We are at the start of a New Year. Every New Year offers us an opportunity to start anew. How shall we begin this New year? Let us remind ourselves of our relationship as Brothers and reflect how best we can live this all important charism of our Order. In his speech and writings St. Francis of Assisi offers us a way to live our fraternal relationships as lesser brothers: among ourselves, among others specially the poor, and with the created world. Let each one of us during this Year 2023 renew our fraternal relationships in such a way so as to see and experience the Goodness of God in our brothers and sisters and in all his creation. Let us also resolve to live alongside the poor, for that was where Jesus was found during His mission on earth, that was where the heart of Francis of Assisi was, and that is where Pope Francis is asking of us through the Synod to walk on the journey of our life. Wish one and all a very New Year 2023.
The call to fraternal love: OT and NT
In the oldest texts of the Bible, we find a reason why our hearts should expand to embrace the foreigner. It derives from the enduring memory of the Jewish people that they themselves had once lived as foreigners in Egypt: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34). “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut 24:21-22).
In the New Testament: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness” (1 Jn 2:10-11). “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 Jn 3:14).“Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).
Yet this call to love could be misunderstood. During the time of Jesus, the Jews understood the commandment of love was meant only and exclusively for their fellow Jews. And hence they could not think of loving the Samaritans. But Jesus went beyond Jewish boundaries in his teaching of love. He expanded the boundaries of love, reminding them that “The compassion of man is for his neighbour, but the compassion of the Lord is for all living beings” (Sir 18:13). Further Jesus taught: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). This command is universal in scope, embracing everyone on the basis of our shared humanity, since the heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Mt 5:45). Hence the summons to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
Saint Paul, recognizing the temptation of the earliest Christian communities to form closed and isolated groups, urged his disciples to abound in love “for one another and for all” open up the doors of your heart (1 Thess 3:12). In the Johannine community, fellow Christians were to be welcomed, “even though they are strangers to you” (3 Jn 5). In this context, we can better understand the significance of the parable of the Good Samaritan: love does not care if a brother or sister in need comes from one place or another or one community or another. For “love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love of God enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home.
This parable has to do with an age-old problem. Shortly after its account of the creation of the world and of man, the Bible takes up the issue of human relationships. Cain kills his brother Abel and then hears God ask: “Where is your brother Abel?” (Gen 4:9). His answer is one that we ourselves all too often give: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (ibid.). A sense of indifference. This parable is not encouraging us to show indifference towards our brothers or sisters but encouraging us to create a culture, in which we resolve our conflicts and care for one another.
In the Book of Job we see our origin in the one Creator as the basis of certain common rights: “Did not he who made me in the womb also make him? And did not the same one fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:15). We are all born from the same womb and we shall return to the same tomb (referring to the same creator, who is father of us all).
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells the story of a man assaulted by thieves and lying injured on the wayside. Several persons passed him by, but failed to stop. These were people holding important social positions, yet lacking in real concern for the common good. They would not waste a couple of minutes caring for the injured man, or even in calling for help. Only one person stopped, approached the man and cared for him personally, even spending his own money to provide for his needs. He also gave him something that in our frenetic world we cling to tightly: he gave him his time. Certainly, he had his own plans for that day, his own needs, commitments and desires. Yet he was able to put all that aside when confronted with someone in need. Without even knowing the injured man, he saw him as deserving of his time and attention.
Which of these persons do you identify with? This question, blunt as it is, is direct and incisive. Which of these characters do you resemble? We need to acknowledge that we are constantly tempted to ignore others, especially the weak. Let us admit that, for all the progress we have made, we are still “illiterate” when it comes to accompanying, caring for and supporting the most frail and vulnerable members of our developed societies. We have become accustomed to looking the other way, passing by, ignoring situations until they affect us directly.
Someone is assaulted on our streets, and many hurry off as if they did not notice. People hit someone with their car and then flee the scene. Their only desire is to avoid problems; it does not matter that, through their fault, another person could die. All these are signs of an approach to life that is spreading in various and subtle ways. What is more, caught up as we are with our own needs, the sight of a person who is suffering disturbs us. It makes us uneasy, since we have no time to waste on other people’s problems. These are symptoms of an unhealthy society. A society that seeks prosperity but turns its back on suffering and the needy.
