For so many people, God is remote, far off, impersonal, mechanical, unconcerned. The words "will of God" or "law of God" sound somehow threatening, unconnected with the reality of human experience. We tend to get too wrapped up in and concerned about the stressful demands that have led us to fill our days with work and other hectic activities. Many times we don't see our Church being able to "speak our language" and to deal with what we truly consider to be the needs of the people - our needs.
But by sharing our humanity in the Person of Jesus, God tries to come closer and closer to us. He tries so desperately to convince us that His life and His love are within us, bound up intimately with our thoughts and words and actions.
The mystery of God-With-Us is the final, fullest proof of God's desire to become Someone very near to us. In Jesus, the Word becomes our flesh. Every facet of His human journey speaks to us of the nearness of God. He walked with His Father, not only in the Temple, but in the carpenter shop, at the family table, in the desert and on the mountain top. He recognized the image of the Father in the members of His family, in the townspeople of Nazareth, in the poor, the lepers, the crippled, the deaf and the blind who flocked to Him. He enfleshed the compassion of God in His reaching out to the tax collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan woman at the well, the thief on the cross.
When He was being "cross-examined" by a lawyer about the real meaning of the Law, He identified love of God and of Neighbor as the heart of that Law. When asked to define "neighbor", He told a simple story of compassion, whose hero was not a revered priest or levite, but a detested Samaritan - an outcast from society.
The inescapable lesson for us is simple, and yet sometimes disturbing: as our first reading proclaims, the presence and the love of our God is "something very near" to us - already in our hearts and in our mouths; we feel it and are touched and moved by it in the ordinary events, people and places of every day. These events, these people and these places may not often be the kind where we would expect to meet our God. He is often uncomfortably near us in situations and persons where we would prefer not to see Him.
In order to "justify himself" the lawyer asked Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?" The answer Jesus returns is not what we would expect. He challenges us to ask that same question of ourselves. But we will never come up with an answer unless we understand who this Jesus is and what he asks of us...
In last week's Gospel Jesus sent 72 of his followers to proclaim the good news, assuring them that they had all they needed to complete the journey. He offers the same challenge to us. He sends us on our own journey of faith and gives us the necessary tools to travel our different paths: Love of God and Love of Neighbor.
We don't have to travel thousands of miles or make all kinds of sacrifices to avail ourselves of his offer. We don't have to look very far to find our neighbor. We need only to accept His promise and His presence with faith; then he provides the strength for us to walk His way, to live his life, to be faithful to his gospel. And we must be able to articulate this Gospel with clarity and enthusiasm.
At the heart of the Gospel message is the challenge to lose ourselves in concern for others. If we truly love every other person as Jesus has loved us, then we don't look at risk, or color, or public opinion, or all of the other excuses for walking away.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says clearly that the love of neighbor means that we must be compassionate. We must try to be sensitive to the pain of others. And we must try to respond to that pain in some concrete, personal way. Obviously, we cannot cure all the ills of society by ourselves; we cannot abandon our work and our families to go physically to care for the homeless or the victims of violence and poverty. But the love of Jesus challenges us to keep trying, to keep reaching out, to keep caring.
The Sunday Readings over the next few weeks teach us two important lessons. The parable of the Good Samaritan points out the importance of getting involved in the life of our neighbor - no matter how he or she appears as neighbor. Next week, the story of Martha and Mary confirms that this involvement must be fed and nourished by prayer. The following week, Jesus will give us the ultimate prayer: The Lord's Prayer. The gift of outreach is lessened without inner peace and reflection; but a life of prayer is selfish and "intolerable" unless it leads us to be there for one another.
Jesus calls us to be a compassionate people, not only celebrating our joys together, but also to take on the trials and sufferings each one of us has to bear. The mission of the Gospel is one that constantly reminds us that together all things are possible. No longer is our relationship to God a one-on-One proposition. God is our Father and we are His children - together we are a Family, a community. We relate to Him only in communion with one another. When one of us is hurting or in pain, we all hurt… we all cry out. When one has reason to celebrate, we are all filled with joy.
That is precisely the challenge of authentic love of God. It is as close to us as our dearest friend, or our worst enemy; we see it in the bright shining eyes of children on a summer playground, and in the dirty hands and faces of the poor and oppressed; it touches us in our greatest joys and in our deepest sorrow. It is never farther away than our next breath, or sigh, or burst of laughter.
Just exactly who is our neighbor? It is He - and He is God - and God is love - something very near indeed.