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The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 10, 2016

Click here to listen to this homily (mp4 file)

      Do you want to be close to God?  How close?  Those may sound like silly questions because we all want to be as close as possible to God, don’t we?  Isn’t that what our life of faith is all about?  Yes, but maybe it’s not quite that simple.

     Yesterday I spent some time visiting an elderly parishioner who is on her deathbed.  She was very much at peace and told me she felt that God was very close.  How wonderful was that.  But I also remember visiting a parishioner not long ago who was also hovering between life and death.  During our visit, I asked him if he was able to pray.  “It’s hard, he said, but I do pray.”  Then he added, “Do you know what my prayer is, Father?  My prayer is ‘Lord, be close to me, but not too close!’”  I got the point and I liked his honesty!  We all want God to be close to us, but maybe not too close….

     Today’s readings are reflections on the closeness of God.  In the reading from Deuteronomy Moses tells the people not to think of God as remote: up in the sky, or across the sea.  No, God is close to you, Moses tells them: God has written His Law of love, not on stone tablets but right in your hearts.

      But recall that Moses was speaking these words to a people who could rather enjoy a certain distance from God.  They probably weren’t all that different from you and me in that they often liked to have it both ways. They enjoyed their privileged status as God’s chosen people, yes, but when push came to shove, they enjoyed a certain distance from God - for the freedom it seemed to bring.  Sound familiar?  Much of the Book of Deuteronomy was Moses’ attempt to get the people to understand that God’s law was a gift, not a burden, and that the way to true freedom was to choose to accept that gift.  But as with us, so with them: some gifts can come too close for comfort – God can come too close for comfort….

     The reading from the letter to the Colossians addresses this issue of the closeness of God in a very theological way.  The Colossians had, through some unfortunate preaching, gotten caught up in some erroneous thinking that denied Christ his unique role as mediator and redeemer.  They had come to regard Christ as only one among a host of distant angels or ‘super-beings’ who controlled the universe and who had to be pacified or appeased.  And St. Paul said: Nonsense.  Christ is unique and all-powerful, infinitely above the angels.  “He is the very image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creatures.  In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible (including those angelic beings you are so enamored of!).”  But then Paul went on to make a powerful statement about the closeness of God.  In Christ, he says, God is not only close to his creatures, he is one with his creatures!  He is “the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form.”  Now I ask you, how much closer could God possibly be than that!

     The gospel parable of the Good Samaritan would seem to be more about neighbor than about God although the neighbor in the parable clearly brought God very close to the stricken traveler by showing compassion and mercy to him. The Good Samaritan is the very embodiment of the command of Jesus we’ve been hearing so often during this Year of Mercy, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”  So, in a way, the parable is about the closeness of God and about the surprising, unexpected ways God comes close to us.

     But, of course, the parable is also about our neighbor whom we are to love as ourselves. And it’s not only about our neighbor, it redefines the very notion of neighbor – takes it to a whole new place. In telling that parable, Jesus must have left his questioner scratching his head and wishing he had never asked the question.  Notice how gently and skillfully Jesus goes about getting his teaching across. He’s the perfect rabbi in this story. He answers a question by posing another -- which reminds me of a little Woody Allen routine.  Someone asks a rabbi, “Why do you rabbis always answer a question with another question?”  To which the rabbi replies: “Why shouldn’t we?!”

      In the gospel, a lawyer asks Jesus (“Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”).  And Jesus answers by asking him a question,(“What is written in the law?”)  The lawyer successfully answers, but has a follow-up question as lawyers often do (“And who is my neighbor?”).  To answer, Jesus, good rabbi that he is, avoids a direct answer by telling a parable – a parable that gives the lawyer an answer he couldn’t possibly have wanted.  Your neighbor is not who you think.  Your neighbor is not the pious priest who cares more for law than for people. No, your neighbor is the one you are inclined to shun - the outsider, the hated outsider, even your sworn enemy -for that is what Samaritans and Jews were: sworn enemies.  They despised each other. They regarded each other as heretics, completely outside the pale of God’s love and mercy.

     Well, the lawyer seems to have understood this bombshell of a teaching but I’ll bet he wished he had never asked the question.  And, my friends, we might wish the same in light of some of the things going on in our world today. Think of Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas. Who is our neighbor anyway? Who is our neighbor? How we answer that question could change everything: our perceptions, our priorities, our prejudices, our politics.

     I began by asking how close to God you want to be.  No matter how we answer that question, the fact remains that God is very close to us. God is utterly close to us in Jesus who is one of us, and that means God is very close to us in our neighbor - including the one who scares us, the one we’d cross the road to avoid. God is close to us, my friends. Maybe even too close for comfort?       

Father Michael G. Ryan




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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