15 Sunday in Ordinary time – July 11, 2010 – Just Who Is Our Neighbor?
Deuteronomy 30:10-14, Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36-37, Colossians 1:15-20, Luke 10:25-37
Last Sunday between the liturgies there was a conversation among a few parishioners about Catholic identity. What does it mean to be a Catholic today? Is there still a Catholic culture that defines us by our attitudes and behavior?
At one time we Catholics were easily identified not only by meatless Fridays and Ash Wednesday but also interior attitudes about sin and grace, devotions and Mass, guilt and confession. Others knew us by the way we conducted ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, alone and with others. In many ways Catholicism was quite tribal.
The Word of God can come alive in our time by appreciating the tribal culture as well as the social and political context found in the stories in the bible. Why were the scriptures written the way they were? What was going on with the people then? Take, e.g., the first reading today. It says that the laws are no longer confined to stone tablets. They ought to be in our hearts, on our lips, second nature to us. How do people change once they accept the commandments?
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz cites the difference between Exodus Jews and Mt. Sinai Jews. Held captive by powerful nations some Jews were motivated to keep their tribal nature, to protect themselves from any threats to their survival. On the other hand those Jews who accepted the commandments and entered an agreement with God looked beyond themselves and they began to identify with the vulnerable members of society, Jewish or not. 
At one time Catholics were ostracized in these United States. We defended ourselves in a tribal way by working hard, clutching our catechisms, keeping our customs and sticking together. As we gained confidence in our identity we became influential players on the national stage. We now look for ways to align ourselves with those who are robbed and beaten down by power and greed; we work to help the oppressed underdog find a rightful place in society just like you and I have found our place.
Some are concerned, however, that Catholicism is not what it used to be. They ask are we Catholics so consumed by a larger social context that is it hard to distinguish us, as a group, from the rest of society? Have we become invisible? Are we so assimilated now that the influence of the Catholic church in society is on the wane? Where is the courageous leadership, the imaginative vision that can renew Catholicism today?
A reverence for the past is not an effective strategy for renewing identity. For most Catholics in this country the past is not so far away. Just talk to someone born after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. For them the history of the church is only 55 years old. To be relevant in our own time, without shirking our belief system, Catholics can learn from and collaborate with others, to create a vision for tomorrow. But first we have to shed our armor. Here is where the gospel is helpful.
This love commandment is not original with Jesus. He got it from the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. It teaches there can be no love of God that does not express itself in love of neighbor. This is not just about good will but about doing concrete acts for those in real need. 
Today’s psalm says, “Turn to the [ways of the] Lord and you will live.” What are those turning points in our lives, those events that shake us out of our routine way doing things? Having an accident, falling in love, graduating, getting a job, losing a job? What does it take to shake up the church? A scandal, substandard governance, fewer priests, parish mergers? Aren’t these turning points opportunities in work clothes that dare us to boldly embrace tomorrow?
The second reading speaks about Jesus making peace through the blood of his cross. This is precisely an invitation to Christians to identify with the imperfections, the sufferings, the injustices of the world symbolized by the cross and then to do something to restore creation.
We’ll never know what made that Samaritan stop to help the guy in the gutter. What is apparent is that it was a turning point in both lives. Remember Jews and Samaritans hated one another. The Samaritan broke through the barriers of tribal prejudice and religious custom to help a fellow human being get back on his feet. The Samaritan was not worried about what identification card the man had in his pocket. According to scholar Brendan Byrne, this is the work of the church. “The way to eternal life is to allow oneself to become an active instrument and a channel of … boundary breaking hospitality.” 
So who is our neighbor? How do we tear down the fences that keep us in our tidy comfortable tribal backyards? Can we reawaken the sleeping Spirit — hearts murmuring, lips speaking, bodies acting, minds imagining — to tear down barriers of pride, parochialism and prejudice?
Catholicism, in many ways, is still a tribal religion. We’re still trying to find our way in society. Protecting ourselves from outsiders is not a good use of our energy. Rather, like those Jews who accepted the Sinai covenant, can we identify ourselves with the people who need our help, our resources, no matter who they are, how they live, or what they believe?
1. See Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, “Tribal vs. Covenantal Jewish Identity” at http://www.interfaithfamily.com/news_and_opinion/synagogues_and_the_jewish_community/Tribal_vs_Covenantal_Jewish_Identity.shtml?rd=2
2. Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 485-86, 68-69.
3. Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000) 101-102