BEING NEAR AND BEING NEIGHBORLY

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
July 15, 2007

Readings: Dt 30:10-14 / Col 1:15-20 / Lk 10:25-37

[Paranaque City, Philippines – July 9, 2007]

From the standpoint of my Southeast Asian culture, being near and being a neighbor almost sounds synonymous, if not referring to one and the same reality. Very literally, in my native Tagalog language, to be a neighbor (kahanggan) really means having, and acknowledging, the existence of common boundaries with somebody else (kahanggan literally refers to my property as contiguous with someone else’s property). Thus, for our culture, to be near is usually tantamount to being a neighbor.

I would like to think that, tangentially at least, the first reading has something to do with both one and the other. The Lord declares His proximity to His people via His command: “It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.”

We can also read God’s closeness to us in Jesus Christ in what St. Paul writes the Colossians. He professes how the “fullness” of the Godhead is “reconciled” with “all things for him.” He speaks about how Jesus Christ “made peace by the blood of his cross,” and how he became the connection between “those on earth” and “those in heaven.” In effect, Paul tells us how near God is, in and through, Jesus Christ His Son.

The Gospel speaks of what it means not only to be near, but more so, what more than just being a neighbor consists in. The Lord teaches us what being neighborly is all about. It is all about drawing near purposefully, not steering clear and purposely avoiding someone else.

In the Gospel passage, the Lord takes up what the first reading speaks about – God’s great command of love, that ought to be “in our lips and in our hearts” – and connects it with a deeper form of purposeful nearness that being neighborly is all about. After hearing the clear-cut answer from the scholar of the law, who rattled off God’s command with such ease and cocky self-confidence, he retorted back to him with the clincher: “Do this, and you will live.” In other words, what the Lord tells him really is simply this … nearness is as nearness does. One cannot be a neighbor without acting neighborly. Nearness has to translate to closeness, not distance. Neighborliness has to spill over into compassionate caring, not distancing.

The world as we know it now is a shrinking world. We are apprised of what goes on anywhere in this shrinking world in real time. When China sneezes, the whole world gets a cold. When financial tremors rock Shanghai, the whole world shudders for fear of an economic meltdown. Everything seems to speak of closing in gaps, of putting the curse of distance to an effective closure. Internet communications via the worldwide web, along with other factors, cause the collapse of time and distance. Never before has the entire world felt so close, so within reach, so accessible. Entire economies can rise and fall within minutes courtesy of paperless electronic transactions that take place without the need for money or hard currencies to change hands. Big time financial gurus who make money on money, can literally cause death knells sounding on local economies of smaller, poorer nations, whose currencies can be manipulated at will by such big time currency speculators.

But such seeming closeness is really a big lie, an egregious myth that hides more than it shows. Behind it is really a looming and lurking, deeper, and more pervasive form of alienation and distance. The whole globalization issue may be said to be the death of physical distance, but it may also refer to the curtailment of interpersonal nearness and of psychological and spiritual closeness.

There is something endearing in today’s readings. Instead of fostering further moral and psychological distance that already is becoming a curse in this globalized world, the Lord reminds us how close He really is to us, in His command of love. The Lord reminds us how near He is to us, how his words, at bottom, are really “spirit and life; for [He alone] has the words of everlasting life” (Alleluia verse).

But He goes further. He tells us not only about the fact of His being near. He challenges us to translate that nearness to being neighborly. In effect, He tells us to go beyond what culture expects of us, what contemporary globalized realities may lead us to. In a world that is filled with all sorts of alienation, in the moral, physical, psychological, and spiritual senses, God tells us to pierce through the darkness of distance and draw near purposefully to people who live far from grace, far from security, far from the level of comfort we may have at the moment.

The world of mass media has made everything so near … and yet so far. Millions, if not billions of people are continuously exposed to desensitizing news of tragedies and natural calamities, and even of terroristic acts all over the world. The new information and communication technologies have brought every tragedy so close to home, so near, so accessible. But alongside such seeming closeness is the progressive desensitization of people that spells indifference, cynicism, and quiet – if, dangerous – resignation to what seems so inevitable. One more tragedy among so many … what is that to me? What can I really do in the face of so much human misery? Globalized mass media may have caused the death of distance, but it has also caused the demise of compassion.

This may well have been the problem of the Gospel’s priest and levite. They saw misery from afar. But they did not purposely draw near. They must have looked the other way. They kept distance. After all, the man in question was probably a member of the hated Samaritan crowd. And being in all likelihood dead, it made no point for such noble priests and levites to defile themselves by touching a dead corpse. It all sounded so logical and well-advised. Have nothing to do with a dead – or soon-to-be-dead stranger who happens to stand in the way. Keep focused. Keep your eyes on the goal. And let nothing perturb you and make you veer away uselessly from that goal.

Both priest and levite were so near … and yet so far. They might have been near, but they were not neighborly. They passed through the trial, but failed the test. And what is that test? “Hoc fac et vives … Do this and you will live.”

“Father, Christian is the name and the gospel we glory in. May your love make us what you have called us to be. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen” (Alternative Opening Prayer).

HOC FAC ET VIVES!

