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Who is your neighbour?

July 10, 2016

Vincent van Gogh – The Good Samaritan after Eugène Delacroix 1890.

A reflection for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings are Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Psalm 69; Colossians 1:15-20 and Luke 10:25-37.

If this story were to take place today, it would be very similar. A lawyer would ask Jesus, “What do I have to do to go to heaven? What law do I have to follow?” And Jesus would say, “You tell me. You know the law. What do you think? The lawyer answers very well, “love God and love neighbour.” He knows his stuff because those two commandments are not together in the bible. The first, “love God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul,” is from Deuteronomy 6:5, and the other one, “love your neighbour as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18 – but he puts them together: love God and love neighbour. Good. You’re set to go. But for lawyers the meaning of words is important. It’s important to be clear with what we mean. Today a lawyer would ask, “What does the word love mean? What does it mean ‘to love’?” for example. The lawyer in the story asks, “What does the word neighbour mean? You don’t actually mean my nosy next-door neighbour, do you?” Who is my neighbour? Maybe he wants to know ‘who is not my neighbour?’ Maybe he wants to know what is the least he can do and still go to heaven. So Jesus tells this story that we all know so well.

The man goes on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. At the time of Jesus, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was the most dangerous road. It’s a winding road and there are lots of hills – lots of places where bandits can hide and ambush you. In the times of Jesus it was called “The bloody pass” or “the way of blood.” So Jesus is setting it up saying that the man went into the most, most dangerous part of town… at night. It’s like saying today that he traveled to Rio de Janeiro – murder capital of the world; something like 40,000 homicides last year (I may be exaggerating) – and Trip Advisor says not to go to this part of town, and that’s where he goes. Not only does he go, but he’s carrying his big camera around his neck and he’s wearing his Rolex. And he goes at night. So, of course he gets mugged. He gets beaten and left for dead. Then who comes? A Levite. Some Levites were priests, but not all. Others were like deacons, actually – they helped with certain rituals. And they taught the law; they were also scholars of the law. Maybe Jesus is saying that a lawyer comes down the road – “you come down the road” – and he knows the law very well. The law says that you shouldn’t touch blood and that you shouldn’t touch a dead body or that will make you impure. He’s also a lawyer and so he knows that it’s possible that this man is faking it. Maybe he’s not hurt at all; it’s a trap. When he goes to help him, he’ll get robbed. Or maybe the burglars are still hiding nearby and they are going to attack him too. He’s not a bad person; these are all sensible questions. He’s just being prudent. Then a priest comes by. The priest probably asks himself all the same questions as the Levite. Plus, the priest has to make it to 10am Mass and there are 300 parishioners waiting for him to say Mass. He also has a responsibility to them. Besides, someone else will probably come and help this poor man; and “I just helped someone last week.”

Don’t we all think that way? I do. I work in the Queen and Jarvis area of Toronto. Every day I pass five, six – maybe more – homeless people or people who are begging. Sometimes they’re sleeping on the subway grates – that’s where the warm air blows out. And people are stepping over them. Is he asleep? Is he passed out? Is he dead? No one knows; no one cares. If you call 911 you have to stay on the line and when the ambulance or police arrive they need to take your name and your statement – and then maybe the guy was just sleeping! I’ve got other things to do. Someone else will come and help. That’s what we think.

Martin Luther King, when speaking about the Parable of the Good Samaritan said that the Levite and the Priest ask themselves a very good question, “If I help this man, what will happen to me?” That’s a good question. But the Samaritan asks a better question, “If I don’t help this man, what will happen to him?” Sometimes we just don’t want to get dirty.

It reminds me of a story I heard once from a friend, Catholic singer/songwriter, Steve Angrisano. He has a friend – let’s call him John – who went to volunteer with Mother Teresa’s sisters in Calcutta. Anyone can go; you can volunteer and they even give you a place to stay. He took a month off work and went. Around the second day he’s there he’s about to come out of his room and there’s a knock on the door. He opens and standing there is a 5-foot-tall nun – It’s Mother Teresa! She says to him “today, you come with me” and turns to go. John follows her, down the stairs, out the door, down the street, around the corner, down an alley, across the street, under a bridge, into another alley and there, lying face down in the gutter is a man. He could’ve been dead. He was filthy and covered in sores. It looked like rats had been gnawing at his sores. And the stench! Mother Teresa says, “Bring him” and she turns to go. Bring him?! You mean I have to touch him? But, how do you say no to Mother Teresa? So John picks up man, doing his best not to touch him – and doing his best not to gag – and follows Mother Teresa back to the house. There, in the bathroom, she’s running the water in the tub. She says to John, “Bathe him.” John is thinking, “I don’t think I can do this.” But how do you say no to Mother Teresa? And she was gone anyway. So John does his best. He carefully undresses the man and puts him in the tub. Immediately the water turns black because he’s so filthy. He empties the tub and re-fills it. He has to do this a few times and then begins, as best he can, to wash the man.

Then he says that he sort of lost track of time. And he doesn’t know how to explain it and it sounds corny when he talks about it but he says, that for a split second, for an instance, he saw Jesus; that man was Jesus. For split second! He continued washing the man, then he took him out of the tub, wrapped him up in a towel and sat down on the floor, leaning against the tub, holding the man across his lap. He then noticed that Mother Teresa was standing at the door. He doesn’t know if she was there for 2 seconds or 2 minutes or 20 minutes. She was looking at him. He looked up, they made eye contact and Mother Teresa said, “You saw him, didn’t you?”

When we help the needy, Christ is made present. Especially if that needy person is a stranger. Because, who is the neighbour? It’s the Samaritan.

If Jesus was telling this story today, the man would be an Israeli Jew who goes where he’s not supposed to go and so he gets robbed and beaten and left for dead. Some Jews come by, a Rabbi comes by and no one helps him. Then a Palestinian comes by and he helps. A Muslim Arab from Palestine is the one who helps. Or a Jihadi ISIS fighter is the one who comes by and he helps! That’s the neighbour: the one who you don’t like, who’s different, who’s difficult to understand. Your neighbour is that person who’s your enemy; that annoying person, that person who makes you uncomfortable. That person who’s in a wheelchair and who makes strange noises and grunts. The person at work who’s from some other country and smells. The person who hurts you; who makes bad choices and hurts you; the woman addict who continues taking drugs even though she’s pregnant; the guy who just came back from marching at the Pride Parade; the trans-gendered person. That’s your neighbour.

Most of us are not going to be called to care for someone who’s half dead. In fact, that’s easy. Most of us would do that, no problem. What’s hard is what we are asked to do every day, which is to be kind, to reach out to the stranger that we see every day at work, at the grocery store, the migrant worker, the beggar at the bank. How about the people we see every Sunday at Mass and we don’t even know their names? That’s your neighbour. We come to Mass to receive Jesus in the Eucharist – Jesus who is the ultimate Good Samaritan – not just so that we can be in communion with him but also so we can be in communion with each other, so we can be the body of Christ.

Who is your neighbour? The one who shows mercy to the stranger. Let’s all go and do the same.

From → English, Reflections

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