The Gospel reading for Sunday, July 10, 2016 featured the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For me, that parable and the Parable of the Prodigal Son are the two primary parables in the Gospels. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the Parable of the Prodigal Son in my books, but have been virtually mute on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After hearing the Gospel proclaimed, the story of the Good Samaritan weighed heavily on my mind for the rest of the day…and I knew it had more to say to me.
The story begins with a religious leader, either a lawyer or a scholar, testing Jesus with this question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what the law says. The man gave a pretty straight-forward answer about loving God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving “your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him he had answered correctly. But the man pressed Jesus by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replies with story of the Good Samaritan. A man is beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. Two religious people, a priest and a Levite, happen to come across the victim struggling for life. To avoid the wounded man, both the priest and the Levite, cross the street and continue on their way. Then along comes a Samaritan. The people hearing Jesus tell this parable understood that Samaritans were despised people, outcasts shunned by society. The Jews hated Samaritans. Instead of crossing the street, the Samaritan approaches the wounded man, bends down, and anoints and bandages his wounds. He then lifts the man up and hoists him onto his donkey and transports him to the nearest inn, where he continued to treat the man. The next day, he gave the innkeeper some money and told him to give the man whatever he needed, and if he spends more than he was given, the Samaritan said he would pay him back on his return trip. Jesus then asks the guy testing him with the questions, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of a robber?” The guy gave the only answer he could, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
This parable emerges from the contemplative heart of Jesus. It calls us to “put on the mind of Christ” and to give ourselves away in compassionate love. Easier said than done. The radical message of Jesus essentially says that true freedom and real joy comes from self-emptying love and loving the other. Of course, this is a difficult task. Jesus was crucified for extending mercy and compassion far beyond the accepted limits of his society. It is an enormous risk to love people living on the peripheries of society…the homeless, the migrant, the refugee, the chronically poor living in massive slums surrounded by garbage, rotting waste, and perpetual violence. Jesus, of course, did not avoid the risk…and he paid the price for following his heart with his life. The Parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us to live the gospel with radical compassion. The parable makes the primacy of the other abundantly clear. It is all about putting others first.
Our neighbor is not simply the person living next door to us. Nor is our neighbor the people we work with or happen to bump into as we go about our day. Our neighbor is not simply the people living in our town, city, state, or country. In the parable, Jesus is saying that our neighbor is the person we not only don’t avoid but also seek out in order to help them. The priest and the Levite are not diverted from their journey. When the see the wounded man, they simple circumnavigate around him and continue on their way without pausing. Jesus is saying that the Samaritan, by changing his own plans and stopping to help the wounded man, actually became a neighbor even though the wounded man was far outside the Samaritan’s orbit of friends. The Good Samaritan, out of a spirit of pity and compassion, changed the course of his day. He took an unexpected action…he drew near the wounded man and helped him recover. He shared in the suffering of “the other.”
In my life, I have often crossed to the other side of the street to avoid someone in pain. Jesus is telling us that we need to be open to changing our plans when we are presented with the possibility of tending to the needs of a wounded neighbor. Jesus wants us to move toward a person whom others ignore. By tending to the wounds of another, we are tending to the wounds of Christ. The Parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to leave our comfort zone and move toward our wounded neighbors. On March 27, 2013, Pope Francis said: “Following Jesus means learning to come out of ourselves…to go to the outskirts of existence, ourselves taking the first step towards our brothers and sisters, especially those farthest away, those who are forgotten, those most in need of understanding, consolation, help….” The Pope went on to say:
“God thinks like the Samaritan who does not pass near the victim, feeling sorry for him, or looking the other way, but coming to his aid without asking anything in return; without asking whether he is a Jew, or a pagan, or a Samaritan, if he is rich, if he is poor: he doesn’t ask anything. He comes to his aid: this is God…who moves toward us, without calculating, without measure. God is like this; God always takes the first step….”
Jesus is always ready to bend down and help us. He wants to enter our lives, wash our feet, and give us hope. He rushes into wounded hearts. He is not afraid to be wounded by love. God is the Good Samaritan wanting to pour oil and wine on our wounds, wanting to bandage us and make us whole again.
Maybe the real question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but, “Who is not my neighbor?” Jesus would answer that more poignant question with two words: no one.