Playing the neighbour

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Pastors corner with Fr Henry Ibe

In the first century, the idea of a Samaritan being good was inconceivable to an average Jewish person, given the level of animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. It was also unthinkable that a Samaritan would be considered a “neighbour” by a Jew, and vice versa. However, Jesus changes all that in today’s Gospel as he radically redefines the notion of “neighbour”. He broadens the concept of neighbour to include everyone, without exception, who is in need. The Lord goes ahead to propose universal compassion as a ticket to eternal life. The drama starts with a legal expert questioning Jesus on what one must do to inherit eternal life. To be clear, this man was not interested in learning from the Lord but was only testing him. In response, Jesus questions the questioner by taking him back to the Scripture. He asks the man “What is written in Law?” Replying, the man combines Deuteronomy 6:5 (Love of God) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love of Neighbour) as the key to eternal life. Then, acknowledging his correct answer, Jesus challenges him: “Do this and life is yours.”
But not fully satisfied, the man presses the Lord further on who one’s neighbour is. In those days, the concept of neighbour posed a number of questions. Did it include “sinners”, tax collectors and prostitutes? What about foreigners in the land? What about the pagans in nearby territories? Given the Mosaic command to love one’s neighbour and hate one’s enemies, the definition of “neighbour” determined who got loved and who was hated. Today, Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to widen the idea of neighbour to include all of humanity. He changes the notion from a passive one (Who is my neighbour?) to an active one (Who am I a neighbour to?). Jesus’ model of “neighbour” is not a dormant state of being but a moral challenge that one rises up to, in response to someone else’s needs.
Our Lord then goes ahead to highlight the problem with sticking to the letter of the Law at the expense of the spirit. A man had just been robbed, beaten and left for dead by brigands. He needed help and urgently too! The first person to arrive was a priest (a symbol of institutional religion), who passed by the other side to avoid making contact with a man presumed dead, lest he be defiled. Next came a Levite (a symbol of the political establishment), and he too went the other way for the same reason. These men placed ritual purity above human life, and thereby missed the very road to eternal life, which they thought they were guarding. It is a Samaritan of all people who strikes at the heart of the secret to eternal life. Without a lawyer’s training and without the priestly or Levitical obsession with the external ritualism of the law, this man discovers the road to eternal life. He had something simple which the others lacked – compassion! He had the milk of human kindness running strong in his veins.
Dear friends, Jesus offers us the Good Samaritan as a model today. We follow it and life is ours! With a heartfelt compassion, which can only arise from the love of God, we are able to fulfil the demands of the Law. Thus, the Law is not beyond us, as Moses stresses in the First Reading. It is not as difficult as we often make it to be; it is not something abstract or remote, it is within our grasp.
The injured man got help from unexpected quarters. We too can flash back to the moments in our own our lives when we received help from unanticipated sources. Perhaps when we were grieving the death of a loved one. Maybe it was when our relationship collapsed and it seemed like the end of life. Perhaps we were the victim of wicked gossips or false accusations, and suffered a loss of reputation. Maybe it was a situation of our own making and we just could not forgive ourselves. Everyone can think back to their own striking moments of pain or anxiety, and how they managed to survive. Now take a moment and think about your own life journey!We can be sure that in those situations, someone was playing the neighbour to us – God surely, and perhaps some other person. The Lord is calling us today to do likewise, to be compassionate. The more compassionate we are, the more we become like Christ, starting from our everyday doings. Our daily responsibilities take on a Good-Samaritan dimension, when we approach them from the perspective of Christ, the One who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
Our Lord Jesus is the Good Samaritan par excellence! He is our neighbour in every situation. We all, like the victim in the story, have been robbed of our original holiness by original sin. We are continually battered and broken by our self-centredness, our sins and the sins of others. As St Paul says: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We lie helpless on the side of life’s path, in the valley of tears. The priest and the Levite represent the Old Covenant and its inability to redeem humanity. But by taking on human flesh Christ comes to our rescue like the Good Samaritan. He bandages our wounds, healing and nourishing us with oil, bread and wine in the sacraments. He pays for our redemption through the shedding of his own blood; and he places us in the care of his innkeeper, the Church, pending his return in glory.
This week, therefore, let us go and be good neighbours. Materially or spiritually, for a friend or stranger, in-season or out-of-season, let us “Go and do the same.” And let us pray: Most Gracious Lord, help us with the courage to no longer just walk by on the other side, but to be compassionate like the Good Samaritan. Amen!