In 1952 the National Film Board produced a short film entitled Neighbours. The film went on to win the academy aware for best short film that year. This was partly based on its content, and partly based on the way the film was produced – with actors, but using a technique usually used with puppet animation. You can easily find the film on the NFB website (warning, the second half of the film is very violent). The first 4 minutes of the film are instructive for us. Two neighbours discover a beautiful flower growing on their mutual property line – and they together delight in it. But eventually they begin to fight over the flower – the first four minutes of the film are a brilliant introduction to the question of how we relate to our neighbours.
As becomes apparent, however, this is is an anti-war film. The film gets progressively more violent until the neighbours eventually kill each other’s families and each other over this beautiful flower. But the first four minutes film at least introduce us to the complexities of living alongside neighbours. It’s not always easy to relate to neighbours. We are not always sure how we should relate to our neighbours. And this film is particularly interesting in terms of the film it leaves its viewers with – at the end, words of Jesus are presented on the screen in a series of different languages:
Ama a tu prójimo.
Liebe deinen nächsten.
Amate il prosimo.
Aimez votre prochain.
Love your neighbour.
The question we are asking as we continue our series in the book of proverbs is the question of our neighbour – how to relate to our neighbour. What does it look like when we are wise in dealing with our neighbour? What does it look like when we are living well in relation to our neighbour? What do you do when a lovely flower pops up on the property line and you’d really like to transplant it to your own garden? As we consider these kinds of questions, the words of Jesus will remain in the backs of our minds – love your neighbour.
But not with the words of Jesus but with the wisdom offered in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom, of course, is all about living well in the world and about living well in relation to others. And since neighbours are such a regular part of human life, it won’t surprise us that the book of Proverbs deals on a number of occasions with how we relate to our neighbour.
As we begin looking at some specific proverbs perhaps the first thing to say is this: that the proverbs won’t let us hold our neighbour at a distance. The proverbs won’t let us say: “Ok, I’ll stick to my business and my neighbour can stick to hers.” The proverbs won’t all us to say: “Yes, I’ll nod hello once in a while, but the best thing is to let her stay over there – I’ll stay over here.”
Now there are some proverbs that might give the impression that we can relate to our neighbour in that way – keeping her at a distance. Here’s one such proverb: “Let your foot rarely be in your neighbour’s house, lest he become weary of you and hate you.” At some level this is common sense, isn’t it? If you keep sticking your head over the fence to chat with your neighbour – if you’re knocking on your neighbour’s door every other day for a conversation – there’s some chance your neighbour is going to get annoyed with you.
One of the things the proverbs do is to raise questions for us – questions about our behaviour, and the likely responses of others. And this particular proverb helps us to realize that dealing with neighbours mean’s not going out of your way to be an annoyance to them. But even so, this doesn’t mean that the book of Proverbs lets us hold our neighbour at a distance – far from it. I follow Pope Francis on Twitter and yesterday he tweeted words that fit much more closely with what the Proverbs say. “Sometimes it is possible to live without knowing our neighbours. This is not Christian.”
In the context of Christian faith, and in the context of the book of proverbs, there can be no “I’ll stick to my business and my neighbour can stick to hers.”
So if we can’t hold our neighbour at a distance, how do we relate to our neighbour. Well let’s look at a few themes the proverbs give us in terms of our relationship to our neighbour. And the first theme is this: that we owe our neighbour. [SLIDE]
Proverbs 3:28 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbour, “Go, and come back and tomorrow I will give it,” when you have it with you.”
If your neighbour has some need – if your neighbour has need of support or help or encouragement – and if you are in a position to offer that support or help or encouragement – then you have a duty to offer it. You might not want to offer it – you may have other priorities, the proverb says – you may think she can do without your help for a little longer – but you owe this help to her. If you can meet her need, now, then you have an obligation to meet her need.
Here it’s obvious that wisdom isn’t the same as common sense. From a common sense point of view, the key factor is my decision – will I choose to be kind or caring in a given situation. “Ok, my neighbour has a need, so let me think about whether I will meet her need. I might decide to help, or I might not. I might choose to be kind, or I might not.” Common sense says the most important variable is me – my ability to decide – to help, or not to help, my neighbour.
But wisdom goes much deeper. Wisdom is a true understanding of what it means to be human – and being wise means understanding my indebtedness to my neighbour. I owe my neighbour something. I owe her what she needs. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbour, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it to you.” If I have the resources to meet the need of my neighbour, then I have a duty to meet that need – to be wise is to see not simply that I could choose to be kind, but to see that I am indebted to her. It is about seeing the world in a particular way.
Where does this idea come from – this idea that I owe my neighbour – that I owe her the care and support available to me? From the perspective of faith, this duty to care, this duty to offer resources at my disposal, this duty to do good to my neighbour – is rooted in my indebtedness to God. We owe God everything. Every good thing in our lives, every resource we have – whether emotional resources or physical resources or intellectual resources – these are gifts of grace.
