Who is my neighbor?

Jonah 1, 1 - 2, 1.11 + Luke 10, 25-37

St. Francis of Assissi,

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Two of the epic stories of Holy Scripture unite today on this great feast of "Our Seraphic Father" (as the Franciscans say), St. Francis of Assissi: Jonah and the big fish, and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We have met the Assyrians before. When they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, they led the aristocracy out of the city through great holes in the walls, their captives were linked together with hooks through their noses and lips. Not-nice people, when they showed up in your country, you just had to say, "There goes the neighborhood."

Given this history, it's understandable that Jonah would not be excited at being sent to preach that God would destroy the Assyrian capital city of Ninevah because of its wickedness. Why should they get a warning -- especially at great personal risk? They might repent, they deserve to die. So he ran, ending up in the midst of a storm, his shipmates throw him overboard as the source of their troubles, a big fish swallows him and he has 3 days to think about his disobedience.

Smart guys were always trying to trick Jesus, asking him questions, fishing for evidence. Today He is asked the straight-forward question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answers with a question; "What is written in the Law?" The answer: Love God, love your neighbor as yourself. And then the punch line: "But who is my neighbor?"

Who indeed is my neighbor, that is the question, isn't it? The answer is laden with obligations, and we don't like obligations, they limit our freedom and autonomy. "Neighbor" is a very ancient concept, it goes way back. A neighbor isn't just anybody, it is someone who is part of your direct community, your territory, you have duties to them and they have duties to you.

This is more information than we want to know, but since somebody asked, Jesus answers with a parable. Here is a paraphrase, substituting modern synonyms for the biblical terms.

A man fell victim to gang violence as he went from the suburbs to downtown. They took his car, wallet, and jacket, beat him, dumped trash on him, and then went off leaving him half-dead on the sidewalk.

A corporate executive happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he changed lanes and passed by in the fast lane. He was on his way to an important board meeting and in any event, the underclass was always killing each other so what could he do anyway. He didn't even think about using his cell phone to call the police, because after all, it wasn't his responsibility to police the barrio and this guy certainly wasn't from his neighborhood. He gave money to the United Way to take care of such people, so he had done his part.

Likewise, an important politician drove by, stopped, took a picture, and then went on his way. His campaign needed some good photos of urban violence, and this one was great. But he had no time himself to get personally involved, it was unlikely this guy was a voter from his upscale suburban district and this district was represented by the other party. After he got back to his office, he would have one of his administrative assistants look into some research grants for the university to do some studies on the impact of urban violence on suburban property values. Yep, that'd be a nice piece of work, he said to himself, thinking of who owed him favors, he might even get a gig on Oprah, and certainly the morning shows.

But a prostitute who suffered from AIDS and sold crack saw the man and was moved with compassion at the sight. She approached the victim, bandaged his wounds with her scarf, and took him herself to the emergency room at the hospital. Instead of dumping him on the porch, she took him inside and made sure that somebody treated the man, paying the admissions clerk in cash.

Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the gang's victim? "The one who treated him with mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

These are all appropriate thoughts for the feast of St. Francis, medieval poet and lover of God, poverty, and the goodness of all creation. He too taught that the world would be saved by Beauty, and his words today ring true and with joy for all people. May his heroic example be for all people and inspiration.

If you have animal companions, don't forget to pray a special blessing on them today from St. Francis.

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