One day, a young man came up to Jesus and struck up a conversation about what it is that God wants from us. They agreed that it can be summarized as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk 10.27). But the young man wasn’t really satisfied with this, and went deeper: “But who is my neighbour?”
This is probably one of the most insightful questions in the New Testament. So much depends on how we answer it.
Developmental psychologists suggest that this question, far from just a religious or philosophical matter, is a basic question of human growth. We start off as infants unable to see anything but ourselves and our immediate needs. Our development into maturity is a potentially ever-growing ability to accept, appreciate, and empathize with more and more people. If we continue to grow through adulthood, the circle of people who matter to us, whom we see as being like us and worthy of our concern continues to expand, from self to family to tribe, to nation, to humanity, to planet, and to cosmos. One of the reasons I find Integral thought to be so compelling is that it brings this process of expansion of awareness and empathy into our attention and intention, and makes it the beating heart of what it means to grow, and to be whole and well.
Jesus’ answer to the young man’s question suggests this approach is — at least from a Christian perspective — on the right track. He answers by telling the story of the Good Samaritan: A man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. A series of important and devout men walks by, but each decides he has more important things to do than tend to the man. Finally, a Samaritan — someone from a cultural group despised by Jews of Jesus’ day as being heretics and half-breeds — comes along and has mercy on the man and sees to his care. The lesson is that our neighbour is the person we least want or expect them to be. Our neighbour is our enemy, or perhaps even more challenging, the person we have been trained not to see at all.
And so Jesus pushes out the boundaries of that circle of empathy, insisting that it isn’t just about people who look and sound like me, but, even those with whom I may not feel I have common cause. (As an aside, I find it interesting in our context of “Black Lives Matter” that Jesus here doesn’t answer with the generalization, “everyone is your neighbour” but with the more challenging specific of the very person his hearer would be most likely to despise.)
Of course it’s easy to say that the person I see as being the least like me is “my neighbour.” It’s a lot harder to know how to live that truth. And that’s why this most basic of Sunday School messages continues to be such a challenge two thousand years later. It confronts something deep in us. Often that’s something to do with our shadow: To say that someone is like me implies that I am also like them. And, whether it’s harder for you to see a Black Lives Matter protester as “like you” or a racist, MAGA-hat-wearing relative as “like you,” the challenge remains.
And so, the question remains for each of us: Who is my neighbour?