It is no secret that we are living in an historical period characterized by deep divisiveness and rancor. Our public discourse on all manner of media outlets, on our streets, and within the marketplace is cringe worthy. It is easy to get caught up in all of this frenzy, but it is also easy to become oblivious and immune to it all. What becomes even more problematic is when Catholics and other Christians foment – in the name of Jesus – the flames of this conflagration.
One basic rule of human interaction is that we interact with one another and judge one another with preconceived bias. While those who light to think themselves enlightened deny their biases, they have merely shifted them and not purged themselves of them. Regardless of that, our biases – natural to us in as an effect of original sin – always pull us apart and provide a means of division and separation in opposition to unity and peace.
Jesus was asked what seems to be a simple question by a scholar of the Mosaic Law, yet his answer hits to the very core of this basic human truth. while Jesus was asked about the Greatest Commandment, wherein he responds with the Shema as found in the Book of Deuteronomy. He went on to expand this commandment by expanding the total love we owe to God with: “and your neighbor as yourself.”
Whether or not it was just a “throw away” flippant response or a genuine probing question, the lawyer continued with: “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus continued with what might arguably be his most well-known parable: The Good Samaritan. Herein Jesus defines one’s neighbor by exaggeration, hitting the man in the depth of his own social biases. Jews and Samaritans had deep rooted disdain for one another, though this disdain was probably stronger on the part of Jews than it was for the Samaritans. They denied Samaritans basic rights and dignity, though they had little social interaction as they did live in separate districts of the Holy Land.
In the parable Jesus has a Samaritan save the life of a Jewish man who had been badly beaten by robbers. The Samaritan even takes the man to an inn for recovery and offers to pay for his entire time of recuperation there. This is an extreme act of generosity, one that one would not even be expected to extend to a fellow Jew.
Jesus took a man from the most despised social class and turned him into a heroic figure.
The question as to who is our neighbor and what we ought to do for our neighbor is one that divides us deeply as a country and society. It seems odd that the remarkable ethnic, nation-of-origin, religious, and cultural diversity of our country – arguably the most diverse in human history – would be so divided along those very lines. We would almost expect that the opposite would be true. Most of the arguments over the “why” are grossly oversimplified, serving to meet the outcome biases of the argument itself, but it is certainly interesting to ponder.
The question for us is how did we go wrong in recognizing and serving our neighbor? Jesus very clearly laid out a scenario in this parable that can easily be transferred to any place and time. The Samartian could be replaced with a SS Guard in 1930’s Germany, a member of the Taliban, a Maoist insurgent, or a simple Ecuadorian immigrant while any one of us could be the person-in-the-ditch.
The political world does what the political world does. While we need to be aware, and active on the political realm, we really need to be present and active on the ground. The Samaritan wasn’t protesting harsh treatment by the Jewish community of his time, instead he was saving the life of a man who might well have preferred him dead.
We must challenge our brothers and sisters in Christ who have replaced this parable with their own parables of exclusion and prejudice, reminding them that love of neighbor is the starting point – indeed the sine qua non – of being a disciple of Jesus and the only true path of evangelization and conversion.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.