Concerned About Your Soul? Take Care Of Your Neighbor

Concerned About Your Soul? Take Care Of Your Neighbor September 30, 2020

AgnosticPreachersKid: Brookland-CUA Metro / Wikimedia Commons

Early one morning, a man gets off the Brookland metro station at DC and walks slowly to the Shrine next to the Catholic University of America campus. As he walks, he hears a cry for help from the distance. The man crosses himself, prays for the person pleading for help, but continues on his way to the Shrine: he does not want to be late to Mass.

A visiting priest, who will be offering the first Mass at the Shrine that morning, likewise, near the Brookland metro station, was walking to the Shrine. He did not just hear the cry for help, he saw the person making it: a young man of color was lying on the sidewalk, blood coming out of his side. Walking around the young man, the priest says “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time. I can’t stop and help you. But have faith! God will take care of you!”

Finally, a young Muslim woman, a nursing student at Catholic University of America, also had heard the cry for help. Without concern for her own safety, she hurried herself over to the young man, saw the blood coming out of his side, and, with the skills she had learned in nursing, helped stop the bleeding before she called an ambulance to get the man all the help he needed.

Who, among the three, best represented what God asks for us? The man going to Mass, who ignored the cries for help? The priest telling the man just to have faith and all will be well? Or the young nursing student? Obviously, as this story is based upon the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk. 10:25-37), the answer is the young nursing student. For Jesus indicated that those who want to serve God will take care of their neighbor, and legalistic expectations concerning religious rites of worship are wrong when they interfere in helping save someone’s life. It isn’t a lack of faith which leads people to help their neighbor, but rather, profound fidelity to God, because love is at the heart of all our obligations.

We are called to show compassion, to take care of our neighbor and their needs. If they are wounded and dying, we should do what we can to save them. If we fail to do what we can do, we sin by omission, and that means, not only could someone die because of what we fail to do, our own eschatological fate is put into jeopardy because of our sin. If we try to excuse ourselves by saying we have religious obligations which get in the way of taking care of our neighbor, that our soul is more important than their bodily health, we ignore the impact our actions have on our soul. We must not allow a gnostic-like attitude take hold of us. We cannot ignore the physical health and well-being of our neighbor. And if we try to do so, if we go to Mass, receive communion, knowing that our actions put others’ health and well-being at risk, how can we say we do so worthily?

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.  But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another —  if any one is hungry, let him eat at home — lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come (1 Cor. 11:27-34 RSV).

Paul is clear that we must discern the body; we must respect it and its needs, whether the body in question is our own, or that of our neighbor. He tells us to wait until those needs are met, that is, not to think we can and should receive communion at the expense of the needs of others. If we treat the plight of our neighbor with indifference,  we risk receiving the eucharist, not for the salvation of our soul, but rather, for our condemnation. It is vital for us to realize that when people say they need to receive communion and use that as an excuse to ignore directives put in place to protect the safety of their neighbor, they show little to no understanding of the significance of communion. Thinking only about themselves, they risk losing the salvation they seek.

Jesus made it clear that bodily goods are important and not to be ignored; religious regulations, which might be valid in a normal situation, can be dispensed with in order to deal with such physical needs:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? (Matt. 12:1-5 RSV).

Jerome, explaining this passage, said it is more important for us to take care of those in need than it is to “offer sacrifice to God”:

To refute the false accusation of the Pharisees he calls to mind ancient history. When David was fleeing from Saul, he came to Nob, and when he had been received by Ahimelek the priest, he asked for food. Since he did not have ordinary bread, he gave him consecrated bread, which was not lawful to eat but only for priests and Levites. He only asked whether the young men were undefiled by women. And when David answered: “since yesterday and the day before,” Ahimelek did not hesitate to give the bread, thinking that it is better to deliver the men from danger of starvation than to offer sacrifice to God. For the prophet says: “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” Indeed, the salvation of men is an appeasing sacrifice to God. [1]

Helping to save and preserve the physical health of men and women is an appeasing sacrifice to God; by showing love to one’s neighbor, one fulfills the spiritual expectations God has on us, even if we do not fulfill the normal expectations when we do so. Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary actions. Caring for our neighbor, making sure they do not get sick and die, is important. Those who would ignore the plight of their neighbor for the sake of going to church have not listened to Jesus, nor to the saints of the church. If they had, they would know that their actions, or their inactions, can harm them; if they are concerned about the state of their soul, they would be concerned about their neighbor, for they will be judged how they treat their neighbor. If they want to receive Jesus in the eucharist while ignoring him in their neighbor, they risk coming face to face with Jesus, not as their savior, but as their judge. They risk Jesus telling them he never knew them. Is this truly what they want to risk?

[1] St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2008), 138-9.


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