Mispronouncing words when reading aloud has been a stumbling block of mine ever since middle school. In Language Arts class we would read aloud and many times I needed to use my favorite strategy, context clues, to at least figure out what a word meant, even if I butchered the pronunciation. This didn’t save me from the embarrassment, but I could defend myself by saying, “Yeah but I know what it means!”
On the SAT’s I was intimidated when all that mattered in some sections was memorization, no context clues to provide guidance, no opportunity to defend myself.
As an uneasy middle school student, trying to avoid having to read aloud, this was the context in which I first learned, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:39)
My parents often spoke with me about this social imperative and for many years I took it simply as manners, similar to the importance of saying “please” and “thank you” and avoiding cursing.
Over time, like all of us, the concepts I learned early in life took on new meaning based on changing context. Over the past few years I’ve given more time in reflection and prayer to the words in Mt. 22:39, asking myself – Who am I? What is love? Who is my neighbor?
I’ve unpacked a lot of my realizations in previous posts, but I want to focus on the last question some more. One aspect of neighbor I have been wrestling with is that it includes my enemies, or those with whom I do not relate well. It sounds weird to think that I have enemies, I like to think I don’t, but we can all agree that there are people in our lives we treat as enemies, sometimes without us even knowing we’re doing it. My biggest enemy is often myself, and when I name this, I’m better able to engage in reflections like the one in Loving Your Enemies, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where he states,
A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.
In re-defining who my neighbor is, including enemies, including myself, I’ve learned to redefine what it is to be myself and what it is to love. The shift happened when I began asking myself the question, What am I missing?
The focus on loving my neighbor as myself isn’t simply so I can be a pleasant and kind person, it’s because if I do this, I’ll be opening myself up to all that life has to offer.
So how does this relate to my middle school understanding of Mt. 22:39 and context clues?
In middle school, if I alienated myself from certain people, didn’t branch out or hid my face to avoid being called on, the ramifications could be feeling isolated and missing out on learning or on a friend. I was my own worst enemy because I was being guided by fear of what others might think. Now I am guided by a new fear, a healthy one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:39) What am I missing by not living this way?
The relation to context clues is that shortly after Mt. 22:39, in 41-42 Jesus asks the Pharisees, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Reflecting on the context, I think Jesus is asking about possibilities. He’s asking if they are, if we are, and ultimately if I am open to this new possibility.
Back then, what I understood as only an exhortation concerning the way to act, I now understand as an invitation to new understanding, to new life.