“But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor’?” — Luke 10:29
A certain college student was going down from Ohio to North Carolina to begin a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail with eight of her fellow classmates. It finally sunk in that she would be inescapably with this group of people for the next seven days. She would be walking with them, eating with them, sleeping in a tent with some of them, even going to the bathroom near them. She would be hundreds of miles from her dorm room and, soon, dozens of trail miles from any vehicle or civilization. What would happen?
On campus, life was structured and scheduled, food was prepared for you, and everything was clean. It was easy to stay in your own space. It was easy to avoid other people. You didn’t really need to love your neighbor.
The week on the trail was far from easy or comfortable. But as our group hiked together that week, we cheered and encouraged each other. We picked each other up when we fell. We warmed each other when we were cold. We cooked for each other and cleaned up after each other. We carried the load for each other when it was too much to carry — literally. We laughed together and cried together. We asked each other good questions. We really listened to each other. We were in each other’s space all the time. It was a great hike, and we did make it safely back to the van, back to civilization, and back to campus.
Who is my neighbor? That week, our neighbors were the people we saw every day, the people we lived life with, as closely and messily as life is when you’re backpacking together. In a new experience, far from the comforts and conveniences of home, we learned to love each other because we needed each other. We learned to love each other in ways we never had nor ever could within the confines of the college campus. We learned to love our neighbors as ourselves because we had to.
As an associate chaplain and the director of Wilderness Ministry at Ohio Wesleyan, I am frequently struck by how the lessons learned on outdoor trips with students translate to life back on campus and back in Delaware. The quote above from the gospel of Luke precedes the familiar Parable of the Good Samaritan. The expert in the law wanted to justify himself. He wanted help in feeling that he was loving his neighbor as he should. After Jesus’ parable, the reader is left to wonder whether he found his justification.
Are we also guilty of looking for this justification? We want to feel that we’re loving our neighbors well. But maybe our lives resemble the conveniences of college life more than we’d like to admit. Most of us have the things that we need and, for the most part, we have them in our own space. Do we really need to love our neighbors?
G.K. Chesterton said, “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. (The scriptures) spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. But we have to love our neighbor because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”
Our neighbors are the people we see every day. Or, they are the people we would see every day if we opened our eyes a bit more. This is the sample of humanity that is given us. God gave us our neighbors! And in our community, there are neighbors who need us to love them. Let us all find ways to love well — donate, serve, show up, start a conversation. Find ways to be helpful in other people’s space and invite others into your space. We may not be on a backpacking trip, but this is a serious operation. And it is one that Jesus calls all of us to.