Who Is My Neighbor?

Who Is My Neighbor?

This reflection was first shared with the staff of the Silliman University Medical Center on August 26, 2016.

One semester, a seminary professor set up his preaching class in an unusual way. He scheduled his students to preach on the Parable of the Good Samaritan and on the day of the class, he arranged his students’ schedules so that each student would go, one at a time, from one classroom to another to preach a sermon. The professor gave some students ten minutes to go from one room to the other; to others he allowed less time, forcing them to rush in order to meet the schedule. Each student, one at a time, had to walk down a certain corridor and pass by a blind, crippled beggar, who was deliberately placed there, but obviously in need of assistance.

The results were surprising, and offered a powerful lesson to them. The percentage of those good men and women who stopped to help was extremely low, especially for those who were under the pressure of a shorter time period. The tighter the schedule, the fewer were those who stopped to help the indigent man. When the professor revealed his experiment, you can imagine the impact on that class of future spiritual leaders. Rushing to preach a sermon on the Good Samaritan they had walked past the beggar at the heart of the parable. We must have eyes to see as well as hands to help, or we may never help at all. I think this well-known poem expresses it powerfully:

I was hungry and you formed a humanities club to discuss my hunger. Thank you. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel to pray for my release. Nice. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. What good did that do? I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. But I needed you. I was homeless and you preached to me of the shelter of the love of God. I wish you’d taken me home. I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me. Why didn’t you stay? You seem so holy, so close to God; but I’m still very hungry, lonely, cold, and still in pain. Does it matter?

The fact is that it is humanly impossible to put the parable of the Good Samaritan into practice. Simply knowing in our minds what the right thing to do is does not mean we can do it. If we are going to be Good Samaritans, then this will mean more than a change of mind. It will take a change of heart. And that’s what this parable is about: a change of heart.

Robert Wuthnow, a professor at Princeton University, once conducted some research about why some people are generous and compassionate, while others are not. He found out that for many compassionate people something had happened to them. Someone had acted with compassion toward them, and this experience had transformed their lives.

When he was granted an Honoris Causa by Silliman University on August 15, 2016, Dr. Rolando del Carmen said that as a working student at Silliman University, working his way through school, he was a recipient of the kindness and compassion of certain individuals in the University as well as of the University itself. He said that he has never forgotten what he considers a debt of gratitude.

The same can be said of many other bighearted Sillimanians, such as the late Reverend Dr. Edmundo A. Pantejo and his wife, Ophelia Recla Pantejo, whose love story was created by circumstances brought about by Silliman University, and who generously gave SUMC this beautiful Pantejo Garden Chapel.

Now many years later, Dr. del Carmen and Ma’am Ophe have consistently helped the University and SUMC in many of their needs, and have never failed to touch the lives of so many individuals who need their assistance.

Something had happened to Dr. del Carmen, Dr. Pantejo, and Ma’am Ophe that made them into Good Samaritans. Has anything like that ever happened to anyone else? Yes it has. That is the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. What the lawyer discovered — and what we ought to discover too — is that we cannot stand on the sidelines, constantly debating within ourselves the meaning of neighbor. For all of our religious virtues and attitudes, we are truly helpless to be Good Samaritans on our own strength. In other words, we are the person in the ditch, the one who lies helpless and wounded beside the road, the one who needs to be rescued. And along comes the Good Samaritan, named Jesus who comes to save us, speaks tenderly to us, lifts us into his arms, and takes us to the place of healing.

I pray that Silliman University or the Silliman University Medical Center, which evolved from the Silliman Mission Hospital, continue their olden values and traditions of the Good Samaritan. I pray that these beloved institutions continue to be places of transformation. I pray that our more recent graduates and alumni follow the ways of those before them, and I pray that they, themselves, will leave footprints of faithfulness for those who come behind us.  

So, the question is not the lawyer’s, “What is the definition of neighbor’?” The question is who has been neighbor to you. Jesus Christ has been neighbor to you and me. Have you felt his mercy make your own heart merciful? Then in your heart you will know what this means — Go and do likewise.