Long before I was a Christian and a Catholic, todays Gospel would have not meant a thing. And now today as we listen to the parable of the Good Samaritan, I sometimes think back on how I would have answered the question: “Who is my neighbor.” In the early years in my life, and I am sure in yours, sometimes children and some younger people are only able to see the world through their own set of eyes. As we grow and learn about life, hopefully we can see that we, and all of us, have a place in the world. It is not just “all about me.”
That can be harder for some than for others. Throughout my life, God has given me plenty of opportunity to ask: “Who is my neighbor?” and to see if I have been a good neighbor to others. As I look back on my life and listen so often to the stories of others, I see in us a great desire to be a good neighbor, but also times when, I, no, we, have failed, as all of us do. It is a very hard question to answer. A question that has struck a bit of fear and also contemplation in my own life.
If it had not been for my grandparents, I would have probably never walked into a church on my own. The Catholic foundation from my Nana and Papa was enough to get me started as a small child. I was enthralled by the Bible Stories in the Big Children’s Story Bible you used to find in the Dentist or Doctor’s office right next to the Highlights for Children.
Fortunately again, that foundation was strengthened when the mother of Carl, a childhood friend, took us to an Episcopal Church. She wanted me to have my “first communion.” It was a small price to pay for a sleepover at a friend’s house, especially one with a pool.
It was in Boarding School that I lost some of the basic foundations of Christianity and forgot some of the Bible stories that were once so dear to me. I couldn’t stand some of my classmates. A fight in the dorm hallway gave me my first black eye! A badge of honor in an all boys High School. But there was also the terrible feeling of, whatever it was, “hate” or “fear” – or “anger” -maybe, for someone like Mr. Fairbanks who would hit our doors with a giant military flashlight to taunt and tease us to let us know that it was lights out.
And sadly I forgot about decent behavior, for my neighbor, my best friend, Brian. We were inseparable from day one at Boarding School when my sister introduced us. We were so popular with the girls over at Santa Catalina, the Catholic girls school, that we often had to take 2 or 3 girls to prom at one time! After graduation, at the end of the best four year friendship I have ever had in my life, Brian told me he was gay. I was so confused and angry at him that I never spoke to him again. He remained friends with my sister and mother until he died of AIDS many years later. I never got to say good-bye.
College was a much better experience. God was trying to break into my life and was becoming a reality to me. My college friend Bill, whose father built submarines in Groton, Connecticut, invited me to St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Wisconsin Ave. not far from the University. Since I was baptized catholic, I thought “Why not?” My girlfriend Elizabeth asked me what religion I was and I said “Catholic.” She asked me to “genuflect” to prove it. I had no idea what it meant and she sent me to the Campus Christian Center to talk to the priest. It just so happened to be Lent and I got a crash course in Catholicism, at least enough to know how to “genuflect.”
My college roommate, Scott, was and is a good man and I remember him being kind enough to put up with my antics at college. The foundational prayer of the Hebrews in our first reading from Deuteronomy comes to mind. Sometimes if we lose our way God calls us back: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today.”
Old habits die hard. The Israelites soon forgot the covenant prayer, angry with God in the desert; forgetting their escape from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the water from the rock and the manna from heaven. Old habits die hard when we look around and cannot see our neighbor, even sitting next to us in church.
Old habits die hard. With fear and mistrust of a boss who told me I wouldn’t be promoted in the company we worked for unless I smoked marijuana on a camping trip. Fear and mistrust, anger and all those other attitudes we sometimes have – turned to questioning, searching, and eventually great joy as the Young Adult Catholic group (called the YACs) at the Cathedral in Boise, took me under their wings. Eventually leading me to the Peace Corps, and a protestant bible study with Pastor Robbie and a friend on the front lawn of a Church in far off Paraguay.
Although far away in New York, that friend has come to visit me in Moscow with Ann, his wife, who just happens to be Catholic. He still stops by when he is on the West Coast. St. Paul tells us why in his letter to the Colossians: “Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the Body, the Church… For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell.” Without Jesus holding all things together… where would we be? Forgotten friendships, missed opportunities, sadness at not recognizing our neighbors?
The parable of the Good Samaritan in todays gospel gives us a choice to approach Jesus and ask a question: do we want to “test” him, for that was the original intent of the scholar of the law; or do we want to be surprised that he does not give an answer to the question “And who is my neighbor?” but only a story and a question directed back to us today: “Which of these three, in your opinion (the priest, the Levite, or the stranger), was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
We can go back over our lives and see so many people who we treated as good neighbors. The readings for this weekend also demand that we go back over our lives and recall those we did not treat well.
I have learned over my life that there is nothing to fear when we face those we do fear, when we face a stranger or enemy that is already our neighbor. Hopefully we have all learned together that God has given us all we need to turn our fears and anger and questions about other people into the search for a good neighbor.
It’s not that complicated. We do not have to invent the “how” to love our neighbor all over again. All we need to remember is what God has tried to teach us from the beginning. His prayer for us from our first reading in Deuteronomy:
“For this command that I enjoin on you today
is not too mysterious and remote for you.
It is not up in the sky, that you should say,
‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
Nor is it across the sea, that you should say,
‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
No, it is something very near to you,
already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out.”