Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

One sweltering hot, Texas summer afternoon, Stephanie and I stood staring into the back of an empty moving van. The very next morning we were due to move back to the Washington area. All of our belongings were inside the house, boxed and ready to go. The only problem was, we had no idea how the two of us were going to move it into the truck. There were too many heavy crates and big pieces of furniture.

Then, all of a sudden, from across the street, came a phalanx of athletic-looking teenage boys. They were members of the big Baptist church across the street, and they explained that their youth minister had asked them to load our truck for us. Stephanie and I were stunned but delighted. These polite young men expertly filled our truck in no time at all, and all we had to do was smile and serve them Cokes. The Lord does work in unexpected and mysterious ways!

Now, it might fairly be said that these teenagers were "Good Samaritans." In popular parlance, a "Good Samaritan" is a generous, kind-hearted, selfless person who is always willing to lend a helping hand to a neighbor. The Baptist youth group members certainly fit this bill. However, to understand "Good Samaritans" in this rather limited way doesn’t do full justice to the hero in our Lord’s parable.

A "Good Samaritan," according to Jesus’ definition, is one who genuinely loves his or her neighbor. At first, this may sound rather unexceptional, since the people in our neighborhoods- those who live nearby us- often come from backgrounds similar to ours, and we feel comfortable with them. However, Jesus’ understanding of neighbor is far more expansive and inclusive. It’s only when we come to appreciate this that we begin to grasp the magnitude of what the Good Samaritan did on the road to Jericho.

First, our neighbor might be an enemy. This was certainly true of Jews and Samaritans, who in Jesus’ day had lived in a state of mutual acrimony for some six hundred years. To put it in more contemporary terms, what the Good Samaritan did for the beaten Jewish traveler was the equivalent of a Croat aiding a Serb, a Hutu helping a Tutsi, an Indian Hindu assisting a Pakistani Muslim, a Crip loving a Blood, an Irish Catholic reaching out to an Orangeman, a Jew embracing a Nazi.

Our neighbors also include those of different races. This would have shocked Jesus’ Jewish audience, who understood "neighbor" as referring to one’s fellow Jew. Yet this teaching challenges us as well, because racism, assuming a variety of forms ranging from indifference to overt hostility, continues to plague our society. Perhaps the biggest problem is the denial that it doesn’t exist. As a priest friend of mine once remarked, "Never in twenty years of priesthood have I heard the sin of racism admitted in the confessional."

Our neighbors also include those we may be tempted to think don’t deserve our help. The Good Samaritan may have thought this of the man he took care of. The road they walked was notoriously dangerous, and a solitary traveler would have been ready prey for robbers and thugs. To journey alone was to invite trouble, and it would have been easy to conclude that a victim of violence simply got what he or she deserved. Some people today draw similar conclusions about those with AIDS. Others presume to make distinctions between what they call the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. We Christians, however, must always remember that God lavishes his grace on us, not because we deserve it- because we don’t- but because we need it. That’s true love, and it should characterize how we respond to the needs of others.

This brings to mind the experience of a woman I know well. Her husband of many years, an alcoholic with a violent streak, subjected her to extreme emotional abuse during their more than two decades of married life. To end this bondage, she finally found the courage and strength to leave him. Yet because they share responsibility for their school age children, they by necessity continue to communicate on a regular basis. It would be easy for her to consider him an enemy, and many people wouldn’t fault her if she bad-mouthed him to their children. In terms of strict justice, he certainly doesn’t merit any kindnesses from her. But yet this woman of great faith has come to understand her "ex" not as an adversary to be attacked, but as a person in great need of healing and understanding. And so she prays for him, fasts for him, actively desires his good, seeks to strengthen his bonds with their children, and even improve the relationship between them. She, who takes emotional risks and truly gives of herself for one who most people would not consider a neighbor, is truly a "Good Samaritan" in every sense of the word.

Her indiscriminate love is an inspiration to me, and perhaps also to you. These concluding words from St. Francis of Assisi, describe her, and indeed every Good Samaritan, very well: " Being the servant of all, I am bound to serve all, and to administer the balm-bearing words of my Lord."


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