Many years ago, as a young priest, I went on a training course. There I found out I would share my room with a famous comedian who was to attend that course as well. I’d admired him for years, and was really thrilled at such a prospect. But I also knew that many artists like to keep a low profile when they are away. So I planned to assure him that I would respect that. But I was so clumsy that effectively I told him that I didn’t care how famous he was. We were to share one room for a fortnight, and at our very first meeting I apparently managed to upset him. It was really embarrassing for me and confusing for him. Thankfully that clumsiness of mine didn’t damage our relationship and we became friends.
In today’s gospel a lawyer asks Jesus a question about gaining eternal life. But, according to St Luke, he did that to disconcert Jesus. It’s hard to say exactly how the lawyer expected to do so, but I think we can assume some kind of legalistic approach, using his own knowledge and abilities to navigate the maze of law. We don’t know why the lawyer wanted to disconcert Jesus, but we do know that his attitude wasn’t friendly. That individual personifies all those who have questioned Christianity over the centuries in an intelligent way, rather than faced it off with blunt power and persecution. Decades ago, when Poland was a country governed by communist and ideologically anti-religious authorities, some academics used an interestingly formulated philosophical question: ‘Can God create a piece of rock so massive that he cannot move it?’ It was apparently a win-win question, because any answer would question God’s omnipotence. Currently Christianity (and religion in general) is being questioned from a scientific point of view; that attitude is present in almost every natural history programme shown by BBC – otherwise really good and knowledgeable.
The reaction of Jesus in the meeting with the lawyer is surprising. He enters into dialogue, and as a result we get one of the most powerful and moving parables in the gospel – but I’m not going to talk about this. What’s really interesting for me is that involvement of Jesus in the discussion with an apparently hostile opponent. In my personal opinion, as the Church and as individual members we adopt this attitude too rarely, much more often taking one of the two, completely opposite stances: either we close ourselves in a stronghold ready to die for our beliefs; or we speak at the world telling it what to do. Both alienate us from the wider public; neither of them creates an opportunity to spread the Good News.
At the end of their conversation it is the lawyer who feels embarrassed; and out of his embarrassment he asks this question: ‘Who is my neighbour? There’s nothing wrong with being embarrassed; it’s actually quite a healthy situation, demanding thoughtful action. It may serve each one of us and Church as a whole to push us into reflection about our own beliefs and ways of expressing them. Nothing better could happen to our faith than being questioned by those who want to disconcert us. The problem is not their attitude but ours. We have to re-think our faith in order to make it deeper for ourselves. The only thing we cannot and shouldn’t do is to stay where we are. We have to move forward, living in the world and staying in dialogue with it. Jesus came to the world not to condemn it, but to save it. Our job as Christians is exactly the same.