Sunday, October 25, 2020

Being Neighbor

What a scene! Jesus might as well be a modern political candidate being challenged on all sides – Pharisees, Sadducees, scholars of the Law, each posing some complex question, clearly trying to trap him in his answer!

Few, however, would have quarreled with Jesus’ response, taken directly from the book of Deuteronomy. For centuries, both before Jesus and since, devout Jews have recited those words daily.

The lawyer had only asked for one commandment – the greatest one – but Jesus also offered him another familiar one, from the book of Leviticus. Nor was this some isolated injunction. Today’s 1st reading – from Exodus – illustrates just how demanding the Old Testament is in regard to how to treat one’s neighbor. Hence, the Jewish law’s emphasis on just treatment of immigrants. Prejudice against foreigners is not new, nor was it confined to ancient Israel. The Old Testament repeatedly reminds the Israelites that they too had once been foreigners and were descended from immigrants – as are most of us here today.

So Jesus’ statement that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is like the commandment to love God was not some new invention. It is deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures, which suggest that, when one wrongs one’s neighbor, one also offends God, in which case God’s wrath will make itself felt!

Jesus is here setting out the essential basis for moral living – not something added on to the rest of one’s life, but its essential component. The Bible does not offer quick and easy answers to each and every ethical question that may arise. But it does describe a relationship, a way of being with one another, on which we are challenged to build our individual and collective moral lives.

In Luke’s Gospel, the lawyer - wanting, we are told, to justify himself - follows up by asking, who is my neighbor?  In the account we just heard, there is no follow-up question. Probably, people took for granted that my neighbor is a fellow-member of our community, someone I feel connected to.

We can, of course, expand that, as Exodus did, to include foreigners and immigrants. We can keep expanding wider and wider to include ever more people, until we come to consider everyone in the world a neighbor. And, to some extent, that was what Jesus did with the lawyer’s second question in Luke. We are all familiar with his answer – the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan story plays a central role in framing Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship. The Pope’s purpose, he writes, is “that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words,” [FT 6] “a different culture, in which we resolve our conflicts and care for one another.” [FT 57] 

In this politically polarized time, Pope Francis invites us to see one another as neighbors – something our present tribal, culture-war politics tries to prevent. So he reminds us of the ancient Christian conception of “the common destination of created goods,” the realization that “the world exists for everyone,” which is why “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property,” which “cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment.” [FT 118-120, 122]

Making this a friendlier, more fraternal, more neighborly world also requires us to dialogue with one another. “Authentic social dialogue,” the Pope reminds us, “involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns.” [FT 203]. He calls for a “cultural covenant,” which “respects and acknowledges the different worldviews, cultures, and lifestyles that coexist in society.” This is something sadly very obviously lacking nowadays – not just in our politics, but everywhere, even within the Church, where, for many, partisan politics predominates, where some seem to despise those they disagree with, whom they label "bad" Catholics or "false" Catholics or “cafeteria" Catholics, and who even employ the internet to mock the Pope and his efforts to guide the Church through this difficult and dangerous time.

Whereas “consumerist individualism has led to great injustice,” Pope Francis calls for “kindness,” which “frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy.” [FT 222, 224]

And, as we here in the United States come to the end of another angry, hateful political campaign, the Pope reminds us that politics, properly understood, “involves a constant attention to the common good and a concern for integral human development” [FT 276]

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets, Jesus says, depend on these two commandments.

Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 25, 2020.

Photo: Pope Francis signs Fratelli Tutti in Assisi, October 3, 2020.

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