Sunday, July 10, 2016

Who Is My Neighbor?

There really are few things more exasperating than asking a serious question and not getting a serious answer – whether it’s an evasive answer that one gets, or maybe no answer at all, or (perhaps worst of all) another question instead of an answer. If the lawyer in today’s gospel was at all like most of us, I think he must have been very exasperated with Jesus!

He had, after all, asked a perfectly legitimate question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, however, just answered him back with a question of his own, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

Of course, the lawyer was able to answer Jesus because he had been properly instructed in the Jewish law and so could quote it correctly. Jesus accepted his answer, but the lawyer demanded further clarification. What he said, in effect, was, “The law says I am supposed to love my neighbor as myself. OK, then just who exactly counts as my neighbor? A good question, an important question, as so many recent events in our fractured society keep reminding us!

This time Jesus replied with a long story, known ever since as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

We’ve all already heard it so many times that we all already know the story. And, because we already know the story, we’re not at all surprised when (of all people) a Samaritan appears as the hero. So we can call it the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” conveniently forgetting what a complete contradiction in terms that phrase, “Good Samaritan,” would have been to the people who first heard this story from Jesus himself!

Of course, our only experience of Samaritans is this story (and others like it). We certainly haven’t experienced Samaritans as unwelcome, threatening, and despised foreigners the way the lawyer (and the rest of those present) would have experienced them. So we completely miss the surprise, the shock, the real scandal in the story – and so also miss the point, which is the parable’s invitation to us to think about things in a new way.

Jesus never answered the lawyer’s original question. He let the lawyer do that himself. We don’t need Jesus just to quote the Old Testament law commanding us to love God and to love our neighbor. We can do that ourselves. But we do need Jesus to make the commandment come alive in our world. We need him to tell us who is our neighbor.

But the way that question was asked, the way we hear that question today, it means “To whom do I owe something? To whom have I some obligation? Whom do I have to care about?” That’s not a bad question, but it’s an ordinary one. It expresses the ordinary logic of our ordinary world, which asks, “Is this person my neighbor? Is this someone I am required to care about?” It asks, in effect, “What is the legal or moral minimum that I as a socially responsible, ostensibly moral person am obliged to do?”

But, if we hear this story from the viewpoint of the man who fell victim to robbers, then that will hardly be our question. Jesus’ story subtly shifts the focus from neighbor as an object of obligation, to neighbor as someone who acts, someone who intervenes and saves, who acts on my behalf and comes close enough to touch me and become my friend.

Now, as everyone in Jesus’ audience would presumably have understood, in an ordinary world both the priest and the Levite would have had very legitimate reasons, when they passed by, to stay on the opposite side. To do their jobs, they had to remain ritually pure, which precluded contact with corpses (a real danger here, since the victim, so we’re told, was left half-dead). The Samaritan, on the other hand, was an outsider - even as so many of us are today to one another. The only thing he had to lose by getting involved was his right to remain aloof.

But the point of the parable is that he did not remain aloof! The stranger has become our neighbor!

Jesus’ parable portrays otherwise ordinary people in an otherwise ordinary world and one person, a Samaritan, for whom nothing is ordinary anymore. It gives us a glimpse of how God acts – as seen in the actions of Jesus. The question for us is whether we want to enter that new world.

The “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is really a story about Jesus, whose whole story is about the neighborliness of God, the distant stranger who has now become our friend.

To ask, like the lawyer, what my minimum moral duty is, that suggests that the moral life is a burdensome obligation – that being in society with others is a burden.

That may be the ordinary logic of our ordinary world.

But the God who is no longer a stranger to us, because he has become our neighbor, has given us – in Jesus – a glimpse of God’s logic and God’s world.

And so, says Jesus, finally answering the question: “Go and do likewise.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 10, 2016.

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