May we not sink to such depths! Let us look to the example of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ parable summons us to rediscover our vocation as citizens of our respective nations and also of the entire world, builders of a new social bond. By his actions, the Good Samaritan showed that “the existence of each and every individual is deeply tied to that of others: life is not simply time that passes; life is a time for interactions”.
The parable eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded and fragmented world. In the face of so much pain, suffering and brokenness, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan. Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside. The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good. At the same time, it warns us about the attitude of those who think only of themselves and fail to shoulder the inevitable responsibilities of life as it is.
Again the parable speaks to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfillment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to the other; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with humanity. That is the meaning of dignity.
We gradually come to know ourselves through our relationships with our brothers and sisters. The decision to include or exclude those whom we encounter along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project. Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders. And if we extend our gaze to the history of our own lives and that of the entire world, all of us are, or have been, like each of the characters in the parable. All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan. But It is also remarkable to know how the various characters in the story change, once confronted by the sight of the poor man on the roadside. The distinctions between Judean and Samaritan, priest and merchant, fade into insignificance. Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. We are brothers and sisters to one another, beyond boundaries, beyond the walls, now there are no walls but bridges.
St. Francis of Assisi discovered this dimension of brotherhood from the Gospel. We are brothers, he repeats in the Admonitions. He says this in order to introduce them to the way of the Gospel. To live the Gospel is to live the brotherhood and he calls it Gospel brotherhood. Brotherhood is at the heart of the Gospel, it is core of gospel life. It is the life Jesus introduced his disciples into and the model Francis adopts for his brothers to live because fraternal life is the flavor of the Gospel.
Francis understands fraternal life as a life in which very human person he encountered is a brother and sister to him, a love that transcends all borders. Francis had a sense of fraternal openness that allowed him to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives. Blessed are those who love their brothers as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him” Adm 25. St. Francis is known as the saint of fraternal love, simplicity and joy. He teaches us how to conduct ourselves in fraternal and social relationships. St. Francis expressed himself a brother to the sun, sea, wind yet he also lived with the consciousness that he was ever closer to those of his own flesh. Wherever he went he sowed seeds of peace, and walked along side the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcasts and the least of his brothers and sisters. He shows the openness of heart, which knows no bounds and transcends all differences of origin, nationality, colour or religion. This is particularly seen in his visit to the Sultan. He professed a love that embraced everyone. His love for the Lord matches that of his love for his brothers and sisters. How many of us can do this?
In his life we also see Francis urging his brothers to avoid all forms of hostility or conflict and that having a humble and fraternal subjection was necessary for living in peace. Francis did not wage war of words, he had no desire to impose doctrine on others. He simply and just spread the love of God. He understood well: God is love and those who abide in love abide in God (1Jn 4:1). In this way he sort to live among his brothers and become an inspiration of the vision of a fraternal society. He was a brother who would approach others not in order to draw them to himself but in order to help them to rediscover themselves in order to become ever more fully themselves.
Francis lived in times of great turmoil a city which was in constant war with other cities. All he saw around himself were defensive walls, watch towers, swords and shields, the desire to become powerful and victorious over others, and families with constant war with each other. At the same time, there existed pain, suffering and poverty was growing. In spite of living in such a kind of environment Francis was able to welcome the love of God and experience true peace in his heart. He was able to free himself from the desire to wield power over others by any means and to love with a tender heart. In this he chose to become one among the poor and sought to live in harmony with all. God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters. Francis understood this ideal too well and sort to live it out in his life. he taught us how to respect the dignity of every human person, that will ultimately lead us to building a universal fraternity of all men and women which is also the ultimate mission of Christ when he said: When I m lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” Jn 12:23
Br. Paul Alvares OFM Cap
CIF CCMSI, India
(Thanks to Sr. Maria Kim Len DGE for the above image of Brother Francis)