WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2024
PRAYER / WORSHIP: Commentary on the Scriptural Text
Who is Neighbor? What is Neighbor? Must I Neighbor?
By Dawn M. Nothwehr, OSF
Dr. Dawn M. Nothwehr, OSF, is the Erica and Harry John Family Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics at Catholic Theological Union, in Chicago, IL. A leading Catholic environmental ethicist, she is a consultant for the Laudato Si’ Encyclical Working Group of the Office of Human Dignity of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Her research and teaching address a variety of issues in environmental ethics, ethics of power and racial justice, and fundamental moral theology, through the lens of Franciscan theology. Of equal concern is the religion/science dialogue. She was a Project Leader for AAAS-DoSER Grant that enabled the CTU Faculty to integrate the science/religion dialogue in theology and ethics courses. She currently serves as grant proposal evaluator with AAAS-DoSER, a program that offers support for theology schools, enabling them to include the science/ religion dialogue in their curriculum. Her most recent book is Franciscan Writings: Hope amid Ecological Sin and Climate Emergency (London: Bloomsbury, 2023).
I grew up in Windom, Minnesota – a small town of about 2,000 – in the Midwestern heartland of the United States. That small town always had fresh “well water” to drink. The West Fork of the Des Moines River wound through town, offering a great site for fishing. Nearby, Cottonwood Lake hosted boating and swimming. The rich loam soil of the region supported growing corn, flax, and alfalfa, while farmers raised plenty of chickens, sheep, cattle, milk cows, and hogs.
But times have changed!1 Small family farms were replaced by huge corporate monocrop operations. While much of the world starved, corn was turned into ethanol and potatoes were cultivated for perfectly straight cut French fries (it takes more water to retain the proper potato shape for straight cut fries). Additional water-intensive crops included sugar beets and soybeans. In drought conditions of 2021 growing such items quickly blew through the designated limits set for water use – especially from the state’s (little understood) aquifers – ultimately threatening not only immediate supplies of drinking water for millions, but likely threating future aquifer replenishment. Water security became life-threatening in the drought of 2021 (and continued to be so in 2023’s record-breaking summer heat). All of this occurred in a state that boasts being the “Land of 10,000 Lakes!”
Climate change caused lower winter snow levels, less rain, and hotter summers. All this threatened access to water – and ultimately – food! Between 1988-2021, intensive monocropping spiked the use of ground water. In 2021, more than a billion gallons of water over safe limits were drawn from aquifers, and water wars loomed. As farmers resorted to irrigation, water levels plummeted, drying up the wells of small towns and family farms. Serious legal issues quickly surfaced, and complaints to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), charged with water policy enforcement, soared far beyond its enforcement staff’s capacity to keep up. The most frequently offended were older people with limited incomes, who were left without access to water – and for many – the loss was permanent. For example: one corporate farmer’s use of irrigation drew from the water table and dried up a nearby family’s well. In one major lawsuit, an older couple whose well had been depleted settled for $10,000. Yet, the offending corporation argued that being forced to pay to replace an old well far exceeded the old well’s quality and capacity. All of this (above) took place while corporate farmers pumped some 500 gallons a minute from aquifers and other sources.
When water is made inaccessible through over-exploitation, or when its diminishment forces us into competition – what then does it mean to be a “neighbor”? And what might we learn from the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37)? How does this parable of Jesus inform our situation amid our global “climate emergency”? Parables as a literary genre invite us to draw renewed meaning from them at every age. Thus, this reflection on the 2024 theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity serves to ask: How does the Parable of the Good Samaritan assist Christians in understanding and addressing our present climate emergency?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), Revisited – What Did Jesus Ask?
Notably, in Jesus’ telling, the Samaritan does not speak, though he does act. Jesus exercises excellent pedagogical technique by challenging the Lawyer’s question with another question. But note the form of Jesus’ inquiry: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor [plēsion… gegonenai] to the robbers’ victim?” (10:36, NABRE). Jesus does not ask which of the three characters was “a neighbor” or “the neighbor” to the victim. Grammatically, in the original text as in this translation, there is no article before the noun, “neighbor.” This indicates that Jesus is focusing on a relationship and the quality of relatedness. What does it mean “to neighbor” someone or something?
