Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37
The wonderful parable of the Good Samaritan is unforgettable and perhaps the most famous of the parables of Jesus, on a par perhaps with the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the parable about the Lilies of the Field. At least those are my favorite three.
This Sunday is about the good-hearted Samaritan, technically an enemy of the Jewish people, who extends a helping hand, and even more, to someone left for dead on the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Saint John writes in his first letter: “He who does not love his brother (or sister) whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. This commandment comes from Jesus that he who loves God should love his brother also” (First Letter of Saint John 4:20-21). The parable of the Good Samaritan embodies this teaching of Jesus enumerated by Saint John.
A discussion between Jesus and a lawyer on the key commandment from God provides the springboard for the teaching offered in the parable. The lawyer wants to know about “inheriting everlasting life.” It is a pure enough motive. On the other hand, we detect the lawyer is not completely convinced about love of God and neighbor, so asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Perhaps the lawyer is hoping that Jesus will reply with something like: your neighbor is only someone of your own religion, family, neighborhood, bridge club, or whatever. Instead, Jesus is basically saying: everyone is your neighbor, including the good, the bad and all those in between, whoever has been wounded by life; no exceptions.
Jesus says, act like the Good Samaritan, with compassion, gentleness and generosity, and you will live. It sounds simple enough, but the lawyer and presumably we also know that it is a challenge to act in such a manner. Reading, pondering or contemplating about doing good is not the same as actually doing good. Actions speak louder than words. In fact, actions are real and thoughts are simply that, not concrete or discernable. Expressed another way, Christianity is not theory, but practice.
Love is supposed to be the trademark of genuine Christianity, but do we strive to put love into practice? We can only ask the question of our self, and probably have to admit over and again that we fall short of the ideal. But that is no reason to give up trying. Our call is to repentance, to ask pardon for failure, and get up and try again. In fact, we should “do our best,” as our Brother Andre likes to express it, and not merely “try” to do our best. There is a subtle but real difference between trying and doing. And I think Brother Andre is right.
We could say that the parable of the Good Samaritan, is an illustrated answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” Choosing a Samaritan, and proposing his actions as exemplary, Jesus breaks through current Jewish thought patterns, in a way similar to his teaching on, and association with, sinners. In other words, in Jesus’ eyes, no matter how bad anyone appears to be in the public or private eye, he or she is still worthy of care and certainly of God’s love. This even includes one left for dead on the side of the road.
The teaching of Jesus on the universal nature of the law of love, that my friend and neighbor is anyone in need of my help, would have been contrary to prevailing thought and teaching on the matter.
To return to the structure of the parable, a priest and a Levite, both temple officials, could make “good” excuses for not helping the man who was robbed and beaten up, as contact with the dead or outcasts would result in ritual impurity. Technically, according to Jewish law, they did right, yet Jesus questions such formality and legality over and again in the Gospels. Think of his saying, for example, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
The Samaritan who has compassion in the parable would have been considered a heretic according to Jewish law, since there existed irreconcilable hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus is saying that this doesn’t need to be the case, hence, stop splitting hairs and get on with life, even loving those who may be considered enemies or a threat to your comfort.
The final question posited by Jesus focuses on the whole point of the parable. Which of the three (priest, Levite or Samaritan) was neighbor to the man who feel in with the robbers?
There is a switch in the approach of Jesus to the original question of the lawyer, “who is my neighbor?” The lawyer asking the original question seems interested in a strict definition of “friend and companion” and the limits of responsibility for doing good and showing kindness. Jesus is saying to the lawyer and to us that there needs to be a whole other way of thinking and acting if we are going to be his disciple.
Whoever needs my love is my neighbor, Jesus teaches. Can we accept that teaching?
Interestingly, the lawyer admits who was neighbor to the injured man, but doesn’t even utter the word, “Samaritan,” only, “The one who treated him with compassion.” Jesus reiterates his earlier imperative: “Do this and you shall live,” but even more forcefully and personally, with the phrase, “Go and do the same (as the Samaritan).” In other words, there is no limit to the law of love, as much as we might like there to be. Everyone is my neighbor, my brother and my sister, and I must be neighbor to all.
Both of my parents, though some years apart, died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oregon, my hometown. I have always liked the name of the hospital and felt the good care my parents received there in their final days was an extension of the teaching of Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel. I am grateful for medical facilities that strive to extend dignity and concern to the living and the dying. That is what the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable did, and it is a model for us as well, two millennia after Jesus told the poignant and powerful parable of the Good Samaritan.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB