“And who is my neighbor?”
What allowed the Samaritan to be neighbor to the man who fell victim to the robbers on the road to Jericho? What enabled him to encounter this man in his need? We are told that the priest and the Levite hurried by on the other side, possibly absorbed in their own concerns (too busy to be bothered) or out of a desire to remain ritually pure. Whatever the reason, they chose to remain unengaged and removed and, by doing so, fell short of what it means to love ones neighbor as Christ here teaches.
In contrast to the first two we are told that the Samaritan was “moved with compassion at the sight.” Maybe he was a man acquainted with his own infirmity; maybe he was someone who knew by experience what it meant to be hurt and victimized. Whatever the reason, the Samaritan allowed his heart to be touched by this man in his need. This is what it means to be “moved with compassion”. The Samaritan chose not to hurry by. He chose to put whatever other cares he had at that moment on hold and encounter this man in his need. The Samaritan made the choice to be neighbor.
Maybe the proper question is not, “And who is my neighbor?” Maybe the proper question is, “How do I become neighbor?” Maybe the proper prayer is, “Lord, teach me how to be neighbor.”
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is doing his best I believe to lead us as Church to the proper question and the proper prayer. He is calling us as Church to the “Culture of Encounter” which, in essence, is the culture of the Good Samaritan. Whether in visiting poor migrants on the tiny island or Lampedusa, washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday, inviting the poor for a meal at the Vatican or challenging economic systems that deny the dignity of people and corrupt the earth; the Holy Father is calling us to take notice, to see the ones lying on the side of the road who are in need. He is inviting us to be moved with compassion because he knows that this is what it means to be disciple and this is what it means to be Church and it is this type of Church that the world needs. To paraphrase the Holy Father, “A Church closed in on itself; a Church that hurries by too busy to be bothered; is a sick and weak Church.”
What does it mean to be a Church that notices, to be a Church living the gospel culture of encounter? It means a lot.
Parishes cannot be closed in, islands unto themselves. Parishes must truly become centers of evangelization! The focus of the parish must become outward looking in all aspects. This is quite the shift, at least in the United States, where parishes have historically served as centers of religious and ethnic unity. Maybe inward looking meetings and committees need to give way to the work of authentic ministry to and in the world? Maybe time and energy spent on in-house church squabbles on all levels needs to be recognized as time and energy wasted when there is a world outside in need? Is there place for the central focus of liturgy, prayer and community? Certainly, and these aspects are essential and truly at the heart of Church but the energies that naturally flow from these essential aspects of church must then be channeled out into the world if they are to remain authentic, true and life-giving! The energy of a river needs to flow forward! When it becomes stymied then it becomes morose and dark, much like a swamp.
Bishops, priests, religious and deacons cannot remain content to stay within the church walls – whatever form these may take. This is more than just going outside, it means letting go of knowledge and expertise, which equates to letting go of power. In the church, we know how things operate. We have the answers. “You want to get married? Here, this is the marriage preparation process and what you have to do.” “You want to learn about the Church? Here, this is the program for you.” Therefore, to step outside means to let go of power and to accept the risk of being vulnerable. But, there is such a great multitude outside of the Church’s walls who just want us to come and be with them. They do not expect us to know all the answers; they do not even want that. They just want to be noticed and for us to be willing to meet their vulnerability in our own vulnerability. This is the oil and wine that helps to bring healing and helps to bandage deep wounds.
There is another part to his equation though. Parishes and dioceses need to give their bishops, priests, religious and deacons the freedom they need to do this. A gilded cage may be gilded but it is still a cage! At the heart of every vocation to serve in the Church is the call to be a missionary who goes out into the world. This is not a denial of the pastoral needs of the community but a healthy counter-balance that is essential, I believe, to the health and well-being of any vocation to serve. For a community to so demand and absorb the energy and focus of the one who serves that he or she cannot even imagine the missionary dimension of vocation is a huge disservice both to the one who serves and to the needs of our world.
The laity must step up but not in a “how the world does business” way, but in how we are all called by Christ to “do business” way. It is no longer permissible for the laity to say, “Oh, proclaiming the Gospel; that is the job of the ones who make the vows to do that.” Today, the Gospel must be proclaimed by all Christians; therefore, all Christians must be intimately familiar with and formed by the Gospel. The Gospel calls all persons to discipleship and therefore, all members of the Church must have their thoughts, actions and attitudes challenged, purified and enlightened by the Gospel. The laity in the Church can just as easily hurry by on the other side of the road as the priest and Levite did, but this does not lead to being neighbor. The primary encounter for any Christian before all else is our encounter with Christ in the Gospel. This is the encounter which must continuously guide and enliven all aspects of the life of discipleship and all members of the Church must continuously and daily seek this encounter. Every day, personal time must be spent with Scripture, particularly time with the gospels.
How do I become neighbor?
Lord, teach me how to be neighbor.