Who is my Neighbour? A St. Francis of Assisi Feast Day Meditation

by Michael Gilmour

 Photo: Michael Gilmour

Photo: Michael Gilmour

The punchline of Luke’s Good Samaritan story comes at the beginning rather than the end, and it is not Jesus who delivers it but instead a nameless onlooker. He cites Torah: love God and love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:27; cf. Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5). Jesus agrees and then goes on to tell the oft-told tale of an assault and robbery, and the unlikely hero who comes to the victim’s aid. Love is owed to a stranger left for dead on the side of the road, and it is a cultural and religious outsider who extends it. My neighbour does not always look like me, or believe like me but that’s no matter. Jesus collapses the two great commandments. If we love God, we love our neighbours, whoever they are. We love our neighbours because we love God.

The onlooker who wisely recited Torah then adds a question (Luke 10:29): Who is my neighbour? Jesus’s story is the answer given. Your neighbour is the one in need. Your neighbour is the one in need, even when they are not part of your community. We are to love across boundaries. Love not only family and tribe, or those of our race and nation, or gender and religion, or sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Love not only the citizen but also the refugee. Simply love your neighbour as yourself, says Jesus. Love the one in need as you love yourself. That’s all it says.

Animals are neighbours too. There’s nothing in the story limiting this boundary-defying love to bipedal types. If this sounds odd, note the vague kinship between this parable and remarks Jesus made about an animal fallen into a pit (Matt 12:11). You don’t pass by the sheep in its moment of need any more than you pass the victim of a robbery laying in a ditch at the side of a road. You help that poor creature, and you do so even if it’s the Sabbath. Humans extending kindness to nonhumans—Jesus expects it of the God-fearing. And perhaps it’s worth noticing it works both ways in our parable. The Good Samaritan isn’t the only one who helps the injured man: he places the stranger “on his own animal” to get him to an inn for care (10:34). A brief hint of cross-species compassion?

The story of the Good Samaritan resonated recently as I led a chapel service at Providence University College (Manitoba) marking World Animal Day and the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. This is not usual fare for us. Few of the fifty or so students and staff in attendance had previous experience of animal blessing or animal-themed services, or even heard sermons suggesting animals are theologically consequential or relevant for religious ethics. So, how to get that point across?

Enter Daisy, the tripod puppy and newest layabout at chez Gilmour who joined me for the service. Last spring I received word from one of our graduates of a stray dog found injured at the side of the road after being hit by a car. She stopped to help, taking the puppy to a nearby veterinary clinic even when unsure of how to fund the expensive surgery/amputation needed to save her. This was a costly act of kindness. Costly just like the love shown by the Samaritan (“he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’” [Luke 10:35]). I wanted students to meet Daisy. To meet one of God’s creatures who experienced a boundary-transgressing act of Christian love. There is room in the church for other species. The church, represented in that moment by a generous, self-sacrificing student, reached out to a helpless animal and saved her life. A Christian reached across boundaries to show the love of God. (And at this St. Francis service she was further welcomed by the community of God’s people—and exuberantly so, as you can see—by some of our dog-loving students!)

 Photo: Michael Gilmour

Photo: Michael Gilmour

The service also marked the launch of Providence’s second Friendly Food Challenge (on which, see the CreatureKind blog, “Throwing Rocks at Giants”). The hope was to help participants make the connection between sweet Daisy who made all in the room smile that day, and other equally vulnerable, equally important animals who live and die as part of the food industry. Pets, wildlife, domesticated farm animals—they are all God’s creatures, and the call to extend love beyond boundaries must include them too. I am pleased some students and staff at Providence University College are making that connection, leaving meat off their plates as an expression of compassion.

Michael Gilmour teaches English and biblical literature at Providence University College. His most recent book is a study of animals in the writings of C. S. Lewis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).