Sunday, July 14, 2013

A reflection I gave on the Good Samaritan at the DVUSA Closing Retreat

It is with humility and a deep sense of gratitude that I speak to all of you today.  As most of you know, my name is Jeff Guhin and I was a Dominican Volunteer in 2003-2004.  I served in the Bronx and I lived with Blauvelt Dominicans.  I’m now on the Board of Dominican Volunteers USA.  When I was reflecting on what I would say today, I thought how today’s Gospel is kind of old news for all of you: what has the last year been for you except to serve as the Good Samaritan, to serve our neighbor as much as we can, whoever (and wherever) that neighbor might be?

But then I realized that the story hints at another challenge, one all of you face now—how do you be a Good Samaritan when the volunteer year is over, when you have a job, a rent payment, bills, a spouse, and kids?  I think there are answers here if we work together to uncover them, and I’d like to think about them by taking a few positions in the story.

First, let’s imagine we’re that man on the side of the road, unconscious and alone.  When we went down, we probably thought we were dying, and yet here we are awake, in a beautiful room, with all the food and medical care we need, and even some extra money to help get us home.  And we cannot even see the person who brought us these gifts!  We are only assured that it was someone with remarkable compassion, someone who insisted we were worthy of a truly unbelievable amount of love.  What do we do with this when we wake? How do we possibly repay this debt?  Of course, the similarity to God’s infinite compassion for us is obvious, not only for the gifts God has given us but the very fact of our lives, the facts of glazed apples and grain fields, of cellular mitosis and solar flares, of laughter and friendship and afternoon naps.  How do we possibly repay that?  Well we don’t.  We live in gratitude.  And that gratitude is easier from the experiences we have all had, knowing the contingency of it: we could easily have died on that side of the road, could easily have been the people we were serving this year.  And yet we were not.  We don’t deserve the gifts God has given us, and yet we have them.  Gratitude and mystery. And a desire to get back on that road that we ourselves were on—that we could have died on!—and help those who need that help.

And I think that’s where a lot of you are right now.  And that’s a great place to be!  So let’s think now about someone else in our story.  The Good Samaritan.  Let’s imagine that this is really the first time he’s done anything like this.  He saw the man dying on the side of the road and thought, you know what? That guy’s my neighbor.  I’m gonna help him.  And so he really does, he really goes all out.  And man, after he leaves that hotel, he feels great.  It’s unbelievable how good he feels.  But then—well, he’s out of money.  And he’s got to get home, because his wife and kids are probably wondering where he is (no cell phones!).  And how is he going to explain those missing coins to his wife, by the way? And let’s say he’s a manual laborer, and he’s got a lot of work to catch up on for his boss because he’s been busy with this man on the side of the road situation. And he’s thinking about all of this as he’s walking out of the inn, and a few miles on his was back home, he sees another man on the side of the road.  I imagine him looking up at God and saying, Seriously?  Didn’t I just do this for you?

I’m sure all of us have had something like this experience in our ministry work, or in our interactions with those experiencing homelessness or any other marginalized group.  You’ve all at this point figured out on your own some smart lessons about developing boundaries, about learning that our justice and charity work plants seeds for plants we may never see.  We all know this stuff is hard, that Jesus tells us “the poor will always be with you,” and that the struggle continues because it never ends.  And I hate to tell you, it won’t get any easier.  When I was an inner-city high school teacher, I made around 30,0000 a year, which for New York City was not that much and was a lot less than I knew I could have made if I had gone into some other field.  So did I still have to give 10 percent to charity?  If my work was a ministry, should I still volunteer?  Now, as a sociologist working with Muslims and Evangelicals to correct religious stereotypes and trying to improve the relationship between science and religion, should I be spending more day-to-day interactions with marginalized people like I used to?  Is it bad that I travel so often I can’t really have a role in my parish’s liturgy?  I still honestly don’t know the answer to these questions, and I don’t think there are easy answers.  But I think there’s a helpful perspective, which is to remember ourselves not as the worn-out Samaritan but as the man on the side of the road who wakes up in a beautiful room, incredibly grateful to be alive.  I think we might feel less overwhelmed by the needs of all of our neighbors if we can live out the non-attachment Sisters Margaret and Carolann have been telling us about.  Remember that we should have died on that road.  Everything from that moment on is a gift.  Don’t feel upset you can’t help everyone; feel grateful you can help anyone at all.  What can we do in a spirit of gratitude, in celebration for the wonder of our existence?  It’s an important question for us to remember, especially as we move forward in our commitments to justice and peace.  This is where the Dominican commitment to relationship is so central, and why it has to be paired with a sense of gratitude: it is our relationships that make us feel the need to act for justice, and it is our gratitude that helps us do so with patience, non-attachment, and a calm and loving awareness of our own limitations (and the limitations of those we’re serving).

