A challenge to be neighborly

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A columnist in a recent weekend opinion section of the New York Times noted that the time and the place where we live early in life can have a considerable influence on the way we actually perceive reality.

I began to think about that in regards to my own life growing up in a rural setting, a cattle ranch on the beautiful plains of North Dakota. I lived in that setting from birth until I went off to military service in the mid-1940s.

The land was sparsely settled and neighbors often lived a considerable distance from each other. Nonetheless I clearly remember occasions when neighbors would spare no effort to come to one another’s aid when prairie fires, storms or floods suddenly made life hazardous. Being a good neighbor was simply assumed without question.

Most of us move from the scene of our early life experience to a different sort of neighborliness in a different place. The crunched quarters of condo or apartment living are not very conducive to close-knit and dependent relationships.

Many of you may remember the tragic event that occurred in 1964 to Catherine (Kitty) Genovese a New York City woman who was stabbed to death on the sidewalk outside her apartment building in Queens. For more than a half hour the vast majority of residents on the floors above the street continued to watch that tragic scene going on down below without making a move to respond to the woman’s cry for help. She died there on the sidewalk.

We might say, “Well, you know, this is not the Great Plains, this happened in a large, crowded city; people often do not know each other personally or are simply afraid to get involved.”

Nonetheless, this incident that occurred in 1964 still disturbs many today. It calls to mind the perennial, bothersome and inconvenient question that was brought up by Jesus in the Gospel of Saint Luke for this Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

In a debate with a Jewish scribe regarding the essential meaning of the great law of love in the Torah, Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Instead of responding with a complicated theological discourse, Jesus simply says: “Let me tell you a story.” We know the story so well because we are invited to be part of it. A man is attacked by robbers and left for dead, not in Queens but on a lonely stretch of the Jerusalem-Jericho turnpike. Three travelers come upon the man; two of them are officials of the temple in Jerusalem, the third, a man considered by Jews as non-religious. Who stops to help the injured man? No, not the two we might have imagined but the third man who claims no outward religious pretensions. So now comes the question that both the scribe and we knew was coming. Who was neighbor to the injured man? Obviously, the one who had compassion.

Neighborliness is obviously more complicated today than in Jesus’ time. Nonetheless, countless people still suffer mentally and physically along the roads or in the streets of our world. Is the person in Nigeria, Lebanon, Syria, New York, Chicago, South Bend or Anchorage our neighbor? It is a question that should continue to make us all flinch until we find the answer.

Scriptures for July 10

Deuteronomy 30: 10-14

Colossians 1: 15-20

Luke 10: 25-37

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives in Notre Dame, Indiana.


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