Drawing Near to Our Neighbor in a Globally Indifferent World, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), July 14, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fifteenth Sunday in OT, Year C
July 14, 2013
Dt 30:10-14; Col1:15-20; Lk 10:25-37

The lawyer in today’s Gospel asks Jesus one of the most important questions a man or woman, a boy or a girl, can: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What do I have to do, in other words, to get to heaven? We don’t get to heaven simply by being born. We don’t get to heaven by coasting there. It’s a choice, or more precisely, a series of choices, and the most important ones we’ll ever make. Jesus questioned the lawyer what he himself thought the answer was to his own question, and the lawyer gave what Jesus admitted was the right response. Putting together two parts of what God had revealed in the Old Testament, the lawyer said that to inherit eternal life we must love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Deut 6:5) and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18). On these two commandments, Jesus himself said elsewhere, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:40). These two commandments are a summary, in other words, of the entire Old Testament. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.” The whole Old Testament was God’s revelation to help his people enter into life and be prepared to embrace “life to the full” (Jn 10:10) when it finally was revealed in the person, words and deeds of Jesus.

The Extent of Our Neighborhood

But as conceptually simple as Jesus’ answer is, there are obviously some practical considerations — for us and the lawyer — to putting it into practice. There are clearly practical issues involved in loving God not with “some” but with one-hundred percent of our mind, heart, soul and strength, as well as one-hundred percent of our time, talents, and wallets. But the scholar of the law didn’t ask Jesus for help putting that it to practice. Instead, he asked him to make concrete how he was to love his neighbor, by querying, “Who is my neighbor?” We’ve heard Jesus’ answer so many times that to us the answer might seem obvious, but it wasn’t at the time of the lawyer. In fact the question of who is one’s neighbor was one of the most discussed and controversial debates among Israelites. A typical Jew was raised with an attitude to which Jesus referred in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5:43). Therefore, if one were to love one’s neighbor and detest one’s enemy, it was crucial to determine who was one’s neighbor and who was one’s adversary. Almost all Jews admitted that one’s neighbor extended beyond one’s family or those who lived physically proximate. Most interpreters considered that one’s neighbor included all fellow Israelites and those gentiles who adhered to the Mosaic law. But no one was quite prepared for Jesus’ answer, which he gave in the form of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He basically said that everyone is in our neighborhood — even those considered enemies, as Jews and Samaritans deemed each other.

The identity of the Good Samaritan

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus stressed that God’s love had no limits and that likewise there be no limit to our love for neighbor. The first point about God’s love is often missed, but the Fathers of the Church (the saintly bishops of the early Church) saw this as the necessary “background” for the proper understanding of the parable. They saw MAN as that person who had started to go down from the place of God’s dwelling, represented by Jerusalem, to Jericho, literally the lowest place on earth (1000 meters below sea level). His descent was sin. While walking in paradise, man was ambushed by the evil one, who left him at the brink of death because of sin. The priest and the Levite were, respectively, those who even though they knew the law and the prophets, chose to pass the nearly-dead sinner by, so that they would not be contaminated by his sins. Eventually Christ, the Good Samaritan, came. When he beheld this man half dead, he had compassion on him and for all his wounds caused by sin. So, as we read in the parable, “he approached.” Christ approached all the way from heaven, getting so close as to take on our nature, becoming  “God-with-us” (Mt 1:23). He poured the oil and wine of his redemptive blood on man’s wounds to heal them. He brought him to the inn, which represents the Church, and gave the inn-keepers (all of us in the Church) the instruction for them to care for the human person until he returned and to help nurse him back from sins to the full health of holiness. The extremely generous two denarii and the promise for more upon his return were the treasure of Christ’s merits, especially the sacraments, which continue the healing process within man. Finally, the reference to his return was an allusion to the second coming, when Jesus will come to repay each of us according to our deeds (Rom 2:6).

The parable of the Good Samaritan, therefore, is first a commentary on God’s love for us and, secondly, a clear illustration of Christ’s statement during the Last Supper, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Our love for each other is based not merely on our love for ourselves — “love your neighbor as yourself” — but on God’s love for us. Never in the Gospel did Jesus say, merely, “Do what I say.” He stated time and again, “Come, follow me!” He would set us an example and then tell us to imitate him. That is why Jesus was able to say at the end of the parable, “Go and do the same;” we were to follow his example of love. He was calling us to go out to seek those who have been ambushed by the evil one and left at the point of death in sin, and patiently take them to the Church to nurse them back to health. He was also explicitly calling us to cross the road and approach all those who have been mugged, bruised, beaten, victimized, and abandoned by others in this world and use our donkeys to bring them to safety, use our money to nurse them back to health. In other words, Jesus was giving us marching orders to love others — even those who seem to be our enemies, even those we find most despicable  — to the point of sacrificing our lives, our goods, our time for them.

