Finding one's neighbour in the heart of God
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

In the first reading, Moses appeals to the people of Israel to observe the commandments: “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord, your God, and keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law, when you return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul.” He makes the important point that these commandments are not too lofty for them to observe.

The commandments exhibit a pattern; the first three have to do with God: You shall have no other gods besides the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who is faithful to His promises. You shall not call on God’s name in vain, as happens when a person takes an oath and lies. And keep holy the Sabbath Day.

The fact that these are first indicates that they are the most important. In other words, take care of these, and the other seven will follow; because the other seven have to do with our neighbor. If we center our lives around God, revere His name, and observe the holiness of the Sabbath—“in spirit and truth” I might add—, then we will be able to love our neighbor, who belongs to God and who comes from God. We won’t kill him, we will be faithful to our spouses, we’ll be able to respect the property rights of others, we won’t lie to others, and we won’t envy them.

But if we don’t love God first, we simply won’t love our neighbor. We will begin to love others only for what they do for us. To depart from the first three commandments is to make oneself the center of one’s life, and when we become the center of our lives, we begin to slowly destroy lives; we bring suffering into this world. We bring darkness.

In the gospel, a lawyer, a scholar of the Law, tests Jesus. He asks him: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer is very important. He did not say, as many Evangelical Fundamentalists would say: “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior”. He returned with a question: “What is written in the law?” The answer given was: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” This is a concise version of the commandments: the first part summarizes the first three commandments, and the second part, love of neighbor, is articulated in detail in the final seven commandments.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, wrote that as we pray and ascend into the very heart of God, we find there, in the heart of God, our neighbour, who originated there, and so the more we ascend into God, the more we are moved to descend in search of that neighbor, that we may love him, whom we have found in God.

And so Jesus says to the lawyer, “You have given the right answer, do this and you will live”. This is important: Do this; not think about this, research this, study this, or write about it, but do this. The scholar, however, still does not quite get it, because he asks Jesus to define ‘neighbor’. Who is my neighbor?

And Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan. As you all know, Jews and Samaritans despised one another; Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the other; they were not to enter their respective territories nor speak to one another. And so for this scholar, a Samaritan couldn’t possibly be my neighbor.

This is an interesting parable, because the first person to encounter the man lying half dead on the road was a priest, and then a Levite, who assist in the Temple. The reason they didn’t stop to help is that they were worried about becoming ritually unclean. In other words, liturgy was more important than the person.

I hate to say it, but there are people like that today in the Church—there always has been. We don’t feel much of their influence here in Canada—although that may change—, but there are some who put “good liturgy” before people, who regard the laity as a necessary evil believe it or not, and who really believe that the only thing they need to do is to follow the rubrics of the Mass, “purify” the liturgy of all contemporary popular music and replace that with Gregorian chant and Renaissance choral music, maintain a clerical distance between themselves and the laity, and then somehow the world will be transformed—an interesting twist to the idea: “Obey the first three commandments and the other seven will follow”. I’m probably being a little unfair here, but I’m not too far off. The decisions of many clergy and seminarians caught up in this movement have hurt a lot of people, and many in this movement have said some scandalous things about Pope Francis, especially after he said Holy Thursday Mass in a youth prison—if you recall it was a very simple liturgy with a guitar player and singer, and he washed the feet of a Muslim girl. Certainly not the kind of liturgy they envisioned as proper to a pontiff. I would submit that these kinds of people represent the priest and Levite in the gospel.

But the one who stopped to help was the Samaritan. He was moved with pity. He was not afraid of becoming ritually unclean. He interrupted his plans to care for the man, and planned to return to check up on him.

Who is my neighbor? It is the one who loves God so much and who has ascended so deeply into the heart of God so as to have found his neighbor, and who is willing to enter into the sufferings of others whom he now regards as his brothers and sisters. That’s not someone who belongs to our club necessarily, or to our nation, our religious denomination, nor even our religion. Some of the most radiant faces I have encountered, who love God and love truth and who love human beings, are my Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu students. These people are our brothers and sisters as well, not because they are Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu—as if to suggest that all religions are the same—, but because they love God. How do we know? What is the evidence? They love us; they revere our community, they love that we pray every day in the name of the Trinity, etc. One of my Muslim students would, every day, go through the desks and collect the bibles, because a class would come in at the last period of the day, use those bibles and just leave them in the desks. He would go around to each desk and collect them, stack them, shake his head, and comment on how little respect these Catholic students had for the word of God. A Muslim had more reverence for our bible than many of our Catholic students. A crossing guard at a nearby school is a Sikh, and next to the school is a Catholic Church. When morning Mass is over, he bows to the people as they leave. My friend, who was the pastor at the time, decided to ask him: “Why is it that you bow to the people as they leave the Church every morning?” His answer was something to the effect that “we believe the glory of God is in every Church, and that glory descends upon the people who worship, so when the people leave, they carry that glory with them. I am bowing to God whom they carry out into the world as they leave that Church.”

We know that crossing guard is our brother, our neighbor, because he loves God and has found us in the God he loves, and it is evident in his behaviour.

Authentic worship of God, authentic liturgy, ends in finding our neighbor in the heart of God.

The second reading says: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him.”

A number of things follow from this verse. Firstly, if all things were created through Christ and for Christ, then I discover my true identity, who I am, in the Person of Christ; for I came from him (he is my origin), and I was created for him (he is my end), as was everything else in this world. Secondly, if a person—whether a Jew, Muslim, Sikh, or perhaps even an atheist—truly loves his neighbor and is willing to risk so much for his neighbor’s well-being, that person loves Christ, without necessarily even knowing it or being explicitly aware of it, and he will recognize Christ in the end as the familiar face he loved in loving his neighbor, whose origin and identity is found in the Person of Christ. We don’t get into heaven by passing a theology test; we don’t get into heaven by having the right answers or having correct theology—albeit good theology is important, and bad theology dangerous. We get into heaven by dying with a heart that loves Christ, a love that is evident in a genuine love of neighbor.