Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself

A sermon on Luke 18:9-14 given by Teri Daily on October 27, 2019…

There is a story told by an anthropologist about a game he played with children when he was in Africa. He put a basket of fruit under a tree. Then he gathered the children some distance away and told them that whoever got to the basket first could have all the fruit. When he said “ready, set, go,” instead of racing against one another, the children grabbed each other’s hands, ran to the tree together, divided the fruit among themselves, and enjoyed this feast together. When the anthropologist asked them why they did this, they responded “Ubuntu.”[1]

Ubuntu is an African word that is difficult to express in English but is sometimes translated: “I am because we are.” In other words, my self-identity is only discovered within a community – through interdependence and connection. The Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu this way:

Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We can’t be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. Indeed, my humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced mine is enhanced as well. Likewise, when you are dehumanized, inexorably, I am dehumanized as well. [2]

Ubuntu can be a challenging concept for our Western minds which are largely focused on individualism, consumerism, and competition. We tend to differentiate ourselves from one another by placing walls between us and dividing one another into categories. For example, I know myself as rich because you are poor, I know myself as white because you are black, I know myself to be a poor athlete because you are a good one, and so on. But the striking thing about Ubuntu is that we come to know ourselves not through competition with others, but by the ways we are interdependent – by the ways that, together, we form a whole community. Instead of defining ourselves through competition with others, Ubuntu invites us to “learn to see self in the other,” to understand our uniqueness in light of how we are connected.[3] In this, there is an implicit recognition that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Ubuntu is not just a challenging concept for those of us living in the twenty-first century; it was also a difficult concept for the Pharisee in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisee is all about building walls between himself and others, about placing himself in a category above others. We see it right away in how he is “standing by himself.” The tax collector, we are told, stands far off, but the Pharisee stands by himself. When he begins to pray, the Pharisee places himself in the category of the righteous (fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of his income), and he places others (thieves, rogues, adulterers, and the tax collector) in the category of the unrighteous. He is too busy comparing himself to others to pay any attention to what we know that we all have in common – that we all sin. And so, unlike the tax collector, he goes home unjustified. Of course, Jesus tells this parable to those who also like to construct barriers; he tells this parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

The Pharisee and the hearers of this parable that day have forgotten Ubuntu – “I am, because we are.” They have forgotten that no one can be human alone. They are too busy dividing the world into categories to remember what the children knew deep in their bones: salvation is not, and has never been in scripture, an event that happens on just the individual level. For the people of Israel, salvation is about the entire community. It is about the fact that I can never truly be free until you are free, my hunger can never be satisfied until your hunger is satisfied, I will never be whole until you are whole. Ubuntu sees one another in terms of cooperation, in terms of our connections and not our divisions.

Now to be fair, our minds are – to some degree – programmed to divide people and things into categories. We need that sorting function in order to make choices when lots of information is coming at us each and every moment. But this kind of thinking can only carry us so far.  As Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgealt and others have pointed out, for our world to thrive and maybe even just to survive, we have to begin to see each person, animal, plant, and thing as part of an organic whole – realizing that when we see things in this manner we can function in ways and reach goals that would never be possible otherwise.  We need to start not from our differences but from our unity, each of us inherently part of a greater whole.  To do that, I need to see my neighbor as part of myself.

There are two great commandments in our tradition: Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. According to Cynthia Bourgeault, we often hear that second commandment this way: “love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” But that isn’t what scripture says. Scripture says to love our neighbor as ourselves, as a part of ourselves. [4]

Of course, this kind of seeing has its roots in scripture. Scripture tells us over and over that we are not disconnected, separated entities but that we dwell in one another. Jesus tells the disciples: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Just a couple of chapters later in the gospel of John, Jesus prays to God the Father, saying: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus and God dwelling in one another, Jesus and us dwelling in one another, each of us dwelling in one another. This is what the Pharisee was unable to see. Instead, he exalted himself above others and created divisions, categories, and labels.

I believe our salvation is partly about seeing ourselves as all connected in God’s life, about seeing ourselves in one another instead of seeing walls between us. This is how we love our neighbors as ourselves. In this season of tense divisions, and as we approach the election season next year, let us ask God to draw our attention to the times we fail to love one another as our own self. Let us ask God to draw our attention to the times we build divisions between ourselves and others. And may God give us the grace of Ubuntu.

[1] “Ubuntu,” World Class Learning, https://www.worldclasslearning.com/stories-for-kids/inspiring-story-ubuntu.html.

[2] Found, among other places, in an email interview with Beliefnet:  http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/2004/04/Desmond-Tutus-Recipe-For-Peace.aspx?p=2.

[3] Michael Battle, Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me (New York: Seabury, 2009), 13.

[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Wisdom Jesus,” Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org/one-with-god-one-with-each-other-2017-04-12/.

Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself
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