Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
In preparing for this Sunday, I tried to think of famous neighbors I might use as familiar examples. The two who first came to mind perfectly fit the bill. To begin with, I thought of Dennis Mitchell—better known to most of us as “Dennis the Menace.” From the comic strip, we know just how Mr. Wilson feels about his much younger, very active neighbor: he’s too loud, too messy, eats too much of his food, and breaks far too many windows. And then there was the second famous neighbor: [singing] “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful for a neighbor…” We all know Fred Rogers—that’s Mr. Rogers, of course. Through his TV show, we all became his neighbors, and he introduced us to many others, as well.
Dennis Mitchell. Fred Rogers. If you got to pick, which would you chose to be your neighbor?
The fact of the matter is we don’t generally get to pick our neighbors, do we? “And who is my neighbor?” asks the scholar in the gospel. Our neighbors are those God sends to us, whether they live in the house next door or are sitting in the next pew; whether they have a nearby locker at school or work with us on the job; whether they play with us on the team or they’re driving in another car on the road. Our neighbors are neighbors simply for being near to us, and—no matter who they are, what they do, or where they come from—we are called to treat them love and care and compassion.
That’s a critical lesson in light of the news lately—so full of shootings and strife, of refugees and fear of the stranger. We hear about these problems on a national and global scale, worrying and wondering, “But what could I ever do to make a difference?” Remember: you and I haven’t been called to save the world. (That position has already been taken.) No, we’ve been called to love our neighbors—without picking and choosing among them—and just imagine how the whole world could be and would be transformed if each of us treated those nearby with love.
“And who is my neighbor?” The question asked by the scholar of the law is what prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. But did you notice how Jesus—as he often does—answered that question with another question? Near the very end of the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus asks in response, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The difference between the questions is rather subtle, but hugely significant. The first assumes that the neighbor is somebody who is near to us, while the second urges us to draw near to someone else as neighbor. The first is passive, while the second is active. We aren’t to wait for a neighbor to come to us in need; we are to go and be neighbor to others.
Being neighborly—reaching out—in this way is at the very heart of being a Christian, because by it we imitate Jesus. In Jesus Christ, God has become neighbor to you and me—moving right into the neighborhood, choosing to dwell among us, and promising to remain with us always—no matter how much we behave like Dennis Mitchell. And from the example of Jesus we have so much to learn! We can be tempted to only love those who seem deserving…but the Son of God came to save us when we deserved it the least, yet needed it most. We can be tempted to love only those who will recognize the gift and show their thanks….but how often are we ungrateful for God’s blessings? We can be tempted to only reach out when there’s room in our schedule…but was their anything convenient about the Cross?
This is where the name of the upcoming diocesan vocations summit is so instructive: INSPIRE: Called to Love. We all share a common vocation—the call to reach out in love. And just as we don’t get to choose those who become our neighbors, nor do we get to pick those to whom we are to go in love as neighbor. That’s the “inspired” part. The commands of God—we’re told in the first reading—as so close to us that they’re already in our hearts. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the scriptures dwells in your heart and mine, and still speaks to us: “Go there! Do that! Help him! Speak to her!” But we must listen for and obey those inspirations. And when we do listen and obey, when we reach out in love, when we become neighbor, we discover that in drawing close to another person we’ve also drawn close to God.
We often find ourselves asking, like the scholar of the law, “And who is my neighbor?” But the more crucial question is the one once asked by Fred Rogers—asked by God of you and me each and every day: [singing] “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”