I am away from the parish celebrating the baptism of a college classmate’s first grandchild. I thought it good to leave you with some words from another time reflecting on our Sunday readings.
“Go and do likewise.” This seems like a pretty clear command from Jesus. You just heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, so what is it that you are to go and do likewise? Clearly the context for the parable is Jesus’ effort to tease out the scholar of the law what it means to love God and to love one’s neighbor – that’s the theory of it, but what are practical elements of the divine command? The scholar of the law never gets to that “because he wished to justify himself.” He asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And that is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. Even if the scholar figures out who his neighbor is, there are the practical matters of “doing.” Jesus words punctuate the ending: “Go and do likewise.”
We face the same questions. Shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. But parables, if they seem easy, then we probably missed the point of the parable. I think there are three things that seem to go to the core of what Jesus would have us do: see, draw near, and have compassion. Seems clear, straight forward – something we can do, yes?
Let’s consider “seeing.” The Samaritan is not the only one in the parable who sees the man in need. Think about the other two, the priest and the Levite. They see the man in need but promptly ignore him. It is probably safe to say they did not see him as neighbor. But then how did they see him? An unnecessary detour in their busy day, a burden, a liability, a threat, a “not my problem, glad that’s not me, too bad” person in the ditch. The Levite and the priest see him, but not as neighbor. And if not as neighbor, then God’s command can’t apply to him, can it? So, no need to draw near or expend compassion, right?
“And who is my neighbor?” Think about your neighbor – the folks that live next door to you. You have experience with them, you’ve talked to them – and you then see them in the morning as you are leaving for work. They are walking toward your car. How do you see them? Is it, hey “Good morning, neighbor!” –and you are glad to see them? Or maybe there in the inner dialogue, “what does he want now?” Or here comes that gossip mongering, home owner’s association know-it-all, “you’ve already borrowed half of my tools and not returned them” guy? How do you see them?
You are a friar in formation, assigned to a large parish in a metropolitan area. Part of your formation is your first time in prison ministry. Every Wednesday you go to Central Prison, both general population and death row. As the humongous doors close behind you on “the Row,” you feel a tenseness rising up your back into your shoulders. Your eyes dart left-and-right as you take it all in. Every prison movie you’ve seen begins to reply highlights in your mind. When you enter the room serving as a chapel, there are the 10 men assembled for Catholic services. You see them, but how do you see them? You continue to think your mantra, “they are all children of God,” but at the same time you are not too sure you have convinced yourself. Will you draw close? Can you summons up compassion for these convicted killers?
A year later, you know their stories, you know their crimes, and you’ve met the families of some of their victims. You see them, but how do you now see them? A week later, one of the men has been removed from the Row and placed in a cell apart. His execution day is tomorrow. You are there to pray with him. You see him, but how do you see him? The next night as you stand, candle in hand at the vigil to end the death penalty, when the officer announces that this person you knew has been executed, you wonder. Did you ever see him as neighbor? You think “yes” – but there is a part that is not too sure you have convinced yourself.
The priest and Levite give the man in the ditch a wide berth, creating even more distance between them, but the Samaritan draws near and become vulnerable in that closeness. It is in the closeness that one is opened to the pain, the misery, and the need. Maybe that is what the priest and Levite really are hoping to avoid? Once the Samaritan has seen the man and drawn close, he displays compassion, tending his wounds, transporting him to the inn, making sure he is taken care of. Seeing is vital, drawing near imperative, yet the final and meaningful gesture is that the Samaritan actually does something about it.
Seeing, drawing near, and having compassion – offer us an example of what it is to be Christ-like, for God in Jesus saw our vulnerability and need, drew near in the Incarnation to embrace us, and in the cross took action by identifying with us to the very end, rising again so that death could no longer dominate us.
When we fail to see, draw near, and help those we mistrust or fear or just want to ignore, we risk missing the saving presence of God in our lives and in the world. So who, we might ask, do we have the hardest time imagining God working through? For the scholar of the Law it was the Samaritan. Maybe for you it is your annoying neighbor? Maybe it is the men in Central Prison?
It Wednesday again. You are back on the Row. As part of the communion service, the men who remain are praying and processing their thoughts about their now departed brother. He had been on the Row for 16 years. He was their neighbor. A young man, only on the Row for 5 years, offered that his friend has taught him one thing. The young man said, “I learned that even when all the world thinks I am nothing, less than nothing, and deserve nothing but my death penalty – I am a child of God. I may have thrown away my life and the lives of others, but I cannot throw that away. I am a child of God and that can never be taken from me.”
And in a moment you see anew and even as you continue to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” – you know that by drawing near and showing compassion you were given the saving presence of God. It was pure gift from a young man on the Row. He saw you as neighbor.