But of course it’s easy to forget this – or for that matter, simply to deny it. As the philosopher Kierkegaard points out, we can easily go through life pretending that we are the source of goodness in our lives – or pretending that we have simply been on the receiving end of good luck. And so we can easily think that, in a given situation, it is imply up to me to be kind or not. But if we remember God, and if we remember that every good thing we have comes by grace, as gift – then suddenly the whole picture changes. Suddenly it isn’t up to me to be kind or not. Rather, it is up to me to see that out of the gifts I have received, goodness is owed to my neighbour. I am fundamentally indebted. I owe it to her to share out the resources I have been given. In such an economy – in such a world – it is not possible to hold our neighbour at a distance. Rather, seeing her need and responding to her need is the only thing that makes sense. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due. Do not say to your neighbour, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it, when you have it with you.”
Already in these two Proverbs, another them arises in terms of our relationship to our neighbour. Not only do I have to extend care to her – not only do I owe her support – but this proverbs also requires honesty in relating to my nighbour.
“If you have it with you, give it – don’t pretend that you can’t give it now – don’t tell your neighbour to come back later for it.” In other words, not only do you have a duty to care – you have a duty to be honest about the care you can offer. If you can offer it now, don’t be dishonest by pretending you can’t offer it now.
Here are two additional proverbs that pick up this theme of honesty.
Do not be a witness against your neighbour without cause, and do not deceive with your lips. (Proverbs 24:28)
Like a club and a sword and a sharp arrow is a man who bears false witness against his neighbour. (Proverbs 25:18)
True wisdom requires that we be honest. Each of these proverbs demands honesty in speaking about our neighbours. The language of these proverbs might make us think of very formal circumstances – a courtroom for example – that’s where we tend to use this language of being a witness or bearing witness. But the words of these proverbs can also be generalized to daily life. So the wise one is the one who speaks truthfully and honestly to his neighbour – and speaks truthfully and honestly about his neighbour. And when we do not speak truthfully and honestly about your neighbour, it is a kind of violence that we do to him.
Within a wider theological perspective, here’s what seems to be the problem when we lie. When we are dishonest in speaking to our neighbour, we are putting our own ideas at the centre of our world. When we lie about our neighbour, we are acting and speaking according to our own wishes in a particular situation. When we bear false witness against our neighbour, we usually do so because we are trying to accomplish something for ourselves – we’re trying to make ourselves look good; or we’re trying to gain some advantage for ourselves; or we’re trying to avoid a problem for ourselves. When we lie, it is invariably all about us – when we lie, we make ourselves the centre of our world and words. When we lie about our neighbour we have put ourselves at the centre of our speaking and our acting and our thinking. A lie is almost always about me.
But when we speak the truth about our neighbours, we are orienting ourselves to them and to the truth of their lives – the truth of who they are before God. When we speak honestly to and about our neighbours, we are looking beyond our own ideas and our own selves and our own wishes – we are puting ourselves in service to the neighbour and the God of truth. In John 14, Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and his words point to the fact that our speaking and our living are intertwined in his life. Truthfulness in words and actions go hand in hand. Through service to the other, and through truth telling, we pursue the way of Christ, the truly human way. Through service to the other, and through truth telling, we walk in the way established in the creation of the world, when wisdom laughed along side God.
A third and final theme that we pick up in the book of Proverbs is this: that there in living alongside a neighbour we have the privilege of living closely to the other – we have the privilege of proximity – and we must use this gift carefully.
When we live meaningfully and closely with our neighbours – when we get to know them and have a deepening relationship with them – then we are in a privileged place along side them. We learn things about who they are, about their family and relationships. We learn about their habits and their character – we might know what animates them or frustrates them. They begin to trust us and to perhaps lean on us – even as we trust them and perhaps lean on them. It is a place or privilege to live alongside neighbours.
Here are two proverbs that speak to this situation – this privilege of proximity:
Do not devise harm against your neighbour while he lives in security beside you. Proverbs 3:29
The righteous is a guide to his neighbour, but the way of the wicked leads them astray. Proverbs 12:26
Living in close proximity to our neighbour – having that privilege – means that we are uniquely situated to either take advantage of our neighbour or to support our neighbour in living a fulfilled life in the way of Christ.
We can harm our neighbour by using our knowledge of his life and family – using hurtful information again him in a moment of anger. Or we can bless our neighbour by using our knowledge of his life and family to extend grace and words of support and encouragement.
We can harm our neighbour infecting our relationship to her with our own prejudices or weakness. Or we can bless and serve our neighbour by restraining our own worst attitudes and ways of living – by allowing the relationships to be defined by the generosity and hospitality and truth and beauty of service in Christ’s kingdom.
Wisdom whispers in your ear: you cannot hold our neighbour at a distance.
Wisdom whispers in your ear: you are indebted to your neighbour – extend compassion and love and support.
Wisdom whispers in our ear: don’t put yourself at the centre, rather speak the truth about your neighbour.
Wisdom laughs in your ear: what a beautiful privilege to live in proximity with your neighbour – take care of that relationship – may it be oriented to the ways of the risen Jesus and his kingdom.
Thanks be to God. Amen.