The author of an article in the Washington Post on Friday observed how we in America began the past week celebrating freedom and ended it in grief and mourning. This is a distressing pattern that has played out repeatedly across the country. Clearly these last few weeks and months—although it’s been going on for much, much longer—it is becoming increasingly more challenging to understand how we, many of us claim to be Christians, fail to grasp the substance of Jesus’ response to the question posed to him in today’s Gospel reading, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s not rocket science.
The word “neighbor” typically evokes in us sentiments such as warm hospitality, generosity and open-heartedness, the willingness to include, to support, to welcome, to accommodate, the graciousness to overlook petty faults and differences, to invite others to an abundant table, to engaging dialogue, to infectious laughter, to joyful song. But instead, it seems many people across our country and across the world are increasingly more fearful of each other, more defensive, more easily offended, more distrustful and suspicious, more inflexible, more unaccommodating. We are hearing voices raised more often and more loudly in anger and frustration, encouraging mistrust and suspicion, advocating exclusion, division, violence, and vengeance. For a while this kind of speech was the distinctive hallmark of bigotry, insurgency, extremism, and terrorism. But some of it has gone mainstream and many of us seem unalarmed, choosing instead to ignore the racket thinking it will go away on its own. Instead, as time goes by we grow more complacent and unreactive. When we fail to register our disapproval or dismay, we give tacit permission for them to continue doing what they are doing. Unhindered and unopposed, they slowly and shamelessly gain courage and nerve in their careless crusade to fan the flames of discontent and division. Violence is typically an admission of defeat that all other measures have failed, or are doomed to fail. It is often a response in desperation, similar to that of a wounded animal lashing out indiscriminately to inflict the greatest possible damage on anything and everything around it.
Two weeks ago, the UK voted to leave the European Union, a vote many of their citizens have slowly began to regret. But the “Leave” advocates who crusaded most vocally for the measure have been walking back their campaign promises, and since the vote, have been denouncing and destroying one another. They continue to quarrel and struggle to absorb the consequences of that choice. Then the refugee crisis in Europe has divided governments and political parties in many countries as well, preventing a unified humane response to the ongoing suffering of many. And even in our country, the failure of the Supreme Court to hand down a definitive response in the issue of illegal immigration brought on by increasingly polarized and divisive politics at the highest levels of our government has left thousands of families uncertain of their future.
When the scholar of the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” was he truly lacking in understanding? Or was he looking for a legal definition? The gospel passage says he was doing it to justify himself. He had some idea. He just wanted to make sure.
I am reminded of the kind of questions children might sometimes ask grown-ups. “If I do this, is it a sin? How about if I did it slightly different? How about now? What if it happened accidentally? What if someone else made me do it? Would I be more guilty than them or less?” It sounds more like a blatant search for some loophole, some excuse to evade the truth. So what excuses have we come up with lately? Oh, I know who my neighbor is, and I will gladly come to their assistance. But I cannot in conscience if they’re voting for the other candidate. Or they don’t speak English. Or they’re in the country illegally. Or they belong to that minority. Or they profess that religion. Or they wear that headgear. Or they don’t like to wear shoes. Or they don’t eat meat. Or they don’t read my version of the bible. Or they don’t denounce the people I don’t like. Or they don’t wear a flag pin on their lapel. Or they refuse to say the exact words that identify some other group I don’t like. Or they work in Washington DC. Or they only use Apple products. Or they drive foreign cars. Or they don’t watch Game of Thrones. Or they don’t like the new Star Trek. Do other people cease to be our neighbor because of how they look or because of something they do, speak, eat, or wear? It seems our best neighbors would have to be perfect images of ourselves … or we would only get along with everyone if we are blind, deaf, and oblivious.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul reminds us that “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God. … In him all the fullness [of God] was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross …” The fullness of God dwells in Jesus. He is the very image of the Father. And by the blood of his cross, he meant to make peace and bring about reconciliation with God and with us. So we who follow in his way carry on his mission of reconciliation and peace in the world. If that is not who we are, then we are not disciples of Jesus Christ.
Some years ago, I was participating in a discussion on welcoming the stranger among us. Someone asked why we should receive the illegal immigrant. Do we do it because they are Catholic? I had to speak up. No, not because they are Catholic, but because WE ARE. We do not choose to be a neighbor to others because they are first a neighbor to us. In the first letter of John we read how we love God because God has loved us first. It is in God’s nature to love. It is in our nature as Christians to be true neighbors to one another.
Moses reminds us in the first reading from Deuteronomy something that we can hear Jesus himself tell us, “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.”
“And who is my neighbor?” the scholar of the law asked Jesus. We need to stop making excuses, and looking for loopholes. We can’t wait for people to be a neighbor to us first. It should come naturally if we know who we are. “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” Pope Francis tells us in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. And we who are Jesus’ disciples are his face in the world. We claim we are Christians. We need to start acting like it. We are Jesus’ face in the world, the very face of the Father’s mercy.
Rolo B Castillo © 2016