July 14, 2019
Fr. Joseph Jacobi
What must I do to inherit eternal life? That’s the question, right? The most important question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? But if eternal life comes to us by loving God with all that we are (mind, heart, being, and strength) and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then we want to know, with the scholar of the law, who our neighbor is we are to love.
The scholar of the law, having spent his life immersed in Sacred Scripture, knows the specific command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is found only one place in the entire Hebrew Scriptures, in the 19th chapter of the Book of Leviticus. “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) But he also knows that a few verses later in this 19th chapter of Leviticus, the Word of God says: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for the alien as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34) (Now the word “alien” does not refer to creatures from another planet, but to the foreigners living in the midst of the people of Israel.)
But what about aliens who do not live in one’s village? What about strangers or people met along the road? To the scholar of the law, the command to love one’s neighbor is still unclear. He wants Jesus to clearly define who the neighbor is, to put some boundaries around this commandment to love, to place some limits on it.
Notice Jesus does not answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”. In fact, the man who is half-dead, who is helped by the Good Samaritan, could be anyone from anywhere—he has no name, no identity, no race, no ethnicity, and is not identified as belonging to the nation of Israel or any other nation. The only thing that identifies him is he is someone who is in need.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us what it looks like to be neighbor by treating whoever is in need with mercy. Jesus turns the whole question of “Who is my neighbor” on its head. Instead of judging whether others are worthy of love and then limiting one’s love to this or that group, Jesus instead challenges us to judge ourselves to see whether we are neighbor to those in need.
Being neighbor to those in need flows from compassion, which gives birth to mercy. Compassion—feeling with others, opening ourselves to their pain— leads to doing something for them.
The priest and the Levite are self-centered and selfish— they do nothing at all for the man in need. The Good Samaritan is moved by compassion and treats the hurting man with mercy. Why?
Martin Luther King puts it this way. The priest and the Levite, upon seeing the man half-dead alongside the road, ask themselves: “If I help this man, what will happen to me” The Good Samaritan acts with mercy because he asks himself a different question: “If I do not help this man, what will happen to him?”
The English word, “compassion”, in this Gospel text comes from the Greek word: splanchnizomai. It literally means to be moved in one bowels, to be moved in the depths of one’s person. It is the same Greek verb used to express what happens in the Merciful Father’s heart when he sees his prodigal son returning home, propelling the Father to run out and embrace his wayward son. It is a strong feeling, very different from pity, for to “pity” someone simply means we look down upon them—”you poor thing.” To have compassion means to feel in our heart something of the pain the other feels.
Compassion leads to doing something, to acting with mercy. Compassion can be felt, but mercy needs to be enacted with the body. Compassion is the fuel for concrete acts of mercy, for tending to the wounds of others.
This parable of mercy reveals that love of neighbor, being a compassionate neighbor to others, demonstrates one’s love for God. For we cannot love the God we do not see if we do not love the neighbor we can see. (cf 1 John 4:20)
Love of God is seen most clearly in love of neighbor, and cannot be separated from love of neighbor. By neglecting our neighbor in need, we distance ourselves from God.
This commandment to love neighbor extends beyond individual interaction to the way nations interact with each other, as our Pope pointed out on January 7th in his address to the Vatican diplomatic corps. Pope Francis’ plea this past January to the ambassadors of the Holy See might be summarized as, “Put Your Neighbors First Again.” He challenged all nations, America included, to go beyond policies which isolate them from the rest of the world and instead recognize our shared humanity, which goes beyond borders.
The reality of global interdependence, according to Pope Francis, is that all peoples have their common origin in God. Also, all peoples share a common destiny, to return to God who made them for himself.
Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Catholic Social teaching is built on this foundational truth, from which flows respect for the dignity of every person, respect for every human life.
So, fear must be overcome by respecting the dignity of the other, and that hatred which fear easily gives birth to must be vanquished by compassion.
When the foreigner, the Samaritan, is held up by Jesus as a model for acting with mercy, can we not act with mercy toward the foreigner? The United States is at its greatest by attending to the needs of our neighbors first, especially those in greatest need.
In Jesus Christ, we see God and humanity come together. In Jesus Christ, we see God and the neighbor come together. In Jesus Christ, we see God is love, and that to love God, we must love the neighbor.
Jesus Christ is the Good Samaritan who binds our wounds, who lifts us up and loves us into new life, and then sends us forth to do the same.
Now we have an answer to the Gospel of last Sunday regarding how we are to proclaim the Kingdom of God. We are sent by Jesus as one of the “72” missionary disciples to love as we have been loved: to love our neighbor, placing no limits on who that might be; to be a neighbor to others hurting along the road; to act with Mercy!