by Msgr. Joseph P. Calise
Wikipedia describes Fred Rogers as “an American television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister.” It goes on to explain that his dissatisfaction with the way television addressed young children led him to create the TV show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He closed each episode with the words, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”
The 895 episodes of “The Neighborhood” ran from 1968-2001. Each was introduced by the theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The lyrics are, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood, A neighborly day for a beauty, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you. So let’s make the most of this beautiful day, Since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor? Won’t you please, won’t you please, Please won’t you be my neighbor?”
In Saint Luke’s version of the Gospel we hear today, there are two sections. The original encounter between Jesus and the scholar of the law and the section we have come to recognize as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Each section can stand alone as a Gospel message for any Sunday. When the scholar asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life (whether his motivation was to learn or to try to trap Jesus in a contradiction of the law is unimportant at this point), Jesus answers with the greatest commandment; to love God and neighbor. The parable comes as the result of the scholar’s further question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Webster’s dictionary defines “neighbor” as either one living nearby or one’s fellow man. The diversity of cultures in the parable certainly invites us to the broader definition. The characters we encounter in the story would not have all lived in the same neighborhood. Jesus makes it quite clear that our obligation to be a neighbor to one another is limited by neither geography nor culture and is based on the simple need we have for one another. The scholar recognizes this and answers Jesus’ question, “Who would you say was a neighbor to the man?” with the simple response, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Notice how carefully Jesus has now answered both of the scholar’s questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” by leading him to the understanding that being a neighbor is an act of service. A few years ago I was at a twelve step meeting in California and heard a woman say, “The only problem with people-pleasing is that more people don’t do it.” Of course, no one should allow himself or herself to be abused by another person, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if everyone sincerely cared about everyone else? So, the question comes, “Why don’t we?” What prevents us as human beings from truly being a neighbor to one another? I think the parable answers that as well.
There are four main characters in the story: the victim, the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan. We do not hear much about the victim – his race, religion and age are not mentioned. What we can surmise is that he forgot or ignored the basic rule of not going into a dangerous area alone. The description of the locale is certainly desolate enough that one would wonder why he was there by himself – perhaps necessity, perhaps carelessness. In either case, he paid the price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As far as we can tell, the three who came upon him were also traveling alone. The priest who came upon him was probably traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem. As we know from the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, priests only served in the Temple a few weeks a year. It was an important honor for them. However, should the priest have come into contact with a dead body he would have forfeited that time, because the encounter with death would have made him ritually impure. Seeing the man on the road, the priest had no way of knowing if he were dead or alive. The Levite had a different experience. He goes over to the man and then leaves him. Perhaps he wanted to help but did not think there was anything he could do, or perhaps he had to wonder if the people who did this were still around waiting for another traveler who was foolish enough to walk that road alone. The Samaritan presents a more complicated case. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews, but not all Samaritans were considered Samaritans. Generations of intermarriage with foreigners would have left some of the racially impure Samaritans in the area. Although they would not have been well respected, they would have been admitted to Jewish areas and businesses. If this neighborly Samaritan were racially pure, he would not have been traveling on the road to Jerusalem because he would not have been able to conduct any business there.
The priest was too proud to help – it might have cost him his service in the Temple for which he had been waiting a long time. The Levite was afraid – the perpetrators might still be around looking for another victim. Pride and fear become identified as the great enemies of love. The Samaritan comes to be called “good” because he not only saw a need but responded. If that makes sense to us, then we must hear Jesus say, “Go and do likewise.”
Readings for Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Psalm 68:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36-37
Msgr. Calise is the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka and Transfiguration parish, Maspeth.