Who is my neighbor and what is Civil Courage?

Av Josh Armfield

A central focus of the Good Seed Project is to practice compassion for our neighbor. But the question then arises, “Who is my neighbor?”. It is the same question Jesus was asked 2000 years ago by a young teacher of the law wanting to know what he should do to gain eternal life. After Jesus´ reply “Love God and love your neighbor”, the young man, wanting to test Jesus, asked simply “Who is my neighbor?” Isn´t this a typical question? Like asking, “what is the least I must do, and still get what I want?” You could say easily that sacrificing one´s life, safety or comfort for another, let alone for a stranger, does not come to us naturally. But what is Jesus´ answer? Typical of Jesus, he doesn´t answer him directly, but tells a story instead. And the hero of the story is not what this young man would have expected. Jesus tells of a man that was beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho. Two devout Jewish priests, one by one, passed him by without offering even a word of kindness. But then Jesus tells of a Samaritan that saw the beaten man and felt deep pity. He stopped, bent down and bandaged the man´s wounds and then took him on his donkey the rest of the way to Jericho. He checked him in to a hostel and cared for him there. The next day he paid for his expenses, promising to come back to pay anything extra on his return through. At the end of the story Jesus posed the question back to the young man, “Who was the wounded man´s neighbor?” The man replied, “the one who showed mercy.” The Samaritan.

Now we must understand the context of this story. In Judea, Samaritans were not respected people. You could say that in Jesus´ day they were considered equal to ”dogs”. They were treated with much contempt. They were considered dirty, a mixed race, and not true Jews. A devout Jew would not see a Samaritan as a neighbor, let alone any sort of role-model. And yet this is who Jesus lifts as the hero of his story. It is the Samaritan that sacrifices his time, his resources and his own comfort to see that this beaten Jew receives the necessary care. Ironically if the roles had been switched and it was the Samaritan that was lying beaten on the side of the road, it is unlikely that the Jew would have stopped to show compassion or mercy.   

Jesus´ final words to the man are, “Go and do like the Samaritan!” This is the command that we each have been given. Go and do like the Samaritan! What does this mean for us today and why should we do the same? If we consider again the question “Who is my neighbor?” then we must conclude now that what Jesus meant was that we should do good, do compassion, and show mercy for each person that we come in contact with. By lifting the Samaritan as the hero of the story Jesus has shattered to pieces any qualifications based on race, economic status or religion that we might create to merit whether a person is “worthy” of our compassion. No, Jesus calls us to show compassion even for strangers and enemies. No person is outside of our responsibility. Mercy and love should always be our response.

Civil Courage is a term often used in the Peace movement. According to article 23 of the UN Declaration of human rights it is every person´s responsibility to see that all people´s human rights are respected. Civil Courage means to protect, defend, and/or stand up for someone that is outside of our own family or friends even when it might include risking our own safety. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to work toward the society which we want to see in the world. “Be the change you want to see in the world” as Ghandi put it. If we want to see a world without war and violence then we must practice living in that world here and now!

Besides the fact that acts of civil courage are seeds of peace, practicing compassion for our neighbor includes also a very deep spiritual dimension for those that wish to pursue it. Jesus said, “whatever you do for one of the least of these, who are my brothers and sisters, you do for me”. (Matthew 25) When we choose to show compassion to a stranger, we are literally showing compassion for Jesus. We are meeting Jesus´ face in the face of each person we encounter. What a profound opportunity! In this season of Advent, we can remember the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem and upon arriving finding themselves without shelter. If only the residents of Bethlehem had known that the Savior of the world would be born that evening in their little town! Dorothy Day reminds us that even today we have not missed the opportunity to welcome Jesus. Each homeless person we meet is Jesus, each refugee seeking safety is Jesus, each hungry traveller is Jesus. Can you imagine what the world might be if every person treated every person with the love we would show for Jesus?

This is what we are trying to do through the “Good Seed Project” and in the Mustard Seed Community. When we meet someone on the street we try to see Jesus there. It is another experiment of discipleship. When we welcome people each Tuesday and Thursday to share a simple dinner together in EFS church we are attempting to welcome Jesus. With the example of the Good Samaritan, we want to love our neighbor. We want to practice Civil Courage. We want to create the change we want to see in the world. Yes, we constantly fall short, but we believe that even our attempts are small steps toward peace. This is all we can do.