Hence, Jesus gives all of us a point on which to examine our consciences today. To be a Good Samaritan means to behave like Christ and draw close to those who are in need, close enough to become their neighbor. And so we can ask ourselves: When we see someone in need — like someone whose car has broken down on the highway, or someone who has just lost her job, or someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one — do we behave like the priest and the Levite, who, although outwardly religious, pass by on the other side of the road, afraid to get our hands dirty and commit our time to helping someone in dire straits? Or when we see someone in need, do we draw close and see how we can help, even to the point of sacrificing our own transportation, our own time, and our own money? Are we willing to be inconvenienced to help others or are we too busy minding our own business to stop and put others and their urgent needs above ourselves and our own desires?

Pope Francis in Lampedusa

On Monday, Pope Francis sought to tweak the consciences of Christians and non-Christians both by journeying to a small Italian island called Lampedusa, which is about 110 miles south of Sicily and 70 miles north of Algeria in Africa. Much like Miami is the destination for Cubans trying to escape communism on small boats no matter how stormy the Atlantic, so Lampedusa is a point of refuge for so many Africans freeing persecution and poverty. These people are often at the mercy of basically pirates who charge them a fortune (sometimes up to $40,000) to pack them as sardines on boats that wouldn’t pass inspection here in our country for a perilous 16 hour journey on a rough stretch of see. These mercenaries take advantage of them the same way the “coyotes” abuse Mexicans trying to cross the US-Mexican border illegally to find work to support their families. As the situation has gotten worse because of Muslim persecution of Christians in Africa and the problems of violence and lack of security flowing from the so-called Arab spring, more and more Africans are trying to escape — and more are dying. In April  a boat carrying 260 immigrants from Libya drowned off the coast of Lampedusa when their boat ran out of fuel, stalled, and capsized in rough seas. 47 passengers, including a pregnant women, were rescued, but 213 perished. On May 8, another boat crashed onto the rocky cliffs on the south side ofLampedusa, and several passengers were crushed to death by the underside of the boat pressing them against the rocks. Over the last 25 years — get ready for this — about 20,000 people have died on that journey. But I bet you’re like me and, prior to Pope Francis’ decision to visit Lampedusa, had never heard of this small island. The death of 20,000 just doesn’t make the international radar. Even for those who survive, after risking their life and often being abused by those who ferried them, they’re often met by welcoming xenophobia by many in Europe, similar to the hostility with which many Americans treat illegal immigrants to our country.

Pope Francis went to Lampedusa on Monday to draw near to all those who are suffering and to draw the attention of the entire world to what is going on. For the altar, the pulpit, and his pastoral staff, he used shipwrecked boat parts from the boats that became coffins. And he preached a message that even if he lives to be 100 and is our pope through 2037, may go down to be his greatest papal homily ever. I want to share some excerpts of what he said with you, because it is a powerful commentary on the Parable of the Good Samaritan and a concrete application for how we, and others, are called to be neighbor to those in need.

“Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope that became vehicles of death,” Pope Francis began. “That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. So I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated. … This morning, in the light of God’s word…, I wish to offer some thoughts meant to challenge people’s consciences and lead them to reflection and a concrete change of heart.”

He went on to ponder the first reading he had chosen for the penitential Mass, which focused on the scene of Cain and Abel, when God asked Cain after he had slain his just brother, “Where is your brother?,” and Cain responded, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” God then told Cain, “What have you done? His blood cries to me from the ground.” Cain wasn’t capable of being a neighbor even to his virtuous brother.

Pope Francis picked up on God’s question, “Where is your brother?,” and said, “This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us. These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God!” He told the story of someone he met that morning before the Mass. “Before arriving here, he had passed through the hands of traffickers, those who exploit the poverty of others, for whom the poverty of others is a source of income. How much these people have suffered! Some of them never made it here.

“’Where is your brother?’ Who is responsible for this blood?,” the Pope continued. He told the story of a Spanish play that is a powerful parable of the way our world approaches responsibility. The play “tells how the inhabitants of the city of Fuente Ovejuna killed the Governor because he was a tyrant, and did it in such a way that no one knew who had carried out the execution. And when the judge of the king asked ‘Who killed the Governor’” they all responded, ‘Fuente Ovejuna, sir.’ All and no one!’”

The Pope applied the moral of the play of Fuente Ovejuna to the lessons of Lampedusa. “Even today this question comes with force: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: “Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?” Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: ‘poor guy!,’ and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured and assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles that, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion that results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”

But where doesn’t that glacial globalized indifference come from? Pope Francis finished by saying it comes from our decreasing ability to be compassionate to others. Likewise, the solution needs to being in our hearts and tearducts. “

“But I would like us to ask [another] question: ‘Has any one of us wept because of this situation and others like it?’ Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society that has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion, suffering with” others. The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! … Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions that open the door to tragic situations like this.”

Christ’s Response to Global Indifference

Those are incredibly powerful words said by the Vicar of Christ with a force we can’t ignore.

