While in principle we believe that the Gospels shed light on every situation in which we find ourselves, and give guidance on how to act, it would be easy enough to think that nothing in particular would (by chance, by providence) arise from what just happen to be the readings for today, the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time. This is so even when we hear the words of the scholar of the law in Luke 10, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). Good words, basic values—but do they make a difference in the face of killings in St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and now in Dallas?
In pondering this gospel passage in preparation for my parish Mass this morning, I decided that the words do matter, when read in light of the sequel, where the scholar of the law asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response, the famed parable of the Good Samaritan, certainly inspires us to be compassionate, to love our neighbors.
That is Good News in itself, but it also, with more force, breaks up our ordinary ways of thinking. Probably the scholar of the law was seeking a ranked list of near-by people: my family; my friends; the people living near to where I live; the people I work with, study with, pray with. But Jesus turns things around and breaks them open in two ways we ought not to overlook.
First, he throws away the list. While various figures in the story are labeled—priest, Levite, Samaritan—the victim by the roadside, robbed and beaten, left half dead, is also stripped. I take this to indicate that all identifying markers are stripped away, so that one cannot tell who this person is. It is just an “anthropos,” a human being who could be Jew or Samaritan, male or female, rich or poor, high ranked or criminal. Today, this could be a person who is black or white, Christian or Jew or Muslim, native born or just arrived, police or criminal or innocent bystander. It doesn’t matter. It is just a human being, and the test for the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, is how they react when they encounter another person, simply as human being.
Second, Jesus changes “neighbor” from a reference to a noun to a verb: don’t list your neighbors, but be a neighbor. Although the scholar of the law asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer does not produce a narrow or broad list of potential neighbors. Rather, he puts the emphasis on the act of choosing to be a neighbor. The Samaritan saw a human being by the roadside, and knowing nothing more about him or her, is moved with compassion (10:33). He helps, as we know, helps to an extraordinary length, even promising the innkeeper to come back and check on the victim again, to see if more is needed.
Jesus’ answer to the scholar of the law is to emphasize the choice to act like a neighbor or not: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? The scholar of the law replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (10:37-38). The one who does not pass you by in your time of need, who stops even though she or he does not know anything about you, who is motivated by compassion to help you: that is a neighbor. Be a neighbor.
Our country today is faced with many serious divides, riven by fears and hatreds, all the worse because guns are so easy to get and use, so irresponsibly. St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and Dallas are but the latest tragic incidents, and surely not the last. Even if we introduced reforms today and even if, as so many have done, we committed ourselves anew to bringing people back into communities not labeled black or white, this religion or that religion, and even if we could somehow reverse the obscene proliferation of weapons, the process of rectification will take a long time.
But in the meantime, if a thousand or million times over, we act like the Samaritan in refusing to pass by at a distance, we will be releasing a force greater than all the guns and all the fears and hatred in our society. Don’t list neighbors, be a neighbor; don’t even list charitable works to do, but turn your compassion into action, when by a chance encounter someone needs you. And don’t forget: I too may someday be that lost, beaten, stripped human being by the roadside, with nothing to show for myself except that I am human; and then I will be blessed if someone comes along and makes herself or himself a neighbor to me.