Jesus offers Gospel challenge: “Who is my neighbor?”

By: By Sister Rachel Bergschneider, OSB

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 11

Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Psalm 69:14,17,30-31,33-34,36,37; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37; Luke 10:25-37

Yet again, Jesus is the great storyteller in today’s Gospel. When met by the young man who is intent on following God but knows only how to understand that call in the abstract — in the letter of the law — Jesus moves immediately to a story that captures the heart of the matter.

Jesus presents the most ordinary of circumstances — someone who falls
victim to a robbery and is left by the roadside. People walk by. What do they do? The first to travel the road — the priest — has an obligation to go to the temple for worship. He could not take the chance of “soiling” himself with the blood of the victim because he would be unfit for temple worship. So he walks to the temple on the opposite side of the road.

Next, the Levite does the same. The law is the compass. They are obliged to obey the law.

The third person to come along is one who, for the Jewish people, is looked down upon and despised — the Samaritan. The Samaritan, the one least likely in the eyes of the Jewish person to be accepted by God, realizes his duty toward a fellow human being. He helps the victim, and makes sure the man is cared for.

Jesus questions the young man, “Who, then, is the neighbor?” The twist of Jesus’ question shows the real nature of the law. The neighbor is the person who offers compassion, who fulfills the law written on the heart, as we hear in the first reading: “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” (Deuteronomy 30:14)

The Samaritan is the one who really understands the law in its entirety: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, being, strength, mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Who is our neighbor? Maybe it is the person we most dislike, or the one we are afraid of, or the one who most disagrees with us, or the person of another ethnic or cultural background. Very probably that “person” lies within us because we choose to resist offering help to anyone who is outside our category of need. We do not want to lose our social standing or our popularity.

It is so easy to justify the conversation in our favor by imagining immediately that the story refers to hitchhikers or people on the street who are constantly begging for resources. It very well might be them, but it probably more likely and more realistically is those who “get in our way” — those who cost us energy, physical or emotional, or acceptance by others, or financial resources. We know the cost and hesitate to listen to the voice of God within who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

Rationalization is possibly one of our most common sins. We are like the young man who knows the law of God in our heads, but who find it easy to justify rationalization, limiting ourselves to what is comfortable.

With whom do I identify in this story of Jesus? Am I the victim on the wayside? Am I the priest? The Levite? The Samaritan? Undoubtedly, I am each of these at some time in my life. In our choices, what is critical for each of us is to admit that to reject the law of Jesus within our heart means that we tear apart our inner selves, where that law is written.

Sister Rachel Bergschneider, OSB, is a member of the Sisters of St. Benedict of St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island. She serves as pastoral associate at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Peoria Heights.

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