We don’t know his name.
We don’t even know where, exactly, this encounter took place. What we do know is that at a particular moment, a “scholar of the law” posed a question to Jesus that, 2,000 years later, continues to haunt us and challenge us and provoke us.
This particular Sunday—after a week of anguish and mourning and accusations and divisiveness and fear—we face that question again.
“Who is my neighbor?”
The answer that Jesus gave remains one of the greatest stories ever told: the parable of a Samaritan that the world now knows as “good.” To the Jews of Jesus’s day, this was a shock. Samaritans were outsiders, despised by Jews. It was unthinkable that there might actually be a “good Samaritan,” and preposterous that the hero of the story would be a figure many considered an enemy.
So, “Who is my neighbor?”
The short answer: If we think we know, think again.
The lesson from Christ is simple: our neighborhood is vast. There are no boundaries, no borders. The bonds of love— of human tenderness, compassion, kindness and mercy—extend beyond our own tribe.
If a hated Samaritan can love another, and care for another, can’t we all?
Several years ago Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Pontifical household, preached about this parable and said:
“The category of neighbor is universal, not particular. Its horizon is humanity not the family, ethnic, or religious circle.”
Put another way: we are responsible for one another.
We are neighbors to one another.
But as the events of the last several days have reminded us, our neighborhood is in turmoil.
The headline in the New York Post put it bluntly: “Civil War.” We live in a world increasingly divided, factionalized, polarized. To many people, it’s “us against them,” whether we are talking race or class or religion or politics. The heated rhetoric on social media and cable television has been scorching. Blame has been assigned and reassigned; fingers have been pointed; accusations have been hurled. And the cycle just goes on.
But that kind of thinking is destroying us.
And here this morning, in a timely rebuke, is the word of God, showing us another way.
Part of the challenge of “The Good Samaritan” is realizing that our neighbor may not look or act or sound like us.
It’s the elderly couple down the hall or the friendly family down the block. It’s the Muslim driving the taxi and the Buddhist working at the bank. It’s the atheist coaching your kid’s soccer team.
It’s people who are like us, and people who aren’t. It’s the ones we like and agree with—and the ones we don’t.
This Gospel stands before us as a call to see beyond barriers, classifications, tribal allegiances, political affiliations, color and creed.
We need to rise above what keeps pulling us down—mindful, as always, that what is pulling us down is not of God. There is nothing Satan loves more than to divide—it was his first trick, performed successfully in the Garden of Eden, when he pitted Adam against Eve.
But Christ today calls us to something greater. He calls us to fulfill one of the great commandments—to love your neighbor as yourself—and, in doing that, achieve eternal life.
Of course, saying it is one thing. Doing it, something else. This has been one of humanity’s greatest struggles—it was daunting when Jesus taught it, and it’s no easier today.
I’ve often said I think the four hardest words in the Gospel are “Thy will be done.”
But I think a runner-up, the second four hardest words, comes at the end of this reading:
“Go and do likewise.”
It is a command to live with a level of charity and compassion and mercy that would make most of us a candidate for sainthood.
But if we aren’t striving to become saints, what are we striving for?
The question posed by that anonymous scholar of the law all those centuries ago continues to challenge us—and shame us. The answer from Jesus is still hard to accept—harder, even, to live.
But we need to keep reaching, working, sacrificing, praying. Especially praying.
Forty-eight years ago, on the night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy stood on the back of a flatbed truck in Indiana and delivered what many consider one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. He spoke without notes, without a teleprompter. I want to leave you with this—part of his remarks, a message of healing and hope as timely this morning as it was nearly five decades ago.
It is a plea for us to act as Samaritans—good Samaritans—in a wounded, battered world, a world desperately in need of healing and mercy. A world that has been robbed of dignity and respect and, like the victim by the side of the road, needs to have its wounds bandaged.
“What we need in the United States,” Kennedy said “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
“Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”