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October 27, 2000 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Try to imagine Saddam Hussein doing something nice

Good Samaritan teaches us that everyone is a neighbor

Renew 2000 Season V: Renewing for the 21st Century
Week 5: God's Human Family

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Summoned to Serve

We've all seen it: a frustrated toddler punches another child. The parent quickly admonishes, "You wouldn't like it if someone did that to you, would you?"

That's the whole principle behind what we call "the Golden Rule," doing unto others what you would want done to you. While the Golden Rule developed to address violence, it is similar to "the Great Commandment" heard in this week's Gospel: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk 12:31).

This week in Renew 2000, we explore "God's Human Family," and ask, "who is part of the family?" In other words, who is my neighbor?

It's not a new question. It appears in Luke's version of this commandment (Lk 10:25-29), asked by a lawyer (an expert in Mosaic law, the law that ruled every good Jew's life): "Who is my neighbor?"

"The lawyer's question," explains Fr. Robert Karris, OFM, "stems from debates about who belongs to God's people and therefore is an object of neighborly love."

Who belongs and who doesn't. Trying to decide whom we should treat with love, as "one of us." Is it any different now than in Jesus' day?

"He hit me first," the toddler will protest. "She started it," an older child maintains. "Serves you right," a teenager sneers. All are distancing "the other" from themselves. And then there's "Not in my backyard," or "Just looking out for Number One."

Jesus chooses to answer the lawyer's question about who belongs with a parable -- perhaps the best known of the parables -- that of the Good Samaritan.

There are some points to remember about this parable: the beaten man appeared dead and, according to Mosaic law, touching a dead person or coming into contact with blood, made one ritually unclean. Also, Samaritans and Jews did not, to put it mildly, get along. So attributing good actions to a Samaritan was as likely for Jews of Jesus' day as finding anything good about Saddam Hussein would be for modern Americans.

Yet Jesus presented a Samaritan as doing something loving and kind -- something neighborly. Why? How did that answer the lawyer's question?

"According to the Gospel, every man is a 'neighbor,' irrespective of his race, tribe or convictions," explains Fr. V. Potapov of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Washington, D.C. "A 'neighbor' for a Russian is not only a Russian, or for an American, an American, and so forth; that is, not only a like-minded person, not only a colleague and not only a fellow countryman. A neighbor for us may prove to be also our public, political enemy, our ideological opponent, a man who does not agree with us on religious and other questions, a man who is psychologically and physically alien to us and even offensive. ... The parable of the Good Samaritan, as also the whole Gospel, erases the boundaries between our notions of who is 'near' and who is 'far.' For God, no one is far. For God, all men are near, all are his precious creations."

So the key is getting past the boundaries that we -- not God -- set up between others and ourselves. We need to see the other person in ourselves -- to feel as they feel -- just as we explain to a toddler: "You wouldn't like someone to hit you, would you?"

"In this parable, three people notice the victim in the ditch," says Fr. Richard Gula, SSS. "The priest and Levite look at him and pass on. When the Samaritan looks in the ditch and sees the victim, he is moved with compassion. We ask, 'Did not all three see the same thing?' When we realize that the parable is set within the framework of explaining the meaning of 'love your neighbor as yourself,' we can understand they obviously did not see the same reality. Whatever the priest and Levite saw when they looked in the ditch was clearly not themselves. So they continued on. The Samaritan, however, stops to help because he sees himself beaten and lying there wounded. He treats the victim as though he were caring for himself. Jesus holds up the Samaritan as an example of being neighbor and fulfilling the love which is commanded."

And here we see the link between the two commandments which Mark, Matthew and Luke all place on Jesus' lips: loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. These two commands are really one and the same, inextricably tied together.

"The two commandments are connected by the word 'love,' and their juxtaposition by Jesus as an original theological move," says Fr. Daniel Harrington, SJ. In other words, those who love God love their neighbors -- whom God also loves.

So when we ask, as the lawyer did, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers us the same way he did the lawyer: Whom do you think?

"The lawyer's question implies that someone is not my neighbor," says Fr. Jerome Kodell, OSB. "Jesus' story replies that there is no one who is not my neighbor. 'Neighbor' is not a matter of blood bonds or nationality or religious communion; it is determined by the attitude a person has toward others."

In other words, If you were the other person, the one lying in the ditch, what would you want you to do?

(Sources: The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Faith Informed By Reason; web site of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Washington, D.C.; and The Collegeville Bible Commentary)

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