So, a lawyer walks up to a rabbi and asks, ‘what’s the secret of eternal life?’ Sounds like the beginning of joke, doesn’t it? But it isn’t.
It’s a profoundly important question, not because of the question itself, but because of the conversation that follows, which, as it turns out, isn’t really about life in the hereafter, but life in the here and now.
The question introduces a story, and then a story within a story. It’s the story of a conversation between a clever lawyer and a clever rabbi. You can read it for yourself in the Biblical Gospel of Luke. But here’s a précis.
The lawyer apparently wants to test the rabbi so he asks the eternal life question. The rabbi apparently wants to test the lawyer, so he responds: ‘you’re a clever lawyer; you know the law. What does it say?’
And the lawyer answers this way: ‘love God and love your neighbour as yourself.’
‘Go, do that,’ says the rabbi. ‘And you will live.’
But, then, the lawyer has another question: ‘who is my neighbour?’
In the story, the conversation continues into a significant teaching moment for the rabbi as he helps the lawyer understand the definition of neighbour and provides the rest of us with the phrase ‘Good Samaritan’, which you’ve probably heard of and even understand, regardless of ever having read the original exchange.
I like the story, and I’ve often pondered it along its obvious lines. Can I live as if everyone in the world is my neighbour? It’s a difficult command. There are a lot of people in the world I’d rather not even get to know, let alone love.
But that is part of the command: love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Lately I’ve not been asking the question, who is my neighbour? Rather, I’ve been asking the question: how do I love my neighbour?
I live in a high-rise condominium packed with several hundred people. No one calls buildings like these neighbourhoods, but that’s exactly what they are: imposing, impersonal, impenetrable neighbourhoods.
The thought of which leads me to the question I’d have asked the rabbi had I been standing in for the lawyer. How do I love my neighbour? I suspect the clever rabbi would have turned the question back toward me: ‘how do you love yourself?’
I think I might have responded, ‘how can I possibly love people I don’t even know?’ And, then, I suspect, the clever rabbi would have said, ‘figure it out.’
There are 12 condo units on my floor, most of them occupied by people I’ve never even seen. This reality amazes me. I have lived here for 16 months. I walk down the hallway at least twice a day, often more. I hear keys turn in locks, but I rarely see people.
I am fortunate to have a good friend who moved in down the hall from me. We figured that knowing each other might be a good foundation for getting to know our neighbours and so we decided to throw a party for the people who live on our floor.
I went door by door, slipping invitations up against the locks, hoping I’d made them friendly enough, normal enough that people would be enticed rather than scared off by our imposition.
It seems there are unwritten rules of etiquette in condo neighbourhoods. You say a polite hello to people in the elevator, maybe even ‘have a good day’. And then you continue staring at the floor, or the elevator buttons. It gets rather boring after a while.
It helps if you own a dog. It’s appropriate to talk to the dog before you can talk to its owner, but eventually that conversation could lead up the leash and a friendship might even ensue. I’ve seen lots of dog owners congregating in the park next to my building. I think they must love each other as they love their dogs.
But I don’t have a dog, so I threw a party instead. It occurred to me that loving my neighbour as I love myself might just mean sharing the things I love with them.
I invited them into my living room, a space I quite enjoy. I made food and set out drinks, lit candles, turned on music, again all things I love.
And something amazing happened. The people who live on my floor came. They brought food and drinks. They shared their stories. They said things that were hilariously funny and we all laughed. They ate, and drank, and stayed late into the evening.
And when they stood up to leave, they all said thank you. One after another, they said, ‘I wanted to know my neighbours.’
We’ve already set a date for the next party.
‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself. Do this and you will live,’ said the clever rabbi.
He was right. I feel like a new kind of life has been born in my condo building. And I love that.