Monday, October 5, 2009

Who Is My Neighbor?

Today’s First Reading is taken from the Book of Jonah (1:1-2:2, 11)

The word of the LORD came to Jonah: “Go to Nineveh, and preach against it, because its wickedness has come before me.” Nineveh was a seaport, about 500 miles east of Joppa, the port of Jerusalem. The city had a large population, and all of the problems typical of seaports from time immemorial. God cared for these people, and wanted them to reform their lives.

Jonah, on the other hand, was not interested in converting the people of Nineveh to the worship of the true God. So he headed in the opposite direction – toward Tarshish, which biblical geographers tell us was on the Iberian peninsula, in what is now Spain. Jonah was running away from the mission God gave him, running away from God!

God had other plans. He sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship was in danger of breaking up. The sailors, afraid for their lives, cried out to their own gods. And they threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship.

As for Jonah, he had gone below decks, settled down, and fell asleep. When the captain found him, he asked, “How can you sleep, with all this going on? Get up and call upon your god! Maybe he’ll listen to you, and save us.” The crew had their own ideas. “Let’s cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” Casting lots is mentioned many times in both the Old and the New Testament, but there is no description of the technique. The closest modern practice to casting lots is probably flipping a coin. God used this method to reveal who was responsible for their predicament. When the crew cast lots, the lot fell on Jonah.

The sailors had some difficult questions for Jonah. They wanted to know where he came from, and what god he worshiped. They understood that Jonah’s God was punishing him by sending the storm, and that Jonah was the only one who could change the outcome.

Jonah began to feel sorry for the trouble he was causing, and realized that he had to take the blame. There was only one solution: “Pick me up and throw me overboard and the sea will be calm. It is my fault that this storm has come upon you.” The crew did their best to row back to land, “digging their oars” into the waves, but it was impossible. They prayed to Jonah’s God: “LORD, please don’t let us die for taking this man’s life. Don’t hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, because we are doing as you pleased.” They then threw Jonah over the side, and the sea immediately became calm.

God was not finished with Jonah, though. A large fish came up and swallowed Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, and after three days, the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah up onto the shore.  

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Today’s gospel is taken from the gospel of Luke (10:25-37)

An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life? The expression “to test Jesus” may mean to discuss the meaning of the law with Jesus. On the other hand, those words may mean “to trap” him. Jesus replies, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Jesus avoids the trap (if there was one), by turning the question back to the questioner.

The expert answers, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and all our might’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The teacher had used the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 in his answer. People should put God first in their life, and they should love him with their entire mind and might. They believed that the word “neighbor” referred only to other Jews. Jesus had a broader interpretation of God’s law: Your neighbor is anyone who is not yourself. But Jesus’ answer is quite simple, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

The expert had answered his own question, but he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus another question, “Who is my neighbor?”

In reply, Jesus tells a story (a parable, to use the language of the times):

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

The road between Jerusalem and Jericho goes through the desert below sea level. Thieves often hid in the caves in the cliffs alongside the road. It was a very dangerous journey.

A Temple priest happened to be going down the same road. When he saw the man, he moved to the other side of the same road. The next passer-by was a Levite. Levites helped in the Temple services. It is not clear in the story whether the Levite was going up to Jerusalem or in the opposite direction. In either case, he did not have time to help the man. Further, he could not allow himself to become “unclean”. So he passed by on the other side of the road.

A Samaritan came by, saw the man, and took pity on him. He bandaged the man’s wounds, pouring on wine to cleanse his wounds and olive oil to soothe them. He put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The following day, he gave the innkeeper two silver coins (two days wages), and told him, “Look after him, and when I come back, I will pay you for any further expense you might incur.”

Then Jesus asked the key question: “Which of these three acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The legal expert answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

As a Jew, the expert in the law likely did not want to admit that the true neighbor was the Samaritan. Nonetheless, he gave a true answer. Jesus told the lawyer that he also must be a true neighbor to anyone who needs assistance. The Samaritan passing by did not consider the differences in nationality or in religion before he helped the man beset by robbers. To act as a neighbor means to help someone in need without raising the question, “Who is worthy of my assistance?” My neighbor is everyone who is not my self.

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