“But Who is My Neighbour?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, July 10, 2022

Story of a white Catholic couple finding a young black man stabbed and dying in the street, this was in London, England. They stayed with him, prayed with him, while waiting for emergency services , and kept saying to him “You are loved, you are loved.”. He died in their arms, but these would have been the last words he would have heard “You are loved, you are loved” 

The story of the stabbing made national newspaper headlines in England. Firstly, the man stabbed was black, and he was stabbed by a group of young white men. Then, there were accusations that the police prosecuted the case with a notable lack of enthusiasm, which led to evidence being ignored and the killers being acquitted. The outcry was shrill and loud. One newspaper went so far to print the pictures and names of the gang and accused them publicly of murder and challenged them to prove that the allegations weren’t true. The case led to a century – old law being changed, the law that said you could not be charged again with a crime, if you had already been acquitted, even if new evidence came to light – called “double jeopardy”. That law changed, new evidence was found and finally a couple of the gang were re-tried, convicted and sent to jail. 

The press concentrated on the fact that a bunch of white youths had attacked and stabbed to death a black teenager – and on the poor efforts of the police force to prosecute this case with the intensity and professionalism it deserved – nobody picked up on the fact that a white couple ministered to this black man in his dying moments. Christians did, and a famed Christian singer wrote a song about it. But the Christians reacted to the incident in the way they did, because they knew the story of the Good Samaritan, and saw a repeat of the story here. It didn’t’ matter if it had been the other way round, a black couple responding to a white man, or a gay couple  responding to a straight man, or vice versa, or whatever. The point is not to rage against racial prejudice, or social discrimination. The point lies in the way a couple , led by their faith in Christ, ministered to this dying young black man in the moment of his greatest need, and proved themselves to be a neighbor to him. In so doing, they challenged the culture of prejudice and discrimination current in English society.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, in our gospel today, is not meant to be a commentary on the poor state of Jewish-Samaritan relations at the time of Christ. It is meant to be a challenge to the prejudices of Jewish and Samaritan viewpoints. The Jewish lawyer finds it almost impossible to get out the words in response to Jesus’ question at the end of his parable “who do you think proved himself a neighbor to the injured man? – the lawyer cannot bring himself to say “the Samaritan” because he cannot conceive that a Samaritan can do any good. All he can say is, between gritted teeth, “The one who showed him mercy”. I am sure that many Samaritans, if they had been around to hear Jesus’ parable, would have been equally dismayed that one of their own had shown mercy to a hated Jew, even one who was badly injured. Such was the state of relations between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus. And into that conflict strides Jesus and throws down his challenge to both groups.

It is important to note also that neither the priest nor Levite in the parable were doing anything legally wrong. In fact, if they assumed that the beaten man was already dead, then they were perfectly within their rights not to have anything to do with him. Because the Jewish law said that if they touched a corpse, they made themselves ritually “unclean” and thereby unable to go and worship or serve in the Temple, which they were on their way to do, presumably. Jesus is not criticizing either of the two men for obeying the law in this case, but he is implying that there is a higher “law” they should be following – the demands of mercy and compassion, of loving your neighbor. Jesus, earlier, had rebuked the Pharisees and scribes, all experts in the Jewish Law, for being overly rigid and legalistic in their interpretation of the law. “Go and learn what this means”, he told them, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13), quoting the prophet Hosea. 

One of the ways these lawyers were narrow-minded and narrow-hearted in their interpretation of the law was in regards to the scope of the command “to love your neighbor as yourself”. For them, “neighbor” included only people like themselves, Jews, members of the covenant community of Israel. Samaritans and pagans were not included.  Even then, there were Jews who, for one reason or another, were not fully considered, by the Pharisees, true members of the covenant community – such as tax-collectors and prostitutes, and even beggars and others who were disabled in some way. They were regarded as being punished by God with affliction, so they must be sinners, and therefore the duty of love did not extend to them. Jesus ruthlessly cuts across all such division and prioritizing with this parable of the Good Samaritan. Your “neighbor” is anyone in need of help, regardless of who or what they are. 

Christians know this, or should know this, because the Scriptures and Bible teaching make it quite clear. St Paul himself says, in Romans 13: 9, “All the commandments are summed up in this word: ”Love your neighbor as yourself”. While St John in his first letter, writes: ”Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have received from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21) 

And yet I see in myself, and in other Catholics, prejudices of all sorts. I have served in Catholic parishes where gypsies were considered “outsiders” and not worthy of any consideration or respect. I have also been in Catholic parishes where people from India or Bangladesh were discriminated against, abused because they were said to take jobs and school places from native English people. I have been accused, at times, of being anti-gay people. But the truth is that I have presented Catholic teaching on the whole homosexual debate and Catholics have been offended by this. St Paul writes, in his letter to the Ephesians, that we have to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4: 15) and sometimes it is difficult to be able to balance the two, speaking the truth versus speaking the truth “in love”. I understand that many gay people are loving, kind, compassionate and gentle. But I see the kind of erotic displayed shown during Gay Pride marches, and I see picture of drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, and I react to that, not always in love. I just wish that, in the gospels, Jesus had been confronted by a gay man or woman, so I could see how he responded to them in love and in truth. But sadly, this is not an issue Jesus has to deal with. So we as Catholics, called to “speak the truth in love” find ourselves struggling to come out with a truly Catholic Christian response. 

All to say that the Good Samaritan parable remains remarkably valid in our present day, even though the debate is no longer about Jews or Samaritans, but about all kinds of people who are marginalized, outcast, disregarded, considered inferior. How we respond to them as Catholic Christians remains a vital question of ethics for today. It causes us to look at ourselves, deep down, at the core of our being, to confront visceral reactions of disgust, rage and hatred, and examine these in the light of Christ’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves”. 

I finish with this quote from St Francis of Assisi about how we shall be judged at the end of our lives by God: 

“Let us have charity and humility and give alms, for almsgiving cleanses our souls from the filth of sin. At death we lose all that we have in this world, but we take with us charity and the alms – deeds we have done, and for these we shall receive a great reward from God” – St Francis of Assisi