The Lawyer’s initial question asks about how he can gain eternal life, and Jesus accepts his summative recitation of the Shema – the Jewish profession of faith (Luke 10:27; see also Leviticus 19:8; Deuteronomy 6:5; and Deuteronomy 10:12). The Hebrew word Shema indicates the sacred duty to listen and obey God’s Commandments and keep God’s Covenants. But that compliance is not to be mere stiff, rigid enactment of duty, but rather heartfelt, gracious self-offering. Presumed in this obligation is the whole of Jewish Law and faith experience of the People of Israel. Undergirding all Law and tenets of faith is the belief that God alone created the world. Creation is God’s first act of mercy, insofar as that act reveals the magnanimous the nature of God.
But the concluding exchange in the encounter between Jesus and the Lawyer focuses on the need to “show mercy” as the ultimate qualification for neighborly treatment of a subject. Only if we take the exchange between Jesus and the Lawyer literally can we easily come away with an exclusively anthropocentric notion concerning the action necessary for salvation. But such a literal reading is far too narrow, first because we are dealing with a parable, and second because all human activity is ultimately interdependent on God’s entire Creation. The whole of God’s commands necessarily includes Creation itself. Thus, we need to look further to unpack the deeper understanding of “mercy” in relation to “neighbor” for us today.
Luke’s audience would have identified with the person in the ditch as being one of Jewish heritage. Jesus indicates that the Priest noticed the person in the ditch but passed by at some distance. We are left to wonder why he did not render aide. Was it to retain his ritual purity (Leviticus 21:1-3; Numbers 19:2-13; Ezekiel 44:24-27)? It seems he could have made an exception2. Or, was he simply fearful of entrapment by robbers? And, what about the Levi who is not identified as a Priest? He, though likely less legally obligated, noticed the person but didn’t help, either. But why?
Jesus characterized the action of the Samaritan as merciful and magnanimous. The Samaritan’s actions toward the Jewish person in the ditch, signals a capacity for compassion, a “feeling with” another as having full value and worth through a common origan in God’s generous Creation. Not only did the Samaritan give immediate care for the injured person but he spent several days’ wages to continue the victim’s care at an inn, promising to pay all costs for his care. It is difficult to imagine any heart so hardened as to not be mutually changed by such an experience of receiving and giving care. A change of human experience likely elicited from the Jewish victim a change of reception of Samaritans as fellow humans.
The Lawyer’s second question is a deeper one. It asks, not whether there was a legal and moral obligation to “neighbor,” but rather who must he “neighbor.” As stipulated in Deuteronomy 10:12, for a Jew to comply with the Law, any interaction must take place with a “sincere heart.” Likely unwittingly, the Lawyer’s second question indicates a movement from the head to the heart. He doesn’t have a set formula for his self-justification. So, he asks, “wanting to justify himself… and who is my neighbor?” (10:29). He seems to be moving away from his prior sterile legalistic first use of ‘neighbor” in his partial recitation of the Shema. His real question now probes for a definition of the limits of love. By affirming the Lawyer’s response – “the one who showed mercy,” as a positive and defining action, Jesus points to the standard of the overwhelming and all-encompassing generosity and magnanimity of the God of All Creation.
Expansive Ethics: Who is my Neighbor amid a Climate Emergency?
At the end of his conversation – Jesus effectively tells us that neighbor does not have to do with only physical proximity, similarity, or sameness. The Lawyer ultimately expands his moral imagination to universal proportions, moving beyond social or religious rigidity, and realizing that the capacious “mercy” of God is the prior, characteristic relationship that determines neighborliness, rather than any incidental activity of our own to establish “neighborly” respect or connectedness.
Today we continue with many challenges of inequalities like those that existed in Jesus’ day, though the size and scale is often vastly different. Racism, xenophobia, poverty, illnesses, wars, and more still separate and devastate neighbors. We need to expand our moral vision and sense of neighbor love to a global and international scale on our interconnected planet. A quick overview of the world’s lack of progress on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals serves as glaring indicator of our lack of being neighbor to one another. However, all these disparities are exacerbated by climate change and global warming3. If God-like relationships are at the heart of the matter, we cannot limit our vision to only interhuman affairs. Indeed, the allegorical nature of Luke’s Gospel summons wider considerations. Certainly, overwhelming evidence shows that inequalities among humans and destruction of the created world is mutually devastating to all neighbors, humans, and other kinds.
