Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

posted from YouTube

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mr. Rogers took it upon himself to introduce young children to the next immediate circle of people after their own family, their neighborhood. As I did not personally watch this show, I will be making some assumptions that are open to correction. This is not my field of expertise. So if I am wrong, tell me. I won’t mind.

Mr. Rogers invited his television viewers into his home, and we invited him into ours. He invited in and introduced us to the people who make up his neighborhood: the police officer, the mail carrier, the newspaper boy, the milkman (who has since been downsized), the town doctor and dentist, the grocer, the gas station attendant, and so on.

In most neighborhoods, these relationships are typical, even necessary to their life, especially in the suburbs. So we expect there to be at least one in every neighborhood. We know who ours are, or at least we ought to. When we see them, we acknowledge them with a wave or a kind word. When we are in need, we do not hesitate to call on them. If we ever see them in need, we would be more than happy to help out. But what happens when we set foot outside our neighborhood? What happens when we find ourselves in someone else’s ‘hood?

We expect these neighborhood professionals to always welcome us and treat us kindly. It’s just what we expect of them. They are at home where they live and work, among the people with whom they live and work. We would expect them to treat visitors to their neighborhood with the same courtesy as they do the people who live there. But would we do for them the same as we expect of them? The act of being neighborly, then, should not depend on any one specific place. Being a neighbor is not determined by what other people do or say, or what they look like. To be a neighbor is a choice we make regardless of where we are or who we are with. It is more an attitude than it is any one specific action.

priest, minister & rabbi

In the gospel reading today, Jesus tells his listeners a story using very familiar images. We have heard the story so many times ourselves, we might have stopped paying attention to its meaning. Jesus’ listeners were familiar with stories that introduce three characters, the last of whom revealed the moral of the story. When we hear a story beginning with, “A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar,” we expect the rabbi to be the punch line. So Jesus’ listeners expected to hear about a priest, a Levite and a Jew, the last of whom would exemplify for them what the proper behavior, speech or thought patterns they should imitate. But Jesus took a different route. Instead of a Jew, he introduced a Samaritan. Now some of you may have heard about the animosity between Jews and Samaritans. They so detested and despised each other, their poison passed on to the next generation without much explanation. It was just the way things were, much like racism, prejudice and partisan politics would be in our day.

So Jesus’ listeners could not identify with the Samaritan. That left only one other character in the story – the man who was attacked by robbers. He had to be a Jew, since he was traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho. But that left their hero at the mercy of the dreaded Samaritan, who quite unexpectedly behaved in a totally unbelievable way. Nonetheless, the enemy, the outcast, the one whom they despised would teach them a profound lesson. And still they could not call him by name. When Jesus asked them who was a true neighbor to the man who had been mugged, the scholar of the law would say, “The one who treated him with mercy.” But that did not stop Jesus from challenging them and us all. “Go and do likewise.”

If you belonged to a group toward whom certain people harbored animosity, hatred and anger, sometimes totally without cause, what group would you belong to?  You would be Catholic. A Yankee. A Democrat. A Republican. A Communist. A Socialist. A member of Congress. Irish. Polish. French. Canadian. West Virginian. Dark-skinned. Left handed. Disabled. Retired. Foreign-born. Divorced. Remarried. Homeless. Undocumented. Unemployed. Bi-polar. Addicted. Recovering. A teenager. A senior. If one or more of these apply to you, this story is for you. And Jesus tells us, “Go and do as the Samaritan did.” He meant – Be neighbor to those who despise you. Reach out to those who want nothing to do with you. Be merciful to those who wish you harm. Resist the temptation to hurt those who have hurt you. Provide for the needs of those who call you names. Bind their wounds. Lift them to safety. Feed them. Extend peace, compassion, patience, forgiveness, kindness. And if you can be a neighbor to your own enemy, how is it possible that you would be less of a neighbor toward your own family and friends?

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This parable is not primarily an exhortation to serve the poor and the victim of injustice. Instead, it is an invitation to reach out to those who would never call us their neighbor. We do not know what the injured man thought of the Samaritan who came to his aid, whether his opinion about Samaritans in general was at all affected, whether he would repay him for his trouble, whether he would reciprocate the kindness toward other Samaritans. But we do know what the Samaritan thought of the man who had been attacked. To this generous soul, the injured man was not primarily a Jew, not a victim of misfortune, not a charity case, not a political pawn. First and foremost, he was a neighbor. And that has made all the difference.

“For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

There is an elephant in the room. In light of today’s gospel, I am troubled by what the verdict means in the trial of George Zimmerman, but not whether or not he is guilty of the death of Trayvon Martin. I am troubled because as a community our actions express what we truly believe. What does it mean that we have gated communities, and neighborhood watch, and armed neighborhood watch volunteers … I’m not saying we don’t need them. I’m saying our actions express what we truly believe. So what is it about being a neighbor that we truly believe? It will show in the choices we make and in the way we live.

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Rolo B. Castillo © 2013