Which brings us to another perspective in this story, Jesus’s audience.  Remember that Samaritans were not at all well-loved in Jesus’ s time, and the phrase Good Samaritan was an oxymoron, along the lines of all of just having seen Malala’a speech at the United Nations and someone telling us about the “good member of the Taliban.”  What, we might respond.  What could we possibly have to learn from those people?  And yet it was this person who was our model.  As all of you leave your volunteer year, it’s going to be harder to find a community of accountability, sadly enough right at the moment of transition when you most need one.  You might find that your Catholic friends are not the same as your social justice friends, and your religious friends are not the same as your intellectual friends.  That’s okay.  There are virtues to be learned from all of them.  Yet that makes it all the more important for you to have friends who you can call at any time and who will hold you accountable to your Gospel mission.  For me, I have three friends and my wife, and all four of those people inspire me constantly to ask myself hard questions about how I’m living out the Gopsel, and doing so in a spirit of love.  As with my friends, that sort of accountability will rarely be us asking each other the hard questions, like, is that job really doing God’s will?—though those questions are important too.  Instead, the accountability will be by the lives we lead, which inspire each other to challenge ourselves, and to remember our gratitude, to remember that this life, that our life, is God-soaked, to borrow a term from Sister Maryann and Sister Carol.

And it’s in that spirit of gratitude that I want to think briefly about another group in this story: those who aren’t there.  Where are the women here?  Where are the Samaritans who might hear this story, complaining that they’re being used as an example of how ridiculous it is they would do good?  Where are the non-students who might feel intimidated to be part of the conversation?  How are all of these people reacting?  Are they listening in on the boundaries?  What can we do to welcome them, grateful to be able to talk to anyone, and eager to share what none of us—including us—have earned, but all of us, being made in God’s image, deserve?

Which brings me to the last person in our story I wanted to talk about.  Jesus. Notice how, in Luke, it’s the member of the crowd that says the Greatest Commandment, not him.  Jesus can tell these are some people who can handle some heavy stuff.  And so he lays it on them.  What I’m most struck by in the Gospels is how differently Jesus reacts to everyone.  He tells some people to give up everything, and he tells other people to keep what they have and throw a party.  How to explain it?  I think the only answer is that Jesus recognizes we are all beautifully, wonderfully different.  Sister Joan Chittister reads the Tower of Babel story as ultimately about how God separated us so that we might come to recognize each other’s difference. I love the Gospel of Luke’s story of the rich man, you know, the young man who knew all of the law and asked Jesus what else he should do, and Jesus said give up what you have and follow me, and the rich man couldn’t, because he had many possessions.  In Luke, there’s this small addition where before Jesus tells him what he has to do, it says “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”  That’s so important. 

We need to remember—I need to remember—as we challenge ourselves, as we challenge each other, and as we challenge the world, to do so always in love.  And to accept that challenge with gratitude for the ability to act on the challenge, and the life to carry it out.  And then we can all try to live like these characters inside of us: the man on the side of the road, the Good Samaritan who saves him, the students who asks a question of the Lord, and the Christ who answers all questions the same way: with patience, gentleness, and love.  So while the details of figuring out how to save every neighbor might appear impossible, remember the answer is as much the peace of its telling as the mystery of its words. And make no mistake: this story is a mystery.  How to actually help everyone in the radical way Jesus asks us to do is quite literally impossibly hard.  So the key is the spirit of the answer, the peace of Christ’s response.  I hope that if we live in that peace—and in gratitude for the opportunity to do so—we will provide a space for that mystery to unfold.

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