Saturday, July 13, 2013

Who is MY neighbour? (15.C)

A man was going down Granville Street, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

After two pious passers-by crossed the street and passed by the man, a tourist came along. When he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him in his car, brought him to a hotel, and took care of him.

The next day, the tourist gave the front desk his credit card and said “take care of him.”

Which of these three, do you think, was a true friend to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

The answer is obvious—the two wretches who passed him by. At least they didn’t carry him off before the ambulance arrived.

My tongue in cheek version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that we need to do some thinking before a 2,000 year old story can teach us how to act. Taken literally, the parable will just confuse us. In Canada the proper thing to do for a victim of crime is to call 911, not to carry him off to the hospital on the back of your donkey, or even in the backseat of your car.

Yet we know that Christ’s message is timeless, just like the command to love our neighbour. Modern social conditions haven’t changed the teaching, just how it is to be applied.

So what is the Lord saying to us today? Who is my neighbour, if not the man attacked and beaten?

Let me tell you a story. For a couple of months I’ve been hearing about something going on Sunday mornings at a nursing home in our parish. Last week I decided to see for myself.

What I saw was a teenager standing in front of a room full of elderly men and women. I knew the young man to be generous and gifted. But he’s a fairly quiet fellow, so I was quite unprepared for what else I saw: an entertainer who charmed his audience like a younger version of Michael Buble. Singing solo, accompanied by his mother on the piano, he had his elderly listeners tapping their toes and singing along to a lively mixture of show tunes and vintage love songs.

Shall I tell you who this young man was? Well, his first name was “Good,” and his last name was “Samaritan.”

In a simple but precise way, he and his mother had answered the question “Who is my neighbour?” They had helped to bandage the wounds of loneliness and the bruises of old age. With an engaging smile, the young performer showed mercy to men and women whom life has stripped of much they once possessed.

There are, of course, countless other Good Samaritans in our parish, including the dedicated members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society; they serve the poor of the inner city in a way that’s not all that different from the Samaritan’s kindness on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. They, too, have found their neighbours and shown them love and care.

But there’s a reason I highlighted the youthful crooner instead of our generous Vincentians, or the members of the Refugee Committee. The parishioners working on the Downtown East Side or caring for the Shaboo family no longer need to ask who their neighbour is. The rest of us, however, still have to come up with our own answer.

And the answer may not be obvious.

Who is my neighbour? To whom must I offer the compassion and mercy that the Samaritan showed to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

Finding an answer to the question isn’t as tough as it sounds. Consider what Moses says in our first reading: “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” If the Spirit of God lives in our hearts, and if we allow God’s word to dwell in us in all its richness, the concrete way i which we're called to live the law of love will become clear.

Put another way: if you are serious about loving God, God will soon enough show you whom and how to love. At least he will if you ask.

Often the beaten-up person we’re called to help is someone in our own family. Caring for sick and dying family members resembles closely the selfless ministry of the Good Samaritan.

I’m also struck by that word “mercy” in the Gospel text. It sometimes happens that what a family member or friend needs most is the healing oil of forgiveness.

Sometimes my neighbour will be… my neighbour, literally: an elderly person living alone next door and struggling to cope.

At the same time, we need to notice that the act of charity in the parable does not flow from any sort of relationship. In his encyclical on charity, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI reminds us that at the time of Christ neighbours were countrymen and foreigners who had settled down in Israel: in other words, the local community. A Samaritan wasn’t part of that community, and he doesn’t know the man he helps. The parable certainly doesn’t exclude our actual neighbours, those with whom we share our lives, but it makes the world one big neighbourhood—something our parish understood when it became a neighbour to Iraqi refugees stranded in Syria.

I hear from time to time a bit of grumbling about the many charitable appeals the parish makes at Mass. Yet your generous response to these many needs is both an answer to the question “who is my neighbour,” and a sign that the love of God is strong in the hearts, souls and minds of the members of this Eucharistic community.

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Emeritus Benedict summed up beautifully the connection between the Mass and caring for others. Our worship, he wrote, “includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”

You might think I stretched a point by comparing a sing-along at a care home to the Samaritan’s rescue along the roadside of a man beaten half to death. But there’s a detail about the sing-along I didn’t mention, and it completes the story: the young man and his mother, our modern good Samaritans, head over to their audience right after the 9 o’clock Mass.

You can say that’s convenient, but I say it’s no coincidence.

[The illustration above is from the cover of one of the volumes in "The Discipleship Series" by Christopher Ruff. These books offer an approach to Scripture study and faith formation that connects to service. With encouragement from the Archdiocese, our parish used the series in small groups a couple of years ago.]

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