Like a Good Neighbor

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Catholic speaker Jeff Cavins tells the story of a friend of his, a Dominican priest, who was on a trip to Calcutta to teach a short seminar. He returned to his room after teaching, and his window was open to the everyday street noise of the big, bustling city of Calcutta. Then suddenly, the Dominican priest smelled this terrible stench coming from outside. He looked out on the street, and laying below his window was a poor man who had a huge gaping wound in his side, and maggots had infested the infected wound. He was groaning in pain. The priest pushed the window closed, and sat down on his bed. He thought about the fact that he didn’t want to go out and do anything about it because, being honest with himself, he didn’t want his habit to smell. As he sat on his bed, he then heard two women outside his window, an elderly one and a younger one. He could hear the younger woman say, “Mother, I will do it myself. You are tired. Go inside.” And the older one, Mother Theresa, he heard say, “No, I must take care of this man.” The Dominican priest went to the window, and saw Mother Theresa bend down and pick this man up, with his wounds, and roll him into her habit. And that point, the Dominican priest broke. He went down his knees at his bed and cried. He asked God, “What is wrong with me? How come I’m not willing to touch those who are sick, those who are diseased, and yet you stooped down to touch me? And at that moment his life changed. Because he saw one person, Mother Theresa, acting as the Good Samaritan, the neighbor. Mother Theresa won the Nobel Prize for doing what Moses instructed us to do. It is not far away in the sky, or across the sea; it is very near to you, already in your hearts. You only have to carry it out.

It means going outside of your comfort zone. It means taking your religion into your life, into your heart, and into your actions. Not comfortably, but sacrificially. It’s your brother who is homeless and hungry, smelly, dirty, drug-addicted, alcoholic, hungry, sinful, and selfish. It is your sister. Your father. Your mother. Your son. Your daughter. No matter their race, their culture, their sexual orientation, their beliefs. Go to them, tend to them, love them. “For whatever you did for these, the least of My brothers and sisters, you did for Me.” As Jesus first loved you, go and do likewise.


But let’s look at something else about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It wasn’t the Israelites who treated their fellow Israelite with compassion, those who knew the Law, (both of charity toward the wounded, or burial for the dead) and for whatever reason, failed in their obligation of the Law. It was only the Samaritan who did what was righteous. The Samaritans were those descended from the Northern tribes who were left behind when the Assyrians dispersed them, and brought in pagans to take over the land. They considered themselves the faithful remnant, both after the Assyrian dispersion, and the Babylonian Exile. They had set up their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, and their sacred writings were the Torah, but not with the later writings. The Israelites considered them genetic and spiritual mongrels, part Israelite and part pagan, and so they were both impure and heretical. They didn’t live the right way, they didn’t worship the right way, and they worshiped in a false temple. And yet the Samaritan is the hero in the parable Jesus is telling to the scholar of the law. The Samaritan might not know the law, but he lives it, at least in this act of kindness.

This does not mean to say that right worship is unimportant. Worshiping God is the most important thing we do, and the second is like it: taking that worship of God out into serving God in love by our serving our neighbor in love. And God has given us, through the scriptures, through Tradition, through the magisterium, the way he desires to be worshiped: through weekly active participation in the Mass, and through the other sacraments of the Church.

But it is to say that, as the Second Vatican Council did, that we are to cooperate with others outside the Church who are responding to the call to relieve suffering, to promote justice and virtue, to serve the poor, and build up others in love. We can’t throw liturgy or the true faith under the bus for the sake of playing well with others, but we can seek to fulfill common goals and projects together that serve God and our neighbors.

On Friday, a parishioner and I accepted the invitation from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to join them in a breakfast to welcome their new bishop. Do they believe things that we don’t believe? Yes, of course. And we can have conversations that help us to really clarify what we believe, and help us to understand each other better, and work together better.

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(Click on image for link to article)  Bishop Gainer, with the Rev. James S. Dunlop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod (ELCA) and the Rev. Robert L Driesen of the Upper Susquehanna Synod (ELCA), are together as they sign a pastoral letter calling on Roman Catholic and Lutheran Clergy and laity to explore the joint statement, Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist “in their preaching, teaching, and parish planning.” (Photo credit – Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness)

Last month, Bishop Gainer met with and signed joint statements with the local bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran communities to encourage a deeper mutual understanding and cooperation.

Can we work together? Yes, we can.

Can we worship together? In a limited way, yes. Catholics have the requirement to participate in Mass weekly, and the divine liturgy of the Catholic Mass is a very different thing in its essence than other Christian Sunday services (even though there are many common elements). So going to another church’s Sunday Service does not suffice as attending the Mass. Catholics can attend another church’s service, but they must also go to Mass, perhaps on Saturday evening.

And since in the Catholic faith, sharing in the celebration of communion (the real presence of Jesus, sacramentally and really present, body, blood, soul, and divinity) is reserved to those who are in full communion with the Catholic faith, and living that life faithfully, communion cannot be shared between our faith and others. Catholics should not take communion in non-Catholic churches, and non-Catholics (and Catholics in mortal sin, and those in a living arrangement inconsistent with Catholic teaching) cannot take communion in a Catholic Church. Again, those with whom we do not share full communion, we can still cooperate with them, we can still serve with them, we must certainly love them, and we can certainly show hospitality to them, but we must also acknowledge the tragic divisions within Christianity, and cannot sweep them under the rug in a false gesture of peace and tolerance. Because it is only in acknowledging our differences that we can truly make progress in reconciling them. But those differences do not need to dominate our relationship with them to the point that we cannot appreciate, love, and serve with them in some common ministries, activities and celebrations.


Finally, as one of my friends said on Friday, “The world needs Jesus. We need peace – Jesus is peace. We need love – Jesus is love. We need unity – Jesus is unity. We need strength – Jesus is strength. We need forgiveness – Jesus is forgiveness. We need justice – Jesus is justice. We need Jesus.”  (Thank you, Annie Celotto)

The fullness of all that God is—power, perfection, forgiveness, healing, hope—united himself with all that humanity is—need, sinfulness, woundedness, distrust, fear—and the two meet in Jesus. In him, all of our need meets all of his gift. All of our woundedness meets all of his healing. All of our division meets all of his forgiveness. Jesus is where, or in whom, it all comes together. “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

He came to us, he ministered to us, he laid down his life for us, though we were sick and infected in our wounds. Because he loves us each intimately, as members of his own body. We have an example. It is not far away in the sky, or across the sea; it is very near to you, already in your hearts. You only have to carry it out.

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