The Hardest Commandment to Keep
February 12, 2017
In 2000, a journalist named Wendy Zoba spent a day with Fred Rogers, the iconic figure of children’s television who gave the world Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. For her, it was a walk down memory lane in which the devout, ordained Presbyterian shared how the show came to be, told stories about the inspiration behind some of the program’s most beloved characters and helped her to understand how the show became for him his way of teaching children and being a minister through the medium of television.
At the end of the day, as Zoba prepared to leave, she asked Mr. Rogers a simple question. She asked if she could take a picture of him. His response and what happened next really summed up the day and made a lasting impression on her. Rather than consenting to her taking a picture of him, Roger’s insisted that he be allowed to take a picture of her. He had her sit on his couch, with many images from the show in the background, and he took her picture. In his mind, the day had not been only about her ability to get to know him, it had been every bit as much about his opportunity and the great gift of getting to know her. (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Christianity Today, March 6, 2000, Wendy Zoba.)
Think about that for a moment. How many celebrities, who have been on television for 20 plus years, can you name who would want a picture of the person interviewing them? I suspect that few, if any of us, could name a single celebrity who would have that desire. After all, the point of such an occasion for the celebrity would be in order to be better known and to increase ones own image or exposure not to know someone else better.
In our text from Matthew, a religious leader asked Jesus about the greatest commandment and the Lord’s response was that we are to do two things – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Yet, most of our relationships are self focused. We want to know what is in it for me? What do I gain from this? How does this help me? Yet, the problem of the concept of loving our neighbor is that loving our neighbor is about knowing our neighbor. It is about what we know about them, not what they know about us. It is about taking their picture, not about them taking ours to borrow the image from Wendy Zoba’s day with Mr. Rogers.
This idea gets pushed even further in Luke’s gospel. In Luke, when these same dual commands to love God fully and to love our neighbor as ourself are taught by Jesus, his words are met with a second question. There the second question is “so, just who is my neighbor?” In Luke, Jesus answers the question with a story, and as many of you know, it becomes one of the most famous stories that Jesus ever told – the story of the good Samaritan.
Without a doubt, the story of the Good Samaritan teaches all kinds of lessons – the danger of avoiding those in need, the need to care for those who are different from us and the willingness to help others even in light of the dangers that exist around us – just to name a few of the basic lessons that we often attach to this famous parable of our Lord. At an even simpler lever, the story of the Good Samaritan is also about the basic reminder that being a neighbor begins with getting to know our neighbor. After all, the Samaritan stopped, or as the Bible says it, the Samaritan “came near him” which is a way of saying that he obviously took the time to come close in order to talk to the man and try to understand who he was, what had happened and how he could help. The help and hope that he offered were the result of an unwillingness to pass him by without ever even stopping to learn his name.
Being a good neighbor begins with this simple act. It begins, again to use the Bible term, with a willingness “to come near”. In the story, Jesus expands our definition of neighbor. Through the Good Samaritan, our neighbor becomes not only the person who physically lives next door to us, but, our neighbor is the person with whom we come in contact.
For the sake of our reflection today, let me offer this idea of a neighbor as those who are a regular part of our lives be they the people that we live beside, the people we work closely with at our place of employment or the people that we coach little league alongside or who sit by us at each committee meeting or civic group that we are a part of on a regular, ongoing basis.
If these are our neighbors – are we “coming near to them”. To what degree have we risked getting to know them?
Forbes Magazine published some research in an article back in 2013 about Americans and their neighbors. What Forbes discovered is that whether we live in big cities or small towns, in New England or in South Mississippi, only about 50% of us know the names of our neighbors. In the Southern US, the number was 51% to be exact. Now, I can see the wheels in your mind spinning right now. If you do indeed have neighbors, I can see you mentally going door to door to test out Forbes findings. But, let me offer it this way. When it comes to a broader idea of neighbor such as the one I gave of the people who are a part of our daily lives which I think is in keeping with Jesus story of the good Samaritan, how do you do with names in that regard? And, if you know names, what do you know about them beyond their names?