11 July 2010

Who is My Neighbor?

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 11 July 2010

Readings: Dt 30:10-14; Ps 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; 1:15-20; Lk 10:25-37

The Gospel passage this Sunday is an extended discussion on the greatest commandment: to love God with our whole being, and our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus tells the scholar of the law who is conversing with him: “do this and you will live”. Because the lawyer "wishes to justify himself", he decides to probe Jesus further: “and who is my neighbor?”.

What follows next is one of the most familiar and well-loved stories in the Bible: the parable of the good Samaritan. I would like to share my reflection on Jesus’ answer in four ways.

1. The neighbor is not somebody we can manipulate or exploit for our own ends.

What the robbers did was an undeniably foul deed. The traveler left half-dead by the road side was an image that cried to the heavens. Anybody who has been robbed or mugged would know the frustration and humiliation one feels at having one’s rights and dignity violated.

In the latest film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, actress Helena Bonham Carter plays the Red Queen, the villain in the story who gets irritated easily, bullies practically everybody and inflicts punishment on her subjects as she pleases. The Red Queen’s head was digitally increased three times its original size on screen. It was upon the suggestion of the actress who took inspiration from her young daughter, a toddler at that time, stating that, "The Red Queen is just like a toddler, because she’s got a big head and she’s a tyrant. Toddlers have no sympathy for any living creature," adding, "(she) just bosses us around with no 'please' or 'thank yous’.”

The Red Queen may be an over-sized caricature but she reminds us of those times when we let our self-interests blind us from treating others fairly and with dignity. When we become this insensitive, we let our inner toddler get the best of us. We deal with others as if they were mere means to an end rather than neighbors.

2. The neighbor is not somebody we can simply overlook in pursuit of nobler goals or higher purposes.

I would like to say that I approach this parable not without a bit of trepidation for it usually leads me to question how much I practice what I preach. Maybe I speak for the rest of us, but mainly just for myself, when I say this parable reminds me of those (few) times when I hesitate or evade to help somebody who comes asking for help. Or those times when even when I am helping, I also grumble and complain. Or those times when I succumb to the urge to let people know how I have helped and been good to others.

We may not be passing by unmindful of semi-dead victims by the roadside, but our propensity to easily fall into apathy (or self-promotion) makes us so alike the priest and the Levite in the story. Not much is said about what they may be thinking when they decided to ignore the hapless victim in plain sight. Whether it is about maintaining ritual purity or some other noble consideration, nothing justifies their act of omission. They just don’t get it, they miss the mark. As we sometimes do as well.

The Hebrew word for sin is “pescha”, which is literally translated as “missing the mark”, like an archer who fails to hit the bull’s eye. To sin is not to hit the mark set by God; it is to not pass by God’s standards.

The rich man, in another parable involving a poor man named Lazarus, missed the mark when he didn’t think it was an injustice to live comfortably while he paid no attention to the poor man who died of hunger (and possibly rabies, too) by his doorsteps.

On the contrary, dropping whatever it is we are doing to attend to a friend in crisis, a stranger in need, or simply a child who longs to be picked up are what makes us truly human. It is the small things - those little acts of kindness and devotion - that make up the big things in life.

3. The neighbor is us.

At the end of the parable, Jesus changed the perspective of the story by asking which of the three was neighbor to the victim. The neighbor was not just the one in need but also the one who was given an opportunity to help.

This forever set the standard for being a Christian, indeed for being a human person. Regardless of belief, race, orientation, relationship status or any other categories, a Christian is called to reach out and help any one in need. Any time and place a person is found in need is a sacred time and place, an opportunity for growth in holiness.

St. Paul in Rom 13,8 says: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

4. The neighbor is Christ.

This comes in two senses. First, we may say that Christ is found also in the neighbor in need. Mt 25,40 has the Lord saying: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”.

St. Teresa of Avila advises: “Look for Christ our Lord in everyone and you will then have respect and reverence for all”.

Second, try answering this question: "Who in the Scriptures best exemplifies one who reaches out to another person in need, who goes out of his way to seek the fallen and comfort the weary, who shows his love and care in ways that defy expectations?"

The answer, of course, is God, as revealed by Jesus, who time and again displays how He loves us most generously and gratuitously.

Ultimately, the Good Samaritan, the unlikely hero who saves, is the image of Jesus Christ Himself, “the stone rejected by the builders”. And if we truly are Christians, we ought to be following His lead, bearing God’s love and mercy to those in need.

The first greatest commandment tells us to worship God with our whole being. The second proceeds from the first for by not missing the mark, by treating others with mercy, we become like God in our whole being.

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