Sunday, July 14, 2019

Who Is My Neighbor?

One of the most obvious features of televised American political debates is how they are structured on a question-and-answer format, but in fact candidates often make no attempt at all to answer the question they were actually asked, preferring instead to answer some other question of their own choosing.  For most of us most of the time, there are probably few things more exasperating than asking a question and not getting a real answer – whether what one gets is no answer at all or an evasive kind of answer or (worst of all) instead of an answer another question throwing it all back at you. So I suspect the lawyer in today’s Gospel may well have been very exasperated with Jesus, who seems as if he might have managed very well indeed in a typical televised debate!

After all, the question the lawyer asked was a perfectly legitimate one to ask of a religious authority figure: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus, however, had answered him with a question of his own, putting all the onus back on him: 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 Gospel says he wished to justify himself, and so he demanded further clarification. The law says to love my neighbor as myself. OK then, exactly who is my neighbor. A good question, an important question, as so many recent events in our fractured society – events like dead children and imprisoned families on our southern border - keep reminding us.

Jesus did reply to the lawyer, but with a story, a parable. At this distance of some 2000 years almost, we’ve all heard it so many times, that we already know the story. So we are not surprised when (of all people) a Samaritan appears as the story’s hero. And so we call it the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” conveniently forgetting or ignoring what a complete contradiction in terms a “Good Samaritan” would have seemed to the people who first heard this story from Jesus himself.

Of course, our only experience of Samaritans is this story (and all the hospitals and such that have been named after 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 – the way so many 19th-century Americans saw Irish and Italian immigrants to this country, the way some in our society see Mexican and Central American immigrants today. So we completely miss the surprise, the shock, the real scandal in the story – and so also miss the parable’s point, which is Jesus’ invitation to us to think about these things in a new way.

To do that we must remember the actual point at issue between Jesus and the lawyer. They were discussing the Old Testament law of love for God and neighbor. Jesus never answered the lawyer’s original question. He let the lawyer himself do that. We don’t need Jesus to quote the Bible to us. We can do that ourselves. But we do need Jesus to make the commandments come alive in our world – to tell us who is our neighbor.

But the way that question was asked, and the way we most likely 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 and good citizen am obliged to do?”

That is not a bad place to start. 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, someone to whom something may be owed (if perhaps only somewhat grudgingly) to neighbor as someone who acts, someone who intervenes and saves, someone 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 a 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 be part of that new world.

So the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is first of all 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 obligation, my minimum moral duty, is, that presumes we see ourselves as free and aloof individuals for whom the connections involved in community with others are a burdensome obligation to be kept to a minimum – that being in society with others is itself a burden, that living a moral life is a burdensome obligation.

That is the logic of our ordinary world – a world in which social networks and community connections are increasingly damaged and in decline. It was to counter that logic that six years ago this summer Pope Francis made his first pastoral visit outside of Rome, a pastoral visit of great symbolic and social significance to a Mediterranean island which served as one of the primary European entry points for immigrants from North Africa, a site associated with the sorts of human tragedies that often threaten immigrants, where hundreds of migrants have drowned or gone missing. Celebrating Mass there, the Pope lamented: "We have become used to other people's suffering, it doesn't concern us, it doesn't interest us, it's none of our business!"

Such is indeed the moral logic of our ordinary world.

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

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 14, 2019

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