This homily delivered at St. Agnes Church is based on Luke 10:25-37.
The Lord Jesus has a way of breaking stereotypes.
For instance, “Samaritan” used to be a bad word. Most of the Jews at the time must have uttered it with derision. It’s quite understandable given a long-standing rift between the Jews and the Samaritans even before the Babylonian exile. Each group considered their version the one, true religion and looked down upon the other, to say the least.
To get an idea of the kind of enmity between them, think of the Serbs and the Muslims in modern Bosnia, or the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Or maybe better still, closer to home, between the viewers of MSNBC and FOX News.
So imagine the surprise and displeasure of our Lord’s Jewish audience when in his story, it’s the Samaritan–“the bad guy”–who ends up playing the good guy, the one who exemplifies through his actions what it means to love your neighbor.
Just like that, Jesus transforms “Samaritan” from a bad word that you spit out into an ideal that you should strive for. There’s no doubt what our Lord’s point is: It’s not about your race or region or religion. It’s about your decision and your actions–regardless of race, region, and religion. At the end of our lives, we will be judged solely on this one criterion and question: “What have we done to love our neighbor?”
Moreover, note how else our Lord pulls the rug from under the feet of his listeners then–and now. By the time the parable ends, “neighbor” no longer refers to the people who are at the receiving end of our love, but the people who are doing the loving. To love our neighbor as ourselves, it is we who must play the neighbor to others. The Samaritan in the parable is presented to us not as the neighbor that we are commanded to love, but as the one who is the loving neighbor.
Speaking of neighbor, that’s the other word that our Lord redefines. “Neighbor” ordinarily refers to someone living next door or down the block, people residing close to you and–certainly in the time of our Lord–looking similar to you. But our Lord tosses that stereotype out the window as well. Because Jesus chooses a Samaritan to play the neighbor in his parable, he is telling us that our neighbor need not be someone who lives close to us or someone who looks like us.
Our neighbor could well be the foreigner who hails from a faraway land, or even that suspicious-looking stranger against whom we’ve been warned by our mothers again and again never to talk to. In Jesus’ opinion, neighbors are people who are willing to break down walls and build bridges, no matter how they look and how far they come from.
The psychologist Brenee Brown makes a distinction between “fitting in” and “belonging.” She says “fitting in” means “you want to be part of a group,” while “belonging” means “others want you to be part of their group.” Loving our neighbor means turning to those who want to fit in but are excluded and giving them our permission to belong with us.
In a world where there are over 70 million displaced people and where we increasingly find strangers among our neighbors, this commandment to “love our neighbor as ourselves” grows more urgent and radical. Our Lord is teaching us today that following the second greatest commandment entails being a neighbor especially to the strangers in our midst. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means being generous enough and courageous enough to build bridges when it is more fashionable and more tempting to build walls.
Today the Lord reminds us that we cannot look away from the plight of refugees and immigrants. He is inviting us to ask ourselves: Is there anything more we can do to offer food, shelter, and especially protection to the stranger?
The commandment to be a neighbor to strangers is also an invitation to look for those in our midst who are estranged or alienated from the rest of us–those who may not literally be foreigners or homeless, but for one reason or another, feel or are excluded in some way, people around us who want so much to fit in, but, for whatever reason, don’t belong.
If we truly want to love our neighbor as ourselves, if we truly want to be a neighbor to others, we have to be willing not only to break down the walls that separate us, but also to demolish the stereotypes that drive us to build those walls.
So here’s a couple of questions for you: Do you have some kind of lingering stereotype labout those unlike you that is preventing you from being a good neighbor to them? This may be a stereotype based on race, region, religion, sexuality, or social status. Can you consider taking a baby step to toss it out the window this morning?