In this Year of Mercy it’s impossible not to comment on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: one of the great parables of mercy. This point of this parable is not in the first place the mercy we receive from God, but the mercy we ourselves have to show to our neighbour: any neighbour at all who is in need.
As a moral tale, the parable of the Good Samaritan applies to anyone at all, of any religion or none. There would seem to be no specific religious content in it. Yet its context is all-important. For it starts with a lawyer asking Jesus: What must I do to inherit eternal life? St. Mark recounts this same scene, making it entirely positive. In Mark’s version, the question is sincere, and Jesus praises the man who asks it. Here in St. Luke’s version it is certainly not so positive, but perhaps not merely negative either. This does not seem to be merely a trap to catch Jesus out. The lawyer genuinely wants to know the answer to his question; or at least wants to know how Jesus will answer it.
And what a question! Surely it’s the question of all questions! What must I do to inherit eternal life? It’s the business of our lives to ask this ourselves, and to find the correct answer, as a matter of supreme urgency; and then to live by it. Compared to that, nothing whatever matters. The reason we are here now is because we all believe we have indeed found the answer: we have been given it by divine revelation. To inherit eternal life we have to follow Jesus, listen to him, belong to him, be united to him, follow his example, allow him to redeem us, to forgive our sins, to wash them away in his blood, to share with us his own life, his victory, his Spirit of holiness; to bring us with him to eternal life.
Jesus doesn’t say any of that here. The lawyer isn’t yet ready to hear it. So instead, Jesus pays him the compliment of asking for his own answer to the question. What does he find in the law of Moses? And the response the lawyer gives is excellent. He goes to the heart of the Old Testament law. To inherit eternal life you have to love God and neighbour: with all your heart and soul and strength and mind.
This is wonderful. Whole-hearted love of God and neighbour already introduces us into heaven, or God’s Kingdom. Where God is, there is only love; true love; love that of itself ennobles us, deifies us; pure, unselfish, beneficent, enduring, invincible, holy love. And where God and love are, there also is life. So Jesus confirms: you have put your finger on the right answer! Do this, and you shall live.
Ah! but here we have a problem, for which the Old Testament has no answer. Jesus knows it, and the lawyer knows it too. How can I live according to such perfect love? How can I become a worthy heir of the Kingdom, and child of God? How can I attain so supremely high a standard of goodness? The answer is: without the grace of God, it’s impossible.
To go a little bit further. As we read in St. John’s Gospel: we cannot love God the Father at all, if we do not love the Son whom he sent into the world (cf. e.g. Jn 5:23; 8:42; I Jn 5:1). And we cannot love either the Father or the Son, with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, if we do not have abiding in us the Holy Spirit, who is divine love in operation. And we cannot love our neighbour as ourself, without the helps that Jesus gives: his teaching, his example, his grace, his sacraments.
The lawyer becomes flustered at this point. Struggling to regain the initiative, he asks Jesus for a definition of neighbour. Clearly, he seems to suggest, there have to be some reasonable limits to love. So where can I stop? What’s the minimum level I can get away with? At what point can I say my generosity has gone far enough? And without another word Jesus launches into his parable.
Please allow me to say again what we all know: it’s a really good parable! Even though we know it so well, it can still move us every time we hear it. It’s so well told; so sharp in its application; so profound; yet also, so easy for anyone at all to understand!
It’s also really shocking. The violence is shocking. The cowardice of the Priest and Levite is shocking. And the use of a Samaritan as example of goodness is also shocking. The thing about the Priest and Levite is that they are professedly religious men. So they, more than anyone, should know all about living according to love of God and of neighbour. Yet how dismally they both fail! Why do they fail? They are afraid. They don’t want to get involved. They don’t want to take a risk, or undertake a troublesome burden. They are in a hurry; they are busy and important people; they have no time to waste.
Maybe also they don’t want to contaminate their ritual purity by touching a corpse: if the wounded man is a corpse. Maybe the Priest thinks to himself: the Levite is following not far behind. He doesn’t have my sensitive nature. So I’ll leave it to him. And he passes by on the other side. The Levite thinks: well, the Priest did nothing, so it must be alright for me to do nothing also. And probably there’s no point helping this man: he’s bound to die soon, if he’s not already dead. So he too passes by. Then the Samaritan comes. He doesn’t think at all; he just acts, at whatever risk, and inconvenience, and expense to himself.
Who is this Samaritan? In modern terms, he would be a Hamas or Hezbollah fighter who sees a wounded Israeli settler on the ground. In our terms, he would be a notorious sex offender, just recently released on parole from prison; or maybe a prominent member of a political party we particularly hate; someone, anyway, quite beyond the pale: contemptible and classed in principle as our enemy.
Yet he shows himself to be the sort of person we all want to be. By his actions he brings God’s blessing, the blessing of Christ down on himself. He saves a man’s life, and with real heroism and generosity. So, in spite of ourselves, we admire him, while condemning the wretched Priest and Levite who went before.
The question of the lawyer, about who his neighbour is, seems to be answered implicitly. Someone whose life is driven by the love of God can put no boundaries on his love. We have to love anyone, and especially those in most need. Then: we have to show ourselves a neighbour, not just in theory but in practice. We have to love, as Christ has loved us.
And so we come to the obvious application of the parable: that Jesus himself is the supreme Good Samaritan. In his compassion he came to the human race, lying half alive in a ditch. He stooped down to raise us up, at total cost to himself. He healed our wounds, took pains to care for us, and promised to come again. Now once again in this holy Eucharist he pours oil and wine into our wounded hearts, into our flawed lives, into our thirsty souls. As he does so he gives us his own strength, his own compassion, his own goodness: in order that we may truly be like him, and live with his life, and share his blessed eternity.