Fr Jeremiah Browne (National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies)
Do you ever hear yourself talking about people who are different from you and using words life “they” or ‘those people” or in a conflict situation reverting to a phrase like “you people”? This kind of language is basically an “us” verses “them” way of thinking and essentially involves looking at others and saying, “they are not like me”, “they are not as good as us”, or “they are not one of us.”
One of the main ways that any group maintains its identity is by asserting its difference from other people. It shows itself in things like badges and flags, attitudes, and beliefs, collected stories and traditions. Whatever the nature of the group, whether it is a tribe, a school, a political party, a religious group, or a different race or culture group, loyalties within the group can be a good thing, and can foster the growth of the members, and create a sense of pride and passion. All of that is fine as long as it is kept in check. The danger of course is when loyalty to the group, and the emphasis on difference, becomes so intense that it begins to focus on the negative aspects of those who are different from us, so much so that it creates a belief in one group that their differences make them better than other people.
In today’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37) we see Luke explore the question of dealing with people who are different from us, and remind us that love is stronger than difference, that love takes precedence over difference. A scholar of the law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question around and asks what the law says. The scholar knows the answer. We all know the answer. Love God and love your neighbour.
The Book of Deuteronomy, (Dt 30:10-14) reminds us that God not only gives us His Commandments in Holy Scriptures, but that they are also written in our hearts, in the depts of our very being. We all know what is right and wrong – something tugs at us when we pass a person in need – that is God’s word, God’s desire, God’s love looking for attention – looking for a way to be made real in our lives.
When Jesus affirms the scholars answer, the scholar wants to explore the question of who my neighbour is, and how far one is expected to go. You see, according to the law the word “neighbour” had essentially meant people who belonged to the people of the covenant, the chosen people. There was certainly a need to treat the foreigner with justice and hospitality, but the word neighbour had closer, almost familial bonds – and was taken to mean ‘people who are part of our group’. So, the scholar asks the question, the answer to which, has made for some uncomfortable scripture ever sense. Who is my neighbour? Jesus aware of the intent behind the scholar’s question, wants to challenge the questioner’s narrow interpretation of the Jewish law, and so tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
Now the history behind this story is important. It has to do with why the Jews despised the Samaritans. When they were in exile, some Jews married the gentiles among whom they lived. In time they began to take on some of their practices, which were seen as unclean by the Jews who kept to a stricter observance of the law. Those who were faithful to the law saw the behaviour of those who intermarried with the gentiles and began to take on their practices, as a betrayal of the Jewish heritage and of God. These Jews, who became known as Samaritans, were shunned by the Jews, and were essentially despised as traitors. This sense of betrayal ran deep, and led to deep resentment between the Jews and the Samaritans.
In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus wants the young scholar, to step over the strict reading of the law, and to first ask the question, ‘what does it mean to be human’.
The story helps to move the conversation out of the head, where a strict interpretation of the law can be used to dismiss the other as unworthy, as undeserving, as ‘less than’, to the heart, where the commandment of God reminds us that we are all human. In doing so, Jesus helps the scholar, and us, to understand that our neighbour is the one who shares our humanity, who in a moment of need calls out to our basic human instincts.
We become neighbours by virtue of our attentiveness to the needs of others. How different our world would be if we took more time to move out of our head space, to move beyond the labels that define our society, and give us excuses to ignore the plight of a brother or sister.
What a different world it would be, if we treated one another with compassion and kindness, if we looked at people, the people around us, and saw a brother or sister, a fellow human being, rather than a label that highlights our differences. Jesus paid little attention to the fact that the man who helped the man on the side of the road was a Samaritan, instead his focus was on the actions and compassion of the helper, who happened to be a Samaritan. Even the young Jewish scholar has to admit that the actions of the one who helped, the Samaritan, are more neighbourly, than the Jewish priest and Levite who passed by on the other side.
The gospel offers a great challenge to us in our current context. We live in a society that legitimised the superiority of one group over another. These historical realities run deep. The challenge of the gospel is to interrogate those assumptions and to find them wanting. Each one of us can contribute to the healing of our society, and to bringing about a more compassionate way of living, as we take time to reach out to a brother or sister in need.
And so, this morning as we gather here, what might these scriptures be saying to us? What are the excuses that I use, what are the labels that I use? What are the reasons I give myself for not helping, and are they good enough if we are truly going to call ourselves Christian?
We have added a Prayer Section to our website. People who wish to request prayers may submit a confidential request on the website.
People who wish to pray for the Mission of the Church will find an outline on the same page. Please consider praying a decade of the rosary on a daily basis for the evangelising Mission of the Church and the Pope’s intentions.
If you would like to make a monetary donation to support the work of the pontifical Mission Societies in South Africa, Botswana and eSwatini, you can do so at the top of this page using the donate button.