Saturday, July 10, 2010
The Eucharist and Charity (15.C)
There’s an old joke about the man who went to see a lawyer. He knew how expensive lawyers could be, so he asked him straightaway, "Can you tell me how much you charge?"
"Of course", the lawyer replied, "I charge $500 to answer three questions."
"Don't you think that's an awful lot of money to answer three questions?" the man asked.
"Yes it is", answered the lawyer, "What's your third question?"
Today’s liturgy only asks one question, and the answer is free. “Who is your neighbour?”
But don’t think the answer is easy just because it’s free. You won’t find the answer by a quick read of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Because if you live in Canada, your neighbour is not likely a man beaten up by robbers and left bleeding at the side of the road. Today’s Gospel is not about your obligation to call 911 on your cell phone and wait for the ambulance.
So what is the answer?
Pope Benedict helps us out. In his encyclical letter on Christian Charity, he wrote that when Jesus taught this parable, a “neighbour” was a fellow countryman or at least a foreigner who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, a member of my community or one of my people.
“This limit,” the Pope says bluntly, “is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour.”
That’s a pretty clear definition, but it poses a problem. Can such a universal concept of neighbour still be concrete? Pope Benedict says yes. The fact that all humanity is my “neighbour” does not mean the concept has been reduced to something generic or abstract; far from it: our Lord’s teaching “calls for my own practical commitment here and now.”
Each of us is called to a different practical commitment to charity, depending on our individual circumstances. We figure out what it is first by opening our eyes. If your sister-in-law has three small kids and is receiving cancer treatment, look no further for a neighbour in need.
But what if there’s nothing so obvious? Here we need to open not only our eyes but our hearts. The Pope says that “the Christian's program—the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus—is “a heart which sees.”
“This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.”
I cheated a bit when I began my homily by saying we only needed to answer one question today, because I think most of us will ask “how do I develop a heart that sees”? How do I go beyond the obvious in living the Gospel fully?
Again, we can turn to Benedict XVI for an answer, and a simple one at that. In a talk he gave last month, he said that the Mass both obliges and enables us to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters.
He said that “a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to meeting people where they live, work and suffer, in order to bring them God's love, does not express the truth it contains.”
Think about that! The Mass we’re celebrating this Sunday morning must lead us to meet people where they live, work and suffer; it must lead us to bring them God's love. Otherwise, our Eucharist “does not express the truth it contains.”
Let me close with a reflection from a fine theologian who clearly has a “heart that sees.”
Father Michael Himes begins with the obvious: the primary point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone is a neighbour, “including those who are separated by racial, ethnic or religious differences.”
“But if that is the sole point,” he asks, “then why… bother to mention that the first two passersby were a priest and a Levite? If the only point to be made is that everyone is called to be neighbour to everyone else, all that’s needed in the story is two Jews. Why a priest and a Levite?
“Also, why include the detail that the priest and the Levite not only passed the wounded man by, but did so by crossing over to the other side of the road?”
Personally, I always thought this detail was just to make us priests squirm. Not so, says Father Himes in his fascinating explanation of the parable.
He asks “On the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, where would one expect a priest and a Levite to be going or coming from? The temple. And what would they do in the temple? Offer worship to God. And why do they not assist the wounded man? Because he is bloodied, and touching anything bloody would render them unclean, non-kosher, and so incapable of participating in the rites of the temple.
“That is why they carefully cross on the other side—so that no blood will touch them.
“Undoubtedly, the story is about how marvelous it is that an enemy, a Samaritan, would help a Jew—that being a neighbour knows no boundaries. But there is another element we ought not to miss in the parable. … that anyone who thinks that loving your neighbour might interfere with loving God simply does not know what loving God means. One can only love God with one’s whole heart, soul, strength and mind if one also loves the neighbour. That is what the priest and Levite missed.”
It must not be what we miss, as we gather today to worship God in this Eucharist. Let our Sunday celebration give us “hearts that see,” hearts that see where love is needed and then act accordingly.