[Dundalk, MD – July 11, 2004]

Last Sunday’s gospel confronted us with the true meaning of discipleship. Without resorting to sugar-coating, Jesus made us aware of the inherent difficulties attached to following the Lord: “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” But we were exposed also to the bigger reality promised to those who are called to work for the Lord’s harvest. “Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.”

This Sunday’s readings are a further deepening on the meaning of discipleship. They give us the absolute ideal, the heights to which every serious and solid believer ought to aspire after. Hoc fac et vives, the Lord tells us. Do this and you will live.

What exactly ought we to do? What in concrete does this close link between doing and living consist in, in our times, in our days, in our world?

Our generation is steeped in the desire for more in every conceivable way. We want bigger and more comfortable homes, more flashy cars, longer and longer leisure time, higher incomes, and longer lives. Ultimately we long for life and all the best it could offer. Even when we satiate ourselves a lot more than is necessary for us to go on living physically, deep down what we want is not really more calories, more sugar, more mortgages to pay, and more health problems. We want quality life. We long for the best for ourselves and our loved ones.

Even when we decide to do evil, it is not the evil we really are after, but the superficial good behind which evil hides. Philosophers have told us from many centuries back that people are motivated to act by what they mistakenly think is the good object. Even the devil with his wily enticements, appears to us, at least initially, as an “angel of light,” whose apparent intention is to cater to what will be beneficial to us on the surface.

We live fully… completely and totally. Or so we believe. But our living lacks an important component. It has lost its essential tandem … We have lost that which makes living truly worth all the striving after and the longing for. We lost the aspect of the “doing.” “Do this, and you will live,” the Lord tells us. Living fully, according to him, requires the grounding of “doing.” Living truly and completely has to entail willfulness. It has to have the inseparable component of “responsibility.”

There are many of us who live the good life by worldly standards. For still many more, having denied God, they see no reason for his laws. They live “la dolce vita,” unmindful of the will of someone greater than them who has left His word as a path that leads to fullness of life, a life in abundance as He envisioned it, as He created it. Having thrown this foundational truth outside the window, moral laws and principles simply have no voice in their lives anymore. They prefer to wallow in what Pope John Paul II prophetically calls the “culture of death.” With no God to “mind the store,” at it were, there is a wide avenue for people to engage in acts that cater to “death” instead of life: procured abortions left and right, wars, terrorism, violence, corruption in and out of government, capital punishment, and various forms of infidelities, and break-ups of relationships.

We enjoy the “living,” minus the “doing.” We enjoy the right, without the corresponding responsibility. We want the gift, but not the giver; the dowry, but not the duty it entails. It is to such ilk that we all are, that the words of Moses ring timely and true: “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord, your God, and keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law, when you return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul.”

With all our heart, with all our soul … this ought to mark our attention and obedience to God’s will, with all of one’s being. This speaks of totality, of fullness, of completeness. This has nothing to do with half-measures. Rightly, then, does Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” says that “when Christ calls us, he bids us come, and die.” He calls us to life, but he also calls us to “doing” or “dying” so that we might truly live.

The concept of “God’s law” is not very popular in our days. People think of God’s law more like prohibitions, restrictions, and a general curtailment of personal freedom. But these very same people who find it hard to accept “God’s law” do not see any problem with “punishing evil-doers.” People who do not accept the concept of God’s law have no problem using the law of the land in doing away with signs of religion in emblems and public places. They use human law that emanates from God ultimately to “outlaw” God himself, and declare him “persona non grata” in their personal and family lives. God simply has no role to play in people’s decision to kill unborn children. The Church, who speaks in God’s name, has no business whatsoever in the bedroom, nothing to do with people’s choices, and should not meddle with other people’s bodies. A decision to do good or bad is simply a choice, devoid of any moral quality.

The funny thing is when people choose to do good, the whole world rewards them with citations, and extols them to the skies. But when people do wrong, they are seen as simply making choices. People can do good. But people cannot sin. With God and His will out of the picture, people just commit crimes that are illegal, or out of bounds with man-made laws. This paves the way for us to simply live, without the doing part.

Denial, however, does not do away with what is real. No amount of denial can change reality. This much, today’s readings tell us clearly: “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life; you have the words of everlasting life.” The law of the Lord may appear so lofty and so far from human reach, so impossible to do, and hard to live. But it is really very close to us. “It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

Indeed, when we look closely at God’s law, not as restrictions and prohibitions, but as a gift, which it really is, things take on a far different meaning. Instead of a road that says “no entry,” we find a “path that leads to love.” Instead of indifference, we see compassion, like that of the good Samaritan. That Samaritan must have been busy eking out a living, but he was never too busy to do that which makes living really worth all the striving. He lived. He took time to love. And he did as love bade him do. At the end of the day, he made all the difference between those who merely lived, and those who behaved in accordance with their deep desire to live and love fully, “with all one’s heart, with all one’s being, with all one’s strength, and with all one’s mind.” Doing and living… Living and believing… Hearing and obeying… This is what Moses, Paul, the good Samaritan, and Jesus bid us do. “Do this and you will live.” “Go, then, and do the same.”

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