “houses and neighbourhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate,” as he said in a major document titled The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium).

Some people shy away from neighbours out of fear of being imposed upon. Neighbours are human beings, after all, who might one day request something of us that we either do not want or do not feel able to provide, such as a listening ear, a chunk of our time, assistance during an emergency.

Some undoubtedly fear they are not competent to respond to others in the manner of a Pope Francis. Responding to others’ needs is best done by more experienced people, they decide.

People wonder, too, if following the Pope’s lead will collapse the walls protecting their personal time. Some think, “I cannot take on anything more at this point.”

Christians are called to stretch their imaginations when it comes to recognizing who holds a place among their neighbours. An additional challenge is to discern how best to respond to others in real-life situations.

In the Gospels these concerns are central. When Jesus is asked what commandment ranks highest, he replies: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39).

Whatever it means to love a neighbour as oneself, it has to mean loving them well. Christians are encouraged to bring the best of themselves to situations of all kinds involving neighbours, who may live next door or far away. The word “neighbours” in its larger sense can refer to people we know well or not at all.

It may sound odd to suggest that a husband and wife are neighbours, but they are. Certainly, spouses are not meant to take each other for granted.

Spouses are meant to respect each other, listen to each other, never overlook each other’s God-given dignity and serve as warm, welcoming presences in each other’s lives, all of which are qualities essential to the law of love for neighbours.

“We were created for love as a reflection of God and his love,” Pope Francis said in remarks on marriage in April.

An old friend debilitated by Alzheimer’s who no longer remembers my name is a neighbour. Perhaps he cannot feed himself, which helps clarify what it could mean for me to be his neighbour.

A neighbour could be someone who long ago created a real problem for us. Bringing the best of ourselves to an encounter with this person will require exercising our best possible judgment, something we have to do in all relationships.

It always is possible that in the attempt to be a neighbour to such a person, a simple smile will open a window to discovering that this person grew delightfully over the years by learning not only to take, but to give.

Some people feel ambivalent about the Church’s expansive use of the term “neighbour,” suspecting it could lead to acting naively toward strangers and even some friends. I doubt that suspending good judgment in human relationships is ever wise.

But isn’t it good judgment to conclude that people do indeed grow through human relationships and in community? People need each other. Figuring out what this means for oneself is a lifetime’s task.

What does loving others as we love ourselves imply? Most of us tend to look out for our best interests. Does this imply we should look out for our neighbours’ best interests? If I recognize my life’s value, must I recognize the value of my neighbours’ lives?

“To love God and neighbour is not something abstract but profoundly concrete,” Pope Francis said during a May 2013 visit to a church-run soup kitchen in Rome. “It means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely.”

 Viewing others through God’s eyes is of the essence for Christians. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis puts it this way:

“Clearly, whenever the New Testament authors want to present the heart of the Christian moral message, they present the essential requirement of love for one’s neighbour.”

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