Today, scientific and experiential evidence overwhelmingly compels us to attend to our relationships beyond our personal inner circle of friends and family – to think ecologically and globally. Past neglectful disregard of the unity of the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Redemption permitted generations of preachers to – nearly exclusively – focus on the human enmity and prejudice between Jews and Samaritans. Certainly, racist and religious biases are deadly, and they engage more than personal sin and finitude. However, while the sins of racism and religious bias signal egregious human failure, the effects of any sin also constitute a violation against the wider order of creation (cf. Genesis 1:28; Genesis 2:15; Genesis 3:17-19; Genesis 4:9-11). That moral tenet notwithstanding, in the telling of the Good Samaritan story, rich holistic Jewish roots of the doctrine of Creation have all-too-regularly remained untouched, to the detriment of our interpretation. Today we must consider not only “who” is my neighbor, but also “what” is my neighbor, in order to be able to adequately (act as) neighbor!
Globally, the formerly-more-subtle cries of the Earth have amplified to record-breaking levels, as heat waves, the depletion of aquifers, countless wildfires, warming and rising oceans, and “climate refugees” outnumbering those who flee wars make us viscerally aware of the relatedness of all earthly elements and creatures to us humans and our well-being. Humans have not reliably been neighbors either to one another or to their fellow earth creatures. We have all but forsaken our neighborly calling.
For Christians the waters of Baptism stand in defiance of such a paucity of mercy. The renewal of humanity and the transformation of the whole creation of the world toward which Christ’s death and resurrection points, is enacted and symbolized in Baptism. The lack of neighborliness in the material world with its symbols of death and destructiveness stand in stark contrast to Christian belief that water (and all Creation) is a gift of God that satisfies a thirsty humanity and brings fruitfulness to Creation. When people experience human-caused drought and systemic deprivation, the words and actions of Baptism can only evoke anxiety, painful memories of life-threatening deprivation. Thus, Christians are challenged to authentic, merciful, loving relationship with God, fellow humans, and all creation – including clean air, water, and fertile soils – of all kinds.
In the Luke 10 parable, the man in the ditch was stripped of his value, identity, and human dignity. We humans have done similar things through our desecration and destruction of God’s magnanimous Creation. Indeed, scientists have been telling us for over fifty years how humans have been harming the planet by overburdening its hydrological and other systems; killing off plants and animals; drying up water sources to the extent that they and all Earth’s systems are failing, unable to renew themselves. Daily we “pass by” these suffering and dying neighbors – many of which we will never see again because they have had no caretaker or “Good Samaritan” to “neighbor” them.
Humans can be neighbors in two ways: as those needing care or as caregivers. Decades ago, Louvain moral theologian Louis Janssens listed eight characteristics of the “human person integrally and adequately considered.” Among those characteristics is: “Human Persons are Embodied Subjects.” That is, humans are created by God as part of the natural world, with a particular mandate to care for God’s creation. Janssens acknowledged that while humans have a particular mandate to “till and keep the garden of the world,” we are, nonetheless, also creatures. As such, humans, like all animals – are uniquely gifted. Yet humans are also ambiguous entities, housing serious limitations.
In our present day, the victims in the ditch are creatures, peoples, ecosystems that are not maintained by our current social, political, and economic power structures. For all too long powerful corporations, wealthy individuals, rich nations, and other economic power structures have sustained the destruction of God’s Creation – humans and other kind. Reading the Good Samaritan parable through a prophetic lens reorients the exclusively anthropocentric value systems that have lost sight of the interconnection of Christianity’s Creation-Incarnation-Redemption framework. We forgot Who our Creator is, our relation to the Incarnate One and all other fleshly creatures of Earth; and we’ve tried to save ourselves through technological exploitation of the planet. It is time we reverse course!
Yet, all is not lost! Janssens also identifies human persons as “historical subjects.” Though embedded in time and space, we also have capacities for development and maturity, change and spiritual renewal. Our moral imperative is to integrate experience and knowledge into a fuller and more faithful Christ-like life. Just as individuals can change, so can cultures and societies too. This is all possible within the sustaining grace of God and a true personal generosity that attends to the needs of our fellow creatures – human and other kinds – along with “Our Sister, Mother Earth – who sustains and governs us” (St. Francis of Assisi – The Canticle of the Creatures).