In response to that globalized indifference, that hardness of heart that makes us insensitive to the plight of our neighbors and even our family members, Jesus calls each of us anew to be a Good Samaritan, and make ourselves neighbor to those who need our care. Every time we take care of someone else, we take care of Christ in disguise, who will be able to say to us one day, “I was ill and you took care of me” (Mt 25:36). And Christ says our salvation depends on it. “Do this and you will live,” he declares to the lawyer in today’s Gospel, which clearly implies that if we don’t do it, we won’t inherit eternal life.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said a couple of years ago words I’ve never forgotten and hope you’ll never forget. “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period.”  He was referring to Jesus stark words about the final judgment. Jesus said that he will separate the living and the dead into two groups like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He’ll place the saved on his right and the damned on his left. And he’ll say to those who are condemned, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you gave me no clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” We can update Jesus’ words in categories those of us in 2013 can’t brush aside. “I was hungry and thirsty and you told me, ‘Get a job, you lazy louch.’ I was naked and instead of clothing me and caring for me you just got aroused staring at me naked on pornographic websites. I was sick and you told me that it was just too bad that I didn’t have health insurance. I was a stranger and when I didn’t have a green card you told me to get out of ‘your’ country. I was in prison and you forgot about me or, worse, you assembled outside the penitentiary with signs and bullhorns saying I deserved to die by lethal injection.” These are things, sadly, that not just “people” say and do, but Catholics say and Catholics do, as polls attest. Rather than crossing the road to help people in such circumstances and inspiring others to join them in gestures of love, many Catholics not only don’t cross the road, but resent and oppose others helping them. In the parable on the Last Judgment, Jesus told us that those who are condemned will ask with shock and dread, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not take care of you?” In other words, “Jesus, if I knew it were truly you instead of just some greasy immigrant, or hungry alcoholic, or deadbeat on death row, I would have cared for you.” But Jesus said he will respond, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Mt 25:42-46). When we neglect the person in need, we neglect the Lord himself. When we don’t weep over others’ misfortune and try to do something about it by faithful prayer and deeds of compassion then we will be weeping over our own misfortune forever. When we, like Cain, don’t think we are our brothers’ keeper, when we don’t care for them and love them, we’re already living in Hell — we’re certainly not living in Christ’s kingdom of love — and one day that choice we’re making now will just be confirmed by God.

After the 4:00 pm Mass, a parishioner came up to me to ask what he could do. He was moved by the story of Lampedusa and wanted to do something. I told him, “Make Fall River your Lampedusa.” There are so many people hurting here and we need to begin the compassion here, just as on this day, Catholics all over the world need to begin anew our vocation to become Good Samaritans in their own towns and villages. I remember once a few years ago when the parable of the Good Samaritan came up, I gave a man the penance to go out of his way to care for someone who needs help. The man said he didn’t think he could do it. “Why?,” I asked. “Because I don’t know anyone in need,” he said. I told him, “We live in New Bedford! Every Thursday, 400 families come to our parish food pantry. There are so many homeless people, people living in shelters for the abused, people in treatment centers, kids growing up without fathers, immigrants struggling to make ends meet and learn English, senior citizens in need of a ride to the supermarket or just a visit, and so many other needs. If you don’t know anyone in need, the eyes of your heart are simply closed and need to be reawakened.” There are times that we wear horse blinders on the eyes of our heart so that we don’t see the pain and suffering around us. Jesus wants us to take off those blinders. In the Parable today, he used the image of one of the Jews’ most hated enemies — the Samaritans — to make a point. It would be as if Jesus today said no one helped the one in need except a drug pusher or KKK member or Satan worshipper. If even a Samaritan’s heart would be pierced to inconvenience himself, draw close, “waste” his wine and oil on his needs, take him to an inn, care for him himself, and give a fortune for his continued care, then how much more those who know that they’re supposed to love God with all their mind, heart, soul and strength should do so. How much more should those who would never like to be ambushed, beaten, and left for dead, learn to love their neighbors as themselves. For those of us with the vocation to be Christian, who believe in the love God has for us, who are followers of Jesus, we must, like him, be willing to do as much as our Holy Father in going to the peripheries to care with love for those whom the world would just rather forget and continue to let be victimized.

As we prepare to enter into Christ’s supreme act of love in the Last Supper and on the Cross, we call to mind that the Lord himself, like the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, was once ambushed in a garden, then stripped, beaten and left for dead on a Cross. When he was dying there, most of his disciples ran off in the other direction. Only a few faithful followers  — the Blessed Mother, St. John, St. Mary Magdalene — drew close to him. Only these proved neighbor to him. As we follow in their footsteps and approach this altar to receive the body and blood that was offered on the Cross for us, we ask the Lord for the gift that, recognizing him here under the humble appearances of bread and wine, we might recognize him in all those in need and have the courage to love him in that disguise. Jesus tells us today, to do this in memory of him, to go and do the same. May the Good Samaritan whom we’re about to receive in one-flesh union, help us from within to become his hands, his feet, his tearducts, his compassionate heart, in the midst of a globally indifferent world that desperately needs us and the whole Mystical Body to become brothers and neighbors — other Christs — to those in need.

Welcome to Lampedusa!