Not My Neighbor

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s summer and life in the Shenandoah Valley is fairly quiet and uneventful. We have been spending time with loved ones, here and elsewhere, traveling to interesting places, walking around the neighborhood, eating out occasionally, going to the movies, getting ice cream, watching neighborhood baseball games, relaxing on the deck, in the backyard, by the pool, reading a book, enjoying a favorite beverage, pleasantly drifting in and out of consciousness, or just living a fairly quiet and uneventful summer. Maybe that’s just an illusion I’ve created in my head of how other people live. But I’m not too far off the mark, I don’t think. You fill in the gaps. How is your summer going?

In the meantime, Hurricane Barry has made landfall along the Gulf Coast. So they’re going to be busy. The recent earthquakes in southern California have worried many communities, as they still face aftershocks, clean up, damage assessment, and rebuilding. There’s the continuing chaos unfolding at the southern border, and the highly politicized planned raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement beginning this weekend in ten major cities. The Middle East continues to be a hotbed of mistrust and violence. Trade wars are unsettling investors. Economic sanctions are hurting the poor more than their governments. Then here in Virginia, our lawmakers just refused to even address the scourge of gun violence, meaning nothing will change anytime soon. There’s the usual turmoil churning in the nation’s capital, so their summer is not going as pleasantly as ours. Some might even show up in the valley to get away. So be nice. You never know what troubles people around you are carrying.

But even if we did know of the troubles people around us are carrying, would it make a difference? In the prayers of the faithful, we often call on God to look upon us kindly and relieve our hurts and suffering. We will pray for those who struggle with poverty, conflict, illness, and grief. We will plead with God to bring to conversion the hardened hearts of the selfish, the arrogant, and the unrepentant. We will ask God to give strength to the weak, hope to the desperate, and courage to the faint of heart. And we will leave from this place to return to our quiet and uneventful lives thinking we have contributed our fair share to rid the world of selfishness, suffering, and darkness.

But a certain scholar of the law in today’s gospel reading won’t leave well alone. He just had to open his mouth. We are told he did it to “test” Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Although the idea of an eternal reward in the life to come was as yet not a commonly held belief, nonetheless people still thought they could actively earn it for themselves. The word the scholar used was “inherit.” An inheritance is an entirely unmerited gift that is not determined one bit by the recipient, but rather comes from the totally gracious generosity of the giver of that gift. After a little sidebar about what the Law requires, the scholar asks that all-important question. “Who is my neighbor?”

He must have thought it was a brilliant move, asking “Who is my neighbor?” And yes, the question did prompt Jesus to give us this heartwarming illustration of genuine compassion and gracious concern for the most helpless and vulnerable in our midst. But it also exposed the darkness within his heart and the hearts of all decent and religiously observant people by pointing to yet another question that was never asked but was very much implied. By asking “Who is my neighbor?” he was also inquiring about the limits to which he was expected to extend compassion and concern for the helpless and vulnerable. “So could you also tell me, who is NOT my neighbor?”

He probably didn’t intend the darker question that went unasked. And for the most part, we have likely never read anything sinister into it all this time. But on closer examination, I think it was the question that Jesus actually ended up addressing.

Now in most stories, the main character is naturally the one the reader might identify with. But there is often an important twist in the stories Jesus tells. His listeners should have been paying closer attention. So if the main character, the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, had not himself been attacked, but had instead come upon a fellow traveler all bruised and bloodied by the side of the road—whether a priest, a Levite, or a Samaritan—he probably would have had no difficulty figuring out under those circumstances who he could and should help. The priest and the Levite, most definitely. The Samaritan, well, not so fast. We’re going to need some more information.

Now in the parable Jesus told, since the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho was the one in need, we can all surely agree he wouldn’t have cared who came to help him. And if you or I were bruised and bloodied by the side of the road, I don’t think we would be picky either. So by instructing his listeners to “Go and do likewise,” Jesus is directing us to not discriminate between people we should and should not be neighbor to. If it wouldn’t matter to the one in need of help, and it wouldn’t matter if we were that person, our compassion and concern for people needing help would be exactly what we would want others to extend to us if and when we were in need of help.

“This command that I enjoin on you todayis not too mysterious and remote for you,” we read in the book of Deuteronomy.“No, it is something very near to you,already in your mouths and in your hearts;you have only to carry it out.” God assures us that we are essentially hardwired to extend compassion and concern to our neighbor when they are hurting or in need. But we know from experience that people can just as easily learn to hate, to hurt, and to ignore their neighbor in need. Clearly, we need to be reminded every so often—not to pre-judge who we should and should not be neighbor to, but in fact to graciously and generously extend compassion and concern to whoever we come upon, whether in need or not, whether deserving or not, whether or not we even get an assurance our compassion and concern would be reciprocated.

Who we claim to be as disciples of Jesus should be consistent regardless of who is around. Our compassion and concern for the vulnerable and those who hurt should not be determined by circumstances outside our control. Otherwise, we are disciples only when it is convenient. Religious law and civil law might clarify for us who is and who is not a neighbor. But Jesus instructs us in no uncertain terms that we who claim to be his disciples should always treat others as we hope we would treated by those we consider to be neighbors. God does it for us all the time. “Go and do likewise.”

And with that, we return to our previously scheduled programming, back to our quiet and uneventful lives in the Shenandoah Valley.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019

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