God, the good neighbour

A soccer ball from the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea (photo by Martin Malina)

Vincenzo Alessandro Verner Giaccone. Well, that’s a soccer name! I can just imagine him as a twenty-year-old running down the soccer pitch wearing a jersey with his name on the back; I can just hear the play-by-play commentator shouting his name when he scores: “Gia-cco-ne!”

Well, to inspire that vision, I want to give Vincenzo a gift today. 2022 is a year we should never forget, especially in your family. 2022 is the year Vincenzo was born and baptized. 2022 is also the year of the World Cup of Soccer! 

I hope this 2022 World Cup soccer ball can inspire Vincenzo to work towards becoming an exceptional footy player someday. Who knows?

What excites us is the dream that Canada can be glorious and victorious on the soccer pitch in Qatar later this year. This feeling fuels our sense of national pride. It really gets the juices flowing. Oh, how we want to win and show the world how good we really are!

There’s a long way to go for Vincenzo to realize whatever it is he is made for. But he begins his life in faith, and the community of faith, today, as a baby, hardly able to do anything for himself. He is totally dependent on his parents and family to survive and thrive at this early stage of life.

And it is at this point in his development as a human being and a person of faith that we baptize him. Not when he is in the prime of his life. Not only if he has accumulated wealth and accolades for all the exceptional things he has accomplished thus far. Not if he can impress us. Not at the pinnacle of life, where expectations of glory abound. And pressure.

But as a baby, when all we can worry about today is making sure his diaper is changed and he is fed and praying he will sleep! His faith is being formed in the crucible of human vulnerability and weakness. 

In the famous story of the Good Samaritan[1], Jesus affirms his Jewish identity when he quotes from the Old Testament. He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” This is the primary law, the great commandment, of the Jewish religion, called the Shema, found in the Torah—the Book of Law.[2]

Indeed, much of the Hebrew Scriptures provides a framework of the history of the Jewish people. What I find remarkable is that the Jewish people, contrary to what might be expected, chose to present their history by including stories about arrogant and evil kings and their very critical prophets. Their scriptures do not just tell their co-religionists and the world how wonderful they are but, rather, how terrible they are! 

There are no perfectly moral people in ancient Scriptures: Even Abraham rather cruelly drove his second wife into the desert with their child; Then there’s King David, the adulterer, and murderer; and,the scheming and depressed prophets. Etc. No other religion presents their history to the world—their ‘family’ narrative—by including intentionally this capacity for self-criticism.[3]

To tell a history—the story of a family, the history of a community of faith, a history of a nation such as Canada—is not to hide all the negative and only showcase the good. It is also to be honest and real about what hasn’t worked, what isn’t perfect or exceptional. To be patriotic is not to gloss over the evils and sins and shortcomings of our history. But to celebrate the good, be honest about the bad, and commit to a better path moving forward.

It is the birth of self-critical thinking, of being honest and vulnerable, that grows us in faith and makes us more authentic people. And that’s what younger people today seek in a community of faith. Not people who think they are right, do things perfectly and try to show how exceptional they are to the world, but people who are honest and authentic, and real. 

It’s quite something that the Samaritan is the hero of the story. It wasn’t a good Jewish boy. It wasn’t someone in Jesus’ clan, tribe and religion. Neither the priest nor the Levite would offer help to one of their own, lying in the ditch, beaten by robbers on the road down from Jerusalem.

The Samaritan was shunned, hated, and reviled by Judaism. Samaritans were outsiders, people to avoid. And yet, the Samaritan was the one who showed mercy. Jesus tells this story to make a point about who is our neighbour, even for our context today. And what is more, Jesus tells this story to show us something important about who God is.

God is the good neighbour. God is the Good Samaritan. For some of you, God may have been distant, someone you wanted to stay away from. Maybe even someone you disliked, questioned, turned your back on.

And for others, God may be someone who, for a period in our lives, was the outsider, someone we didn’t spend a whole lot of time with. These are times of our lives, perhaps, when we feel we have our lives in hand and are doing just fine thank-you-very-much.

Jesus tells a story about a God who won’t be put off by all our human pride and hubris. God will still show mercy especially when we are most vulnerable, weak and in need of help. God comes to Vincenzo today in his infant vulnerability. God comes to us always, even when we are down and out. God is the stranger who will stop at nothing to reach out to all of us, in love. Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, said, “The measure of love is to love without measure.” God loves without measure.

When we pray to God for mercy, we are not asking for mercy from an angry God, eager to mete out punishment. The word, ‘mercy’ in the Hebrew scriptures comes from the Hebrew word for uterus – rachmim. It’s the motherly love of a woman treasuring the child born of her own body.[4]

God comes to Vincenzo today in his infant vulnerability with this kind of love. God comes to us always, even when we are down and out, lying in the ditch. God is the stranger who will show mercy and stop at nothing to reach out to all of us, in love.

[1] Luke 10:25-37

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4-5

[3] Richard Rohr, “Holy Dissent” Judaism: Hasidic Mystics (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 1 July 2022)

[4] Belden C. Lane, Chapter Four in “Nature Teachers and the Spiritual Life” Kindle edition, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

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