There is a simple rule in the Bible. That is, the more important the command the more simply it is stated. The ten commandments are a prime example. In Hebrew it is possible to say them in ten words. By simple, I mean that the command is given without qualifiers or exceptions. As we move into the New Testament, we find the simplest of commandment and the most important:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I like to think of this in concentric circles. My closest neighbor is my wife. I love and take responsibility for those in my household (which includes a dog and two cats). Next, my mind goes out to my children, their significant others, my mother and brother and other close relatives. A cousin once removed, who is Buddhist and her family. Another cousin who is gay. The people living near me; the ones I swap favors with, share the excess zucchini with, and watch their children grow, pausing from time to time to remember in prayer. And then there are the neighbors of my community, the church fellowship I participate in, the civic leaders I support and the ones that I don’t. The circles go out to include my country, and then to also include the world.
I call this a simple command, love your neighbor.
It only becomes complex when you attempt to draw false borders. Do I exclude this family member because they offended me? Do I put an imaginary fence around that neighbor because their dog poops in my front yard? Do I put a line, about three miles off of our shores, and say, ‘I love my country, but not people from Norway, or Mexico, or Honduras?’
The rule, ‘love your neighbor,’ is simple because compassion is the one spiritual quality that makes us human. If we are not compassionate, then we are not Christian (Christ-like), spiritual, or human. To be compassionate is to feel what another person feels, to recognize that they, too, are human, and to act appropriately towards them. Without compassion we are sociopaths, Nazis, or savage beasts.
So, let’s say that I look out my window and see my neighbor’s house on fire. Compassion forces me to both dial 911 and rush to help. But what if the fire is three houses away? Or at the end of the block?
The ‘love as yourself’ part of the command says that compassion is about recognizing shared humanity. I love others by seeing them to be like myself and of similar value. In this world, I must make choices and prioritize based on the human limitations of my time and attention. I trust that the neighbors nearer to the house at the end of the street will care for the victims of a fire close to them. What I cannot do is cut any person off from my spiritual sense of connectedness. I am never free to draw a boundary on my love, for when I do, I cease to be human.
So, Jesus gets asked, “where do I draw the line?” The man before him knows the simple command, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, and says, “God forgot to tell me where the limit is to my compassion” (He may have been a lawyer looking for a loophole) (Luke 10:29).
Jesus responds by telling the simple story of the good Samaritan. You find yourself in need of a neighbor. First a clergy-person goes by but doesn’t stop because you aren’t a member of his or her church. Then you think you are going to die because you so desperately need a neighbor to have compassion on you. But a politician comes by. It’s too bad that you are of the wrong party or live outside of their district. You might die because you are on the wrong side of an artificial barrier. Well, politicians are like that – as long as they take care of their base, they are allowed to be inhumane. So, at last, you see someone you know. But they are someone you don’t consider to be your neighbor. They have experienced your harsh words, your prejudice, your unwillingness to love them as yourself.
If next week, a cure for cancer is found in the jungles of Honduras, will those people suddenly become our neighbors? If next week the neighbor whose dog poops on your lawn, looks out the window and sees your house on fire, will you regret not having compassion on them?
Some people state a very simple rule, “What goes around comes around.” Jesus shows us an even simpler rule. Love. In being compassionate we become human. We don’t know who our neighbors are until we choose to love them. In life, it is good not to have artificial borders, like racism, sexism, or even, nationalism. We shouldn’t say, “people who live here are my neighbors and people who live there, aren’t.” Good rules are simple rules.