It sounds like such a simple, obvious question.
Who is my neighbor?
If you think you know, this Gospel says: think again.
This may be one of the most familiar parables in scripture with a title that has become a part of our language. Everyone knows what you mean by a “a good Samaritan.” Just the other day, I heard a reporter use the phrase to describe strangers helping victims after the tragedy at the parade in Highland Park, Illinois.
But we tend to forget: this story is revolutionary. It is shocking. It turns our expectations upside down.
You think you know who your neighbor is?
Pull up a chair. Jesus has a story for you. And it offers three lessons for us here and now.
First: your neighbor isn’t just someone who shares your zip code.
It might be the elderly woman in the apartment next door, the one you go out of your way to avoid.
Or maybe it’s the homeless guy on the subway.
But our neighborhood is bigger than that. Our neighborhood embraces the world.
My neighbor is a child in Ethiopia — hungry because her country can no longer get wheat from Russia.
It is a family in Ukraine — living in a basement, while shells explode around them.
My neighbor is anyone in pain, anyone in need, anyone wounded by life who feels abandoned or robbed or forgotten. It is anyone left helpless by the side of the road, in need of compassion or prayers or love.
My neighbor is anyone trying to make sense of what seems senseless, in a world convulsed by violence, tragedy and grief.
My neighbor doesn’t just live in Forest Hills. My neighbor lives in Uvalde. In Highland Park. In Nara, Japan.
Christ’s challenge to the people of his day is his challenge to the people of our own. It says: look beyond your circle. Widen your horizons.
I often hear people who say, “We need to take care of our own first. Don’t worry about Ukraine. Don’t worry about India or Lebanon. We have too many of our own problems.”
When I was working for CNEWA, raising money for the poor in the Middle East, that was a refrain I heard a lot. Let’s take care of America, they’d say, and then worry about everyone else.
But this parable says, “No.” It tells us, bluntly, that is not how you “love your neighbor.” Our neighborhood is the world.
The second lesson: just as your neighbor may not be who you think, so the hero of the story may not be who you expected.
In Jesus’s day, the very notion of a Samaritan being “good” was unthinkable. Samaritans were The Other. They were often considered heretics, people who violated God’s law. One commentator has written that when Jesus told the parable, people probably thought, “Ah, the Samaritan enters the story. He must be the villain.”
But no. It didn’t turn out that way at all.
If you want a modern take, ask yourself: Who are the people who are despised, disrespected or shunned now? Who are the Samaritans of our own day?
Here’s a start: Go down the list of professions that people don’t respect. Politicians. Lawyers. Journalists.
As someone who spent most of my life in television news, I’m trying to imagine the parable of The Good Journalist.
That may be a stretch.
But that’s the point!
One of the lessons here for our own divided, polarized time is that the potential for goodness — a heart capable of compassion and mercy and love — lies within all of us. It can be found in unexpected people, even in the Samaritans around us.
Look beyond biases and stereotypes. See in those who are different from us the capacity, the potential, for good — maybe even the potential for saintliness.
A friend reminded me of this: yesterday, July 9, was the feast of Saint Mark Ji Tianxiang, a Chinese lay Catholic and doctor.
He was also a drug addict.
While trying to treat a stomach ailment, Mark Ji became addicted at a young age to opium. He went to confession regularly to confess his drug use. But his confessor didn’t understand addiction— and he refused to give absolution, because he believed Mark Ji didn’t really want to change his life. Although he couldn’t receive the sacraments, Mark Ji continued going to Mass. He stayed steadfast in his faith for 30 years. During the Boxer Rebellion, at a time of Christian persecution, he and his family were imprisoned. Through it all, he encouraged his fellow Christians to keep their faith. Eventually, he and his family faced martyrdom. It is reported that Mark Ji sang the litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary as he was about to be beheaded. He was martyred on July 7 1900. A century later, in 2000, Pope John Paul declared him a saint.
The priest saw Mark Ji Tianxiang as a habitual sinner. But he was also a saint. Faithful. Obedient. Devoted. Even to the moment of his martyrdom.
He serves as a reminder to us all: Goodness, even holiness, may not look the way we expect. The addict down the block just might be a saint.
Thirdly and finally, the most challenging lesson: “Go and do likewise.”
I once said that these last four words of the parable are among the most difficult in all of scripture.
Living this command isn’t easy. And I’m as guilty as anyone. Too often, like a lot of us, I just don’t want to get involved.
But Jesus is telling us all: Get involved.
This is what we need to grasp: The road between Jerusalem and Jericho is the road all of us travel. It is the journey of life. Difficult. Arduous. At times, even dangerous. But we don’t travel it alone.
How is the journey going?
Are we binding one another’s wounds?
Do we live as people who want to heal? Or as people who are indifferent, hostile, or even dismissive?
That question goes beyond the physical reality in this parable.
Spend any time watching cable TV or scrolling through social media and you probably won’t see many people loving their neighbors.
But this Gospel says there is another way.
A way that gives dignity. And respect. A way that offers hope.
This is what we are called to do. To see our neighbor in everyone. To see the possibility for goodness in everyone. To get involved and “go and do likewise.”
The ultimate lesson of this timeless parable is one that calls us to action, to engagement, to conversion. May God this morning grant us the grace to answer that call with fidelity, generosity and joy.
As we prepare to receive the Eucharist, may we pray to live out this great call.
We are meant to be more than just people traveling the road.
Christ wants us to be more like the Samaritan.
Because in doing that, in fact, we become more like Christ.