by Fr. David J. Théroux, S.S.E.
This homily received a standing ovation at Saint Michael's on July 14, 2019:
Let’s begin today by asking a question—the question that the scholar of the law asks Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” I believe that it is a particularly relevant question for today as we grapple with issues of poverty and immigration in our nation and as so many nations like ours grapple with the unequal distribution of wealth in their nations and people fleeing their homelands in search of a better place to live and to thrive in wealthier nations. I believe that the question is also particularly relevant to those of us (perhaps most of us) who live well, enjoying the American dream, and who are the descendants of immigrants. You see, I believe that we perhaps act out of ignorance and fear when faced with the great number of those who seek better lives for themselves in our nation and who seek to share our life and our wealth by coming to America. So, considering those seeking to immigrate to the United States, we ask the question, as did the scholar of the law, “Who is my neighbor?”
Notice why the scholar of the law asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He asked the question to justify himself. The conversation between the scholar of the law and Jesus began when the scholar of the law asked Jesus to answer an initial question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He asked the question to test Jesus—to find out what Jesus would say. The intent of the scholar of the law was to draw Jesus into a debate about what must be done to inherit eternal life, the type of debate that was an ongoing reality among scholars of the law, who sought to outwit each other by finding an answer that would confound those with whom they argued. Jesus leads the scholar of the law to answer his own question. The scholar of the law summarizes the Law of Moses with “love of God and love of neighbor as oneself,” to which Jesus responds that he answered well. Case closed! However, the scholar of the law feels that he has been tricked and wants to force Jesus to make some response with which he could argue. Thus, the scholar of the law sought to justify himself (regain control of the conversation) by posing the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
To which question Jesus makes a response by offering the scholar of the law a parable. It is the parable of the good Samaritan. But it is also a parable that challenges the scholar of the law to think beyond what he already assumed to be true. For the Jews at the time of Jesus, it had been traditionally understood that one’s neighbors were those with whom one lived and with whom one enjoyed similar beliefs and ethnic background—other Jews! Not surprising and perhaps predictable.
But what if there were someone in the Jewish community, sharing similar beliefs and ethnic background who needed help—say a man who had been robbed and left to die on the side of the road. Whose neighbor is he? It would seem that he is neighbor to the priest and the Levite but not to the Samaritan. The priest and the Levite share similar beliefs and ethnic background whereas the Samaritan does not. However, in the parable, the priest and the Levite pass by “on the opposite side” of the road. However, it is a Samaritan, considered by Jews to be an enemy and a person of no value, who stops and helps the man who was robbed and left to die on the side of the road.
This is a story of violence and meant to stir up in people outrage. The first violence is the harm done to the man who was robbed and left to die. We are called by Jesus to be outraged by such violence in society and to be led to compassion for those who have been harmed—the kind of compassion that the Samaritan demonstrated toward the man who lay injured by the side of the road. The second violence, however, is how two supposedly upstanding persons in Jewish society, a priest and a Levite, just walked by “on the opposite side” of the road, distancing themselves from the violence they encountered. Jesus here calls us to be outraged by those who excuse themselves from doing anything about the violence they encounter in society.
But there is a third violence in the story. Beyond our condemnation of the priest and the Levite who did nothing to help the man robbed and left to die and our praise for the Samaritan who stopped to take care of the man robbed and injured, there is the injured man himself, robbed, injured, and left to die. What of him? What is his point of view? In hearing the parable, we usually take to heart the message that we should not be like the priest and the Levite—we should do something to help those who are harmed by the violent of this world. We also are usually impressed by the fact that it was an outsider who stopped to take care of the man who was robbed and left to die—we feel called to be like him and help those harmed by the violent of our world. But I am led to wonder today about what it was like for the man who was harmed and left to die. What is his story and what is he left with at the end of the parable?
At our borders today we find a host of people—perhaps a seemingly overwhelming number of people—who seek entrance to our nation, asylum from the violence they are experiencing in their homelands. Out of fear, many in our nation are led to seek a solution that would return them to their homelands, to the daily violence they seek to escape, in order to preserve our way of life and to protect the citizens of our nation. (Perhaps we could phrase this, “We got ours and no one is taking it away from us.”) Out of ignorance, many are led to categorize those seeking a place in our nation as criminals and violent people who would harm the citizens of our nation. (I find this particularly ironic in that this was the same things said of most of our families when they immigrated to the United States.) We find ourselves as a nation in a debate regarding what to do about those who have come to our borders seeking asylum and a better way of life. Some say that they have no legal right to be here and should be turned away. Others argue that those at our borders should submit themselves to our judicial system, as fractured and overwhelmed as it is at this time in attempting to handle the volume of those seeking relief from the violence of their home countries. Others argue for laws that would fix immigration in our nation, all the while noting that party politics and a divided congress are cannot. Some would build walls to keep them out. Others want to round them up and ship them back home (happening right now as we speak). Very rarely do I hear anyone say, “Let them all in.”
But I am left wondering about those desiring entrance into our nation. While we are debating who the priests, the Levites, and the good Samaritans are in the unfolding story of immigrants at our borders, the reality is that those seeking entrance to our nation and escape from the violence of their home nations are like the man robbed and left to die on the side of the road, waiting for the good Samaritan to arrive. In the parable, the injured man got relief. Those at our borders have not yet received the relief they deserve.
The challenge of our gospel today is not a matter of law or debate. It is a matter of charity and justice. Beyond all the arguments about what it means to love our neighbor, loving one’s neighbor means actually doing something for the one injured by the violence of this world.