I like to travel to foreign countries to see important places in world and church history and to experience different cultures, but I don’t like to travel alone. I always try to go with friends who are native to that place or with a guide or someone who has been there many times to show me the places to go and more importantly, often, the places to avoid. If one doesn’t know the language or the culture, it is easy to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous vendors or con-artists who are out to get the “dumb rich American” who falls for the tourist trap. There are people who make a living in the train stations in Italy, for example, “helping” the tourists purchase train tickets from the kiosks while helping themselves to the person’s money or wallet. I’ve been scammed at least once in that regard and have been “on guard” ever since. It is an awful feeling to be walking around and feel like a target and be suspicious of every person you meet. I found it particularly bad walking through the market in Jerusalem on the way to the holy sites. Being dressed like a priest did not dissuade the vendors in the least in their attempts to get my attention to buy jewelry, art, or whatever souvenirs they had in their stands. I often wondered whether the goods for sale were hand-made items made by the locals or cheap imitations made in China. It was no fun to be a stranger in a strange land and to experience that anxiety that one could be a victim at any moment and not be able to trust any person. About 15 years ago, I travelled to Santiago, Chile in South America for a wedding. I was traveling alone. After getting settled in the hotel, I took my guide book and found my way to the Cathedral. Probably before I even stepped out of the church after Mass, I was asked for money and accosted by other locals selling religious goods. Later that afternoon, I visited a church dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy, and while I was seated by myself in a pew saying my prayers, a young man came up to me and said, “excuse me Father, where are you from?” He identified himself as a member of a lay movement in the church and invited me to his house for dinner. I was skeptical, but after talking a while with him, I accepted his invitation. I met the other “brothers” in the house, had dinner with them, and they drove me back to the hotel. He said, “Father, what else would you like to see in Santiago?” For the next two days, he showed me around to the major sites in the city and took me to the shrines of two local saints, one of which was several hour’s drive away. I offered Mass in their house and brought the sacraments to a homebound member of their community. They even drove me back to the airport on my last day, sending me home with a beautiful image of Our Lady that they give as part of their mission work. It was an experience I’ll never forget. It was an amazing experience of God’s care and providence for me that filled me with such joy. It was so much better than I could have planned.
That experience of being alone – a stranger in a strange land, and then unexpectedly being freed from that anxiety by the encounter with those brothers in Christ, changed the way I look at and respond to those I encounter here who are strangers in a strange land.
God gives the command “you shall not molest or oppress an alien”, but living that command is rooted in the experience of being saved when one was the victim of oppression in a foreign land. “For you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” The Lord is reminding the Israelites that they have received a great mercy. They were freed not by their own merits but by God’s gratuitous intervention in their lives – that they were chosen and wanted by God. It is the experience of being loved when one doesn’t “deserve” it – not when one is strong but when one is particularly vulnerable – that moves someone to follow or live out the commands. We are to be compassionate – and we can be compassionate – because God has been compassionate to us. We can love as God loves because God has loved us first. The problem is not not knowing the law but not having the experience of love – or recognizing the experience of love – that makes living the law possible. Loving God and loving our neighbor are responses to the awareness of how much God loves us. The second commandment is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. The whole commandment breaks down if you don’t love yourself. Do we have a healthy love and tenderness for ourselves that is rooted in God’s love for us? If I don’t love myself – see myself as lovable – I’m not going to be able to love others in a gratuitous way. God loved us into existence. We are loved simply for being – for existing. We don’t have to do anything to prove it or earn it. There is a big difference between following the commandments out of fear of punishment or simply trying to “do the right thing” for God and our neighbor and doing them out of love – love for the one who asks us and out of a desire to be like Him. In the opening prayer for this mass, we pray, “Almighty God… make us love what you command, so that we may merit what you promise.” Unless we are acting out of love – responding to love, we will not merit the promises of salvation. Salvation does not come from our efforts or strength, but from God. His grace – his gift is our strength. We hear this repeated in today’s psalm: “I love you, Lord, my strength.”
We have a particular responsibility as Christians because of our history to care for the most vulnerable in society. The widow and the orphan were mentioned specifically in the command from God because they were the most vulnerable members of society. They could not survive without the charity of others. Do we see our life as a gift from God? Do we see our life as dependent on another’s love? Do we see this unmerited love as what saves us? Only seeing ourselves as God sees us – as loved and lovable, will we be able to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable among us. Those needs are not simply material needs, but the need to be loved and accompanied and guided in a culture today in which each person is looked at as a commodity or something to be used or exploited for another’s advantage. The most vulnerable in our society today are the immigrants and refugees, the disabled and the elderly, and most especially the unborn. The Christian response is to live what one has received from God. We too need to be reminded of God’s gifts and his presence if we are to follow the moral law and keep the commandments. That is the only way to break the cycle of oppression, hatred, and victimhood. These days, fear and hatred are being stoked to drive our political decisions. May our political decisions as Catholic Christians be first and foremost rooted in love – be expressions of love for the most vulnerable, because all of us have been given the gift of life and have been loved by God in our weakness.