Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fifteenth Sunday in OT, Year C
July 11, 2004
Dt 30:10-14; Col1:15-20; Lk 10:25-37
1) The lawyer in today’s Gospel asks Jesus one of the most important questions a man or woman can: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus questioned the lawyer what he himself thought the answer was, and the lawyer gave what Jesus admitted was the right response. Putting together two parts of what God had revealed in the Old Testament, the lawyer said that to inherit eternal life we must love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Deut 6:5) and love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18). On these two commandments, Jesus himself said elsewhere, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:40). These two commandments are a summary, in other words, of the entire Old Testament. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.” The whole Old Testament was God’s revelation to help his people enter into life and be prepared to embrace “life to the full” (Jn 10:10) that Jesus would reveal.
2) But as conceptually simple as Jesus’ answer was, the lawyer still had practical difficulties with it. There are obviously practical considerations in loving God with 100% of our mind, heart, soul and strength — as well as 100% of our time, talents, wallets. But the scholar of the law asked Jesus to be more specific about the commandment to love one’s neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?,” he queried. This was one of the most discussed and controversial questions among Israelites. A typical Jew was raised with an attitude to which Jesus referred in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5:43). Therefore, if one were to love one’s neighbor and detest one’s enemy, it was crucial to determine who was one’s neighbor and who was one’s enemy. Almost all Jews admitted that one’s neighbor extended beyond one’s family or those who were lived physically proximate. Most interpreters considered that one’s neighbor included all fellow Israelites and those gentiles who adhered to the Mosaic law. But no one was quite prepared for Jesus’ answer, which he gave in the form of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He basically said the EVERYONE is in our neighborhood — even those considered enemies, as Jews and Samaritans deemed each other. Jesus said essentially that there could be NO LIMIT to our love for neighbor.
3) Jesus had previously taught that same truth in other ways. During the Sermon on the Mount, right after he alluded to their common wisdom about loving neighbors and hating enemies, Jesus exclaimed, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). He then gave the reason for it: “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors and sinners do the same? … Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:46-47). God’s own unlimited love toward us was to be the standard of our love for each other. Likewise when St. Peter came to him asking, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? Seven times?” Jesus responded, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22) and specifically mentioned the Father’s unlimited mercy toward us as the model for our conduct toward others (Mt 18:23-35).
4) But in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made even clearer that God’s love had no limits and that likewise our love should have no limits. The first point about God’s love is often missed, but the Fathers of the Church (the saintly bishops of the early Church) saw this as the necessary “background” for the proper understanding of the parable. They saw MAN as that person who had started to go down from the place of God’s dwelling, represented by Jerusalem, to Jericho, literally the lowest place on earth (1000 meters below sea level). His descent was sin. As he left paradise, man was ambushed by the evil one, who left him at the brink of death because of sin. The priest and the levite were, respectively, the law and the prophets, who chose to pass the nearly-dead sinner by, so that they would not be contaminated by his sins. Eventually Christ, the Good Samaritan, came. When he beheld this man half dead, he had compassion on him and for all his wounds caused by sin. So, as we read in the parable, “he approached him.” Christ approached from heaven, getting so close as to take on our nature, becoming “God-with-us” (Mt 1:23). He poured the oil and wine of his redemptive blood on man’s wounds to heal them. He brought him to the inn-keeper, who represents the pastors of his Church, and gave them the instruction for them to care for sinful until he returned and help nurse him back to full health. The extremely generous two denarii and the promise for more upon his return were the treasure of Christ’s merits, especially the sacraments, which continue the healing process within man. Finally, the reference to his return was an allusion to the second coming, when Jesus will come to repay each of us according to our deeds (Rom 2:6).
5) The parable of the Good Samaritan, therefore, is first a commentary on God’s love for us and, secondly, a clear illustration of Christ’s statement during the Last Supper, “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Our love for each other is based not merely on our love for ourselves — “love your neighbor as yourself” — but on God’s love for us. We were that man ambushed by the devil and left for dead, but Christ did not leave us there to die forever. He came to save us and he entrusted us to the Church for our full healing until he comes again. Never in the Gospel did Jesus say, merely, “Do what I say.” He stated time and again, “Come, follow me!” He would set us and example and then tell us to imitate him. God’s love preached through his body language, his deeds, was to be the standard. That is why Jesus was able to say at the end of the parable, “Go and do the same;” we were to follow his example of love. He was calling us to go out to seek those who have been ambushed by the evil one and left at the point of death in sin, and patiently take them to the Church to nurse them back to health. He was also explicitly calling us to cross the road and approach all those who have been mugged, bruised and beaten by others in this world physically and use our donkeys to bring them to safety, use our money to nurse them back to health. In other words, he was giving us marching orders to love others — even those who seem to be our enemies — to the point of sacrificing our lives, our goods, our time for them.
6) Hence, Jesus gives all of us a point on which to examine our consciences today. Do we behave more like the priest and the levite, who, although outwardly religious, pass by on the other side of the road when someone is in need, who are afraid to get our hands dirty and commit our time to helping someone in dire straits? Or when we see someone in need, to we approach them, to see how we can help, even to the point of sacrificing our own transportation, our own time, our own money? We can make those questions more specific: When we see someone’s car broken down on the highway, do we ever stop to see if we can be of assistance? When we see a homeless person or somebody else in obvious need, do we normally try to stay as far away as possible or do we try to draw near to him or her to see how we might be able to help them? When confronted with a person in need, do we normally try to convince ourselves that to help that person is “someone else’s” responsibility — like the government or the Church’s — instead of our own?
7) I will never be able to forget a story I read one morning on my daily Internet news search as I was preparing my Ascension Thursday homily in May, 2001. It came from Montreal. A sixteen year old girl, after she had been stripped, sexually assaulted and badly beaten, was dumped out of a van on the sidewalk in the downtown financial district shortly before rush hour. She had no pants on and just a simple shirt. As she lay almost motionless on the sidewalk, people walked around her. Some people stared at her and presumably mumbled to themselves what the world was coming to. Several employees from the offices on the corner noticed her, but they thought she was just a drug addict or prostitute who had had a bad night, so they left her alone. A few secretaries from the office across the street saw her there and asked their boss if they should call the police, but their boss commanded them not to get involved, because they were on work time and he didn’t want them wasting time talking to the police. Countless people passed her on the streets — but no one did anything. Other things, they must have thought, were more pressing, more important. This young girl lay there, on a unseasonably cold spring morning, for about two hours. Finally one of the women in the office complex across the street, at the risk of losing her job, called the police. The paramedics rushed the poor girl to the hospital, where because of all the delay in getting her treatment, she fell into a coma and soon died. For several days afterward, Canadian commentators on television, radio and in the newspapers were asking what the circumstances of her death said about their country and about Canadians. In a country in which almost everyone is Christian, at least in name, no one had really stepped up to be a Good Samaritan, no one had proven to be a Christian in fact. And the poor girl DIED as a result. The question for us is: What would we have done that morning? Or the better question: What will we do tomorrow morning, so that a similar tragedy not occur?
8 ) Jesus calls each of us to be a Good Samaritan, and make ourselves neighbor to those who need our care. Everytime we take care of someone else, we take care of Christ in disguise, who will be able to say to us one day, “I was ill and you took care of me” (Mt 25:36). And Christ says our salvation depends on it. “Do this and you will live,” he said to the lawyer in today’s Gospel, which clearly implies that if we don’t do it, we won’t inherit eternal life. To those on his left at the final judgment, those who are condemned, Jesus told us he will declare, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you gave me no clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” He told us, in fright, those who are condemned will ask,“Lord, when was it that we saw YOU hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not take care of you?” Then Jesus said he will respond, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Mt 25:42-46). When we neglect the person in need, we neglect the Lord himself. Jesus also gave us the very powerful parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the poor beggar at his gates, who hungered to eat the scraps off the Rich Man’s table, and whose sores would be licked for dogs. Jesus tells us that the Rich Man goes to hell, not because he went out of his way to be violent to the poor man at his gates, not because he kicked him or sent his dogs to molest him, but simply because he ignored him (cf. Lk 16:19-31).
9) Jesus is saying to us that for us to inherit eternal life, there is a two stage process. The first is that he needs to be the Good Samaritan to us, to save us from the state of our being at the point of death due to sin; the second is that we need to be Good Samaritan to others, out of love for God and love for neighbor as God has loved us. Christ saves us, in other words, not just by coming down from heaven and binding our wounds, but by sending us out with similar love to bind others’ wounds. Every needy person we encounter along the way is a bridge to heaven, provided that we be “neighbor” to that person and love him or her as Jesus has shown us.
10) As we prepare to enter into Christ’s supreme act of love in the Last Supper and on the Cross, we call to mind that the Lord himself, like the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, was once stripped, beaten and left for dead. When he was dying there, most of his disciples ran off in the other direction. Only a few faithful followers — the Blessed Mother, St. John, St. Mary Magdalene — drew close to him. As we follow in their footsteps and approach this altar to receive the body and blood that was offered on the Cross for us, we ask the Lord for the gift to recognize him in all those in need and the courage to love him in that disguise.
11) We finish with the powerful words of St. John Chrysostom, the patron saint of preachers, which point to this connection between loving him in Eucharist and loving him in those in need: “Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. For he who said ‘This is my Body,’ and made it so by His word, is the same one who said, ‘You saw me hungry, and gave me no food. As you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me. Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices, when he is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger, and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”
12) Jesus wouldn’t be calling us to be Good Samaritans unless he knew that we, with with his help, could live up to that mission. He the Good Samaritan tells us anew, “Go and do the same,” promising us that if we do it, we will LIVE, fully, in this life and in the next. Praised be Jesus Christ!