With one voice, we Christians must bear witness in a unified way to what we profess in our Creeds. We must neighbor in a thoroughgoing way. The unity of the love of God and the love of neighbor requires our participation in the human ecological vocation, as Elizabeth A. Johnson so eloquently invites:
Christian tradition has always interpreted the good we are called to do for other humans not first and foremost under the rubric of duty, but as an expression of love, love of neighbor impelled by love of God. Jesus’ surprising parable of the Good Samaritan reveals that the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the assaulted, half-dead traveler by the side of the road; conversely, anyone in need (Lk. 10:25-37). If indeed ‘respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation,’4 as Pope John Paul II declared, then there is good warrant for extending the notion of neighbor beyond the human species to all other fellow creatures in the community of creation. In view of the world of life now under duress Brian Patrick riffs, ‘“Who is our neighbor: the Samaritan” the outcast? The enemy? Yes, yes of course. But it is also the whale, the dolphin, and the rainforest. Our neighbor is the entire universe. We must love it all as our self.’5Whether framed in these terms or not, numerous people around the globe are beginning to live the ecological vocation, caring for the living world as their neighbor.
I began this reflection by considering the urgent water issues today that make perfectly clear the stakes of our ability to be neighbor to all who depend on the health of our common home, the earth. But already in 1991, John Paul II set out a clear direction for our faith-filled choice to ensure that all have enough water to sustain life and health:
Water by its very nature cannot be treated as a mere commodity among other commodities. Catholic social thought has always stressed that the defense and preservation of certain common goods such as the natural and human environments cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces, since they touch on fundamental human needs which escape market logic.6Echoing these themes, but expanding them beyond Catholic social thought, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 64/292: The Human Right to Water and Sanitation, on July 28, 2010.7
Water in the Hebrew Bible links creation, stewardship, and hospitality (as, archetypally, in Genesis 2 – caring for the garden). These themes are extended to the New Testament. Related to the Bible, ethical arguments developed, showing basic access and use of water is a matter of justice. How justice for the poor was fulfilled was the ultimate test of morality. Indeed, the ultimate test of the fulfillment of justice was how needs for a life of dignity were fulfilled for the poor and the vulnerable8. Today, that test of justice holds that the poor cannot be deprived of the access and use of water to meet their basic needs, through privatization of water by treatment, delivery, or diversion of sources. Humans are called to fulfill an “ecological vocation,” sharing nature’s gifts compelled by love of God and neighbor. Today we must consider water, as well as our human companions, as our neighbor – to whom mercy must be shown and love no less than our love for ourselves must be freely offered.
When water is made inaccessible through over-exploitation, or when its diminishment forces us into competition – what then does it mean to be a “neighbor”? And what might we learn from the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37)? How does this parable of Jesus inform our situation amid our global “climate emergency”?
The Lawyer ultimately expands his moral imagination to universal proportions, moving beyond social or religious rigidity, and realizing that the capacious “mercy” of God is the prior, characteristic relationship that determines neighborliness, rather than any incidental activity of our own to establish “neighborly” respect or connectedness.
Certainly, racist and religious biases are deadly, and they engage more than personal sin and finitude. However, while the sins of racism and religious bias signal egregious human failure, the effects of any sin also constitute a violation against the wider order of creation.
Reading the Good Samaritan parable through a prophetic lens reorients the exclusively anthropocentric value systems that have lost sight of the interconnection of Christianity’s Creation-Incarnation-Redemption framework.
1The following three paragraphs draw on Dionne Searcey, “Big Farms and Flawless Fries Are Gulping Water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes,” New York Times, September 3, 2023: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/ 09/03/climate/minnesota-drought-potatoes.html.
2John Nolland notes it is known as פיקוח נפש (Pikuach Nefesh), the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any mitzvah lo ta'aseh (command to not do an action) of the Torah becomes inapplicable. Also see John Nolland, “Luke 9:21-18:34, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 35b:
https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/14214/what-is-the-significance-of-both-the-priest-and-the-levite-in-the-good-samaritan, accessed October 3, 2023.
3“17 Goals to Transform Our World,” Sustainable Development Goals, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/, accessed October 3, 2023.
4Elixabeth A. Johnson, Ask of the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God, (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 281 cites John Paul II, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation,”§16.
5Johnson, Ask of the Beasts, 281cites Brian Patrick, cited in Dowd, Earthspirit, 40.
6John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/ encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html.
7See https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/human_right_to_water.shtml. Download full text at https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/687002?ln=en.
8Dawn M. Nothwehr, OSF, Franciscan Writings: Hope Amid Sin and Climate Emergency, (London: T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2023), 198.