Most Catholics, most Christians in fact, even people who are only passingly familiar with the Bible, know the story of the Good Samaritan. Found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:29-37), this parable is Jesus’ way of teaching us that our neighbor is anyone, anywhere who is in need of help.
Who is My Neighbor?
The Good Samaritan story actually begins with Jesus’ teaching about the Greatest Commandment (Luke 10:25-28). The passage in Luke’s Gospel about the Greatest Commandment and the Good Samaritan begins with a scholar of the law asking Jesus what he must do to attain eternal life. Knowing that the man understands scripture, Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question but asks the man what the Law of Moses has to say about the matter.
The scholar replies that, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus commends the man for answering accurately and tells him that if he does these things he will have eternal life. This seems to settle the matter.
For some reason, however, the scholar takes the episode one step further by asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Scripture tells us that he asks this question in order to justify himself. I have always felt that the scholar asks the question to put Jesus on the spot. But whatever the reason, Jesus responds by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As the parable unfolds, it is clear that by “neighbor” Jesus doesn’t just mean the people next door or even the people who live in one’s own town. Neighbor, the parable informs us, is anyone who needs help.
Sometimes I think that the scholar in the passage asked Jesus the wrong question. As important as knowing who our neighbor is, perhaps the more important question would be, “What is love?” or maybe “How do we demonstrate our love?” because only by understanding love and how to demonstrate it can we really understand what it means to love our neighbor.
The first problem we encounter in trying to define love is the fact that the word is used to identify a wide variety of feelings we have for the people and things in our life. Unlike a number of non-English languages that have different words for different types of love, in English we just have the word “love” to describe many things. As a result we say, “I love hot buttered popcorn,” “I love my sister,” “I love crisp cool autumn days,” and “I love my wife.”
Despite the use of the same word “love”, none of these statements describes exactly the same emotion. Whatever my affinity for popcorn is, no matter how good a particular bowl of buttered popcorn might taste, it will never rise to the level of feelings and emotions I have for the person I’ve been married to for forty-six years. However, even if we ignore all the mundane uses of “love” and focus only on the use of the word in Scripture and our Catholic faith, it is still a word that is not easy to define.
For example, in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the entry on charity is defined as “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC, 1822). So the Catechism, without saying it directly, tells us that if love and charity are not exactly the same thing, they are nonetheless so intimately intertwined that they mean essentially the same thing.
Then, look at the word “love” in the index of the Catechism, and you will see that it tells you also to see “Charity”. Charity requires us to love God because He is God and requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves because that is what God desires of us. “Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God” (CCC,1878). Charity requires us to love, and love requires us to act with charity.
Loving God and Neighbor
Matthew’s Gospel, like Luke’s, also tells us that we must love God with everything we have, with heart, soul, and mind, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:37-39) But just knowing that we must love God and love neighbor is, I’m afraid, not very helpful. We love God because God first loved us. We read in John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so
that everyone who believes in Him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
The Catechism tells us that we love God for His sake, but John’s Gospel gives us a more practical reason for loving God. We love God because He loves us – loves us so much that He sent His Son to redeem us from sin.
To show our love for God, we give Him praise and thanks for all He has given us, and we do in this life what He desires us to do, which is to love our neighbor. But what exactly must we do in order to love our neighbor?
Characteristics of Love
The answer to this question requires that we know something about the nature of love. St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), outlines certain qualities that define love:
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not
pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek
its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not
brood over injury.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians identifies the various qualities of love, i.e. it is kind, it is not jealous, it is not rude, etc. But knowing the qualities of love is not very helpful from a practical point of view, although this is not really a problem. The Gospels contain many examples of what we must do in order to show love for our neighbor. It would be difficult to list in order of importance the many parables and teachings of Jesus that tell us how we are act toward others, but Matthew 25:31-46 may well be the “gold standard” in this regard.
This parable tells us that at the time of final judgement (the “Judgement of the Nations”) the King (Jesus) will separate all people into two groups – sheep and goats – and the sheep will be welcomed into heaven because, as the King tells them:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirst and
gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and
you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you
And when those assembled ask when they did all these things for Him, Jesus tells them that when they did it for their least brethren in the world, they did it for Him. Matthew’s Gospel makes it pretty clear that loving our neighbor requires coming to the aid all people, particularly those who are the least in the world. Loving God requires action on our part – we must pray, worship and we must follow His commands. And similarly, loving our neighbor requires action – we must provide for the physical and spiritual needs of others. We show our love for God by caring for all that He created, particularly, our neighbor.
The Good Samaritan
While the story isn’t specific on what each of must do to show our love, it is certain that loving one’s neighbor cannot possibly be restricted to helping someone waylaid by robbers on his way to Jericho. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear that the neighbor we are called to love is anyone in the world who is in need of help. The farmer in the Sudan whose crops have failed because of drought – he is our neighbor. The woman in Bangladesh whose home and all her family’s belongings are destroyed by floods – she is our neighbor. The family that treks 1000 miles hoping to escape political oppression and find a better home in the United States – they are our neighbors.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John teach us that love is giving without expecting repayment, helping without expecting anything in return – love requires us to “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Loving our neighbor can be defined as helping in any way anyone who needs help. We may not find love expressed quite this way anywhere in Scripture, but I don’t think this definition of loving neighbor contradicts anything Jesus taught.
In sum, we demonstrate our love for God by following His commands, and we show love of self by taking care of our personal physical, spiritual and emotional needs. But demonstrating love of neighbor seems like a very daunting task. Yet, loving our neighbor is the same as loving ourselves. Jesus tells us that there are two great commandments. The first is that we must love God and the second is that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. We can’t help everyone in the world who is in need of help but we can treat all those we encounter in life just as we treat those close to us, just as we treat ourselves, just as we would want to be treated if we were in need of help. Anything less than this, we come up short in the eyes of God.