15th Sunday of Ordinary Time
“and your neighbor as yourself“
“But who is my neighbor?” “Who is the neighbor I must love next to God?” asks the lawyer in today’s Gospel? It is a good question that needs to be answered in every age, “who is to be included in the circle of neighbors whom I must love as I love myself and whom I must treat with compassion?” In other words, how far must that circle of neighbors extend to embrace them into the circle of my love, so that I can fulfill God’s commandment that I am to love my neighbor as myself?
It was certainly a difficult question in Our Lord’s day for devout Jews. Indeed, the people of Israel were surrounded by enemies, peoples who had been hostile to them for centuries by the time of Jesus. So most Israelites would have excluded the external enemies of Israel from the neighbor to be loved next to God. Excluding one’s external enemies would then reduce the question to how far the circle of neighbors to be loved extends within one’s nation or within one’s tribe, or even within one’s own family, how large is the circle to be?
Jesus’ answer was shocking then, and is still shocking today. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that God expects us to consider every man our neighbor, every person who is in need our neighbor, without exception. Jesus meant to drive home this point by having a Samaritan be the good neighbor to the man who was beaten half dead, not the Jewish priest or Levite who choose to pass by the man. The religious men of Israel did not help the stranger, and whether he was Jewish or pagan we do not know. But they clearly did not consider him a neighbor, and they did not act as a neighbor to him. But the Samaritan, from an apostate people despised by the Jews, did consider the man a neighbor and did this without asking him who he was.
The application of the golden rule applies here. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you – and applying that rule Jesus extends the command to love thy neighbor to every man. If any of us were in dire need, like this poor man, we would want help from any person. We would not ask him his nationality or religion or place of birth. We would not close the circle of “who is our neighbor” one bit if it was a situation of our life or our death! So likewise, we must not close that circle when it comes to treating others in need, in need of our compassion, and indeed in need of our love.
So this seems to be the real basis for our responding to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself, to treat every person as we would have every person treat us, to treat every person as our neighbor – that is, as one deserving of our love and compassion. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount we see that Jesus includes even our enemies in this commandment to love our neighbor: “but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5) and “do good to those who hate you”. (Luke 6)
Thus this commandment to love our neighbor, seen in its full scope, is obviously not easy to understand, let alone to fulfill. So just what is the basis of Jesus’ teaching that we must not close the circle of our love and our compassion for the suffering?
There is one important truth that grounds this commandment of all-inclusive love, and it is the truth about every man supplied by Divine Revelation, by God’s Word. It is the truth that Jesus taught, and that His Church will teach till the end of time: that every human person has a tremendous value in the eyes of God. Every person is my neighbor, worthy of my love and compassion, for one basic reason: not because he has somehow earned my love or respect by his actions, but simply because of what that person is by his creation by God, what every person is in the judgement of his or her Creator.
Our faith proclaims unerringly and unhesitatingly that every human person is created in the very image of God, and is, for that reason alone, worthy of our love and compassion. Every person is created in the likeness of God, and therefore every person is by nature an image of the divine persons who created him. That fact alone makes every person our neighbor and makes every person an obligatory object of our love and compassion. Even if that person is my enemy, he does not cease to be a person who has been made, like myself, in the image of god. To deny the value of his humanity, is to deny my own value as a person. To deny that even my enemy is worthy of my compassion, is to deny that I am worthy of anyone else’s compassion, including God’s. Did not Jesus make God;s mercy toward us dependant on us having mercy toward others? Unless we forgive our trespassers, God will not forgive us, as we pray in the Our Father!
This great truth about human dignity and human worth was revealed to man by God in the very beginning, and was confirmed for Israel in th Book of Genesis, and by Jesus in the most wonderful way of all, when God actually chooses to become a man. As a result, we cannot deny this truth about our neighbor without denying who Jesus is, without denying that He is our God, our Lord and our Redeemer. In today’s second reading, God’s Spirit, speaking through St. Paul, teaches us that Jesus Christ is the perfect image of the invisible God, both as God and as man. As God, He is the Eternal Word through whom the whole universe was created, and as man He is the one for whom it was created. As the Eternal Son, He is the perfect uncreated image of the Father, and as man he is the perfect created image of the Father.
But the fact that He is the perfect image of the Father, as a man, has it’s foundation in the truth of man’s creation, that humanity itself is made in the image of God. To deny that man as such is made in the image of God, would be to deny that Jesus as man could be the image of God, let alone the perfect image. To deny that every man is my neighbor, is to deny that this person is made in God’s image, and that is in fact to deny our faith in Jesus Christ.
But there is more. When Jesus became man, by this act he entered into a true universal solidarity with our humanity, with the humanity of every single person, made in the image of God. We believe that his passion and death was offered for the redemption of every human person, without exception, for his purpose was to rescue and renew the image of God found in every human person, without exception. Jesus died for every man, even for my enemy, and thereby taught me to recognize the image of God even in my enemy, and thus also to recognize Christ’s solidarity with that man. To hold that any man is not my neighbor is to deny Christ, to deny that Christ died for that man, because Jesus recognized what I clearly do not, the image of His Father in that man’s personhood.
The circle of my neighbors must not be closed, or I am closing myself to Christ, and to His offer of salvation. I must have compassion on all, as Christ died for all, or I am not worthy to be his disciple, do not belong to Him. I must have compassion above all on the weak and defenseless, or I have no hope of ever fulfilling His commandment of love in all it’s universality, and thereby meriting Heaven. But if I can begin to love all men, at least in their extreme needs, like the wounded man in the parable, then maybe I can learn to love them period, in whatever circumstances. But, if I cannot find compassion in my heart for the suffering, the weak and defenseless neighbor, what hope have I got that one day I will love sufficiently to enter Christ’s company in heaven?
Today the suffering are everywhere around us, and the weak and defenseless cry out for our mercy, the unborn child, the abandoned person, the aged person, the sick person. They are all our neighbors, and if we would hope to be Jesus’ neighbor for all eternity, we must “go and do the same,” as He tells us. We must love all as we love ourselves. But Jesus alone can give us the capacity to love in this universal way, if only we sincerely ask him. With the gift of His love, we can all fulfill that commandment to love all persons, as Jesus has loved them and us. He included us all in his circle of neighbors. We must do the same.
And that circle must not exclude even my enemies, for the Jews and Samaritans despised each other, were sworn enemies, and yet in Jesus’ parable He designates a Samaritan to be the man who has compassion on another man who might have been a Jew for all he knew, an enemy to the Samaritans, but whom the Samaritan chooses to see simply as a man, a poor man who is dying on the road to Jericho. “Go and do the same,” is Jesus’ clear command. In other words, the circle must include every person.