During this past year of covid-19, our concept of who our neighbor is has undergone some interesting challenges. For some, it may seem like they have no neighbors at all. For individuals and families who have needed to be strictly sheltering in place, they may not have seen their neighbors in ages. Whether living in a large urban apartment building, a private home, or a care facility, access to the person next door has been severely restricted.
At the same time, however, the concept of neighbor has expanded considerably, particularly for individuals who have access to a good internet connection. In so many ways, I have found that my world has opened up to new, virtual neighbors, some of whom live here in Boise and others who are scattered around the country. These are people I might not have met nor would they have become my virtual neighbors but for the pandemic.
As a part of my Lenten discipline, I read the daily Lenten Meditations written by the clergy of the Washington National Cathedral. Recently, The Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan contemplated her own “spiritual reboot” during this season and focused on St. Mark’s words to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Rev. Logan Duncan concludes her reflection by stating that “(i)t is important to remember that the purpose of our lives is loving God and loving others,” So, the question here is who are those others, those neighbors who we are to love?
In the Winter 2017 volume of “Word and World” published by Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, brothers Rolf and Karl Jacobson published an article entitled “The Old Testament and the Neighbor,” posing the question: “Who Is My Neighbor? Entertaining an Ancient Question”.
In all the times I have read the Ten Commandments, I must admit that I have not focused on how “other-directed” it is; I have focused on what I should not do. Yes, we are commanded initially to love God but most of the commandments are really about how to be a good neighbor. The Jacobson brothers joke that they should write a book on the Ten Commandments entitled: “Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now: 10 Commandments for Loving Your Neighbor Fully.” In a few short paragraphs, the Jacobson’s reframe the Ten Commandments to emphasize the focus on the neighbor.
They remind us not to even desire to do wrong to a neighbor, because “evil so often begins with the wrong desire.” Just as desires can lead to harmful actions against our neighbors, so can our words – “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbors” is described as follows:
This is not a general commandment against lying, against harming one’s own soul by means of deception. Rather this is a commandment against hurting the neighbor with our words. God could have said, “Don’t lie.” Instead, God said, “Don’t hurt your neighbor with your words.”
The actions prohibited in many other commandments, i.e., theft, adultery, and murder are deeds that harm the neighbor. The Jacobson’s expand the reach of the Fourth Commandment to not only honoring one’s parents, but also grandmothers and grandfathers, the disabled, and that elderly next-door neighbor who hasn’t set foot out of her house for months.
The Jacobson’s remind us that the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy extends to one’s entire sphere of influence – family members, animals, strangers and, in the words of the Commandments themselves, slaves. While that last word needs to be re-stated for our time, this commandment calls us to act justly with regard to those with whom we interact in the workplace and society.
As we explore who our neighbors are and how we should interact with them, one of the best sources of wisdom on this topic is Mr. Rogers, the constant and consistent neighbor to children and their caregivers for decades. Every day, Mr. Rogers would respectfully ask the children (and their caregivers): “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?” Even though Fred Rogers has been dead for nearly 20 years, we continue to turn to him for wisdom.
In 2017, Shea Tuttle wrote an article, published by UC-Berkeley, entitled “Seven Lessons from Mr. Rogers That Can Help Americans Be Neighbors Again”; she also wrote a book on the life and faith of Fred Rogers that was published in 2018. In her article, she describes how Mr. Rogers delved into the confusing, often scary, world of childhood and taught children that both self-expression and respect for others can co-exist. He acknowledged that our neighbors, while they may be different from us, are just as complex as we are, and we need to respect and honor them and those differences.
Mr. Rogers use of the word “neighbor” was deliberate. He never called the children or those living in his neighborhood his friends or boys and girls. By use of that word “neighbor”, he calls to mind a relationship that is grounded in the Ten Commandments. Mr. Rogers was calling us “out of . . . our silos of sameness, into lives of mercy and care for one another.” Perhaps we continue to call on Mr. Rogers because of who he was and who he believed we could be. According to Ms. Tuttle:
He (Fred Rogers) believed in – and worked every day to emulate – a Jesus who welcomes children, loves us just the way we are, and calls us to love self and neighbor.
As we consider what life may be like once we can interact with our neighbors, wherever and whomever they may be, it may be wise to recall the other-directed emphasis of the Ten Commandments and the words of Mr. Rogers to be a good neighbor to all.
Let us pray...
Dear God, we thank you for our neighbors, whether next door or continents away. Help us to focus our attention on the other and not ourselves. Help us to treat the stranger with dignity and respect. Help us to realize that in the stranger’s eyes, we see you. Amen.v