15th Sunday of Ordinary Time - The Heart of the Gospel

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 and 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.

goodsamaritan When asked about the real meaning of the Law, Jesus 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.

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 be sensitive to the pain of others. And we must 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.

We are called 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 and 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? 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.