The parables of the good and bad Samaritan, The Anchor, October 19, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
October 19, 2012

Once a lawyer, to test Jesus, asked Him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded by asking the man first to give his own opinion of what was written in God’s law. The lawyer replied that we needed to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus told him he had the right answer and promised him that if he loved in this two-fold way, he would live forever.

But the lawyer was a smart aleck and asked Jesus who his neighbor was. The question betrayed a common belief among many of Jesus’ contemporaries that certain people, like fellow Jews, were neighbors you needed to love and others — like pagans or Samaritans, even if they happened to live right next door — were not neighbors and therefore you were justified in not loving them.

In order to stress the point that we’re supposed to be neighbor to everyone, that God wants us to treat everyone who comes into our ambit with compassion, Jesus presented the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

We know the details of this famous illustration very well. A man journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho was ambushed by robbers, who stripped him naked, beat him and left him near death. Two people followed who would have been expected to help the dying man — a priest and a member of the priestly tribe of Levi — but they crossed the road and just kept walking. Then a Samaritan — whom most Jews hated for religious reasons, and vice versa — approached. To get a sense of what Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have been expected from a Samaritan, we could substitute someone today like a serial killer, or armed robber, or Al Qaeda member. They would have expected no good, and perhaps even some evil. And yet this man, seeing the Jewish man lying at the point of death, had compassion, drew close, totally inconvenienced himself, poured precious wine and oil in the man’s wounds, brought him to an inn, gave an enormous sum to the inn-keeper to care for him and, as a further act of compassion, indicated he would be back to check on the man’s recovery and promised that he would pay the inn-keeper for any other expenses incurred.

When Jesus asked the lawyer who had proven neighbor to the victim, the lawyer correctly answered, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus told him — and us — to go and do the same.

The Good Samaritan “showed” mercy. There’s a difference between “feeling compassion” and “showing compassion.” Compassion literally means “suffering with” another, sharing in that person’s life so that he doesn’t suffer alone and sacrificing oneself in love to help him bear his sufferings and if possible recover. That’s precisely what the Good Samaritan did and why he’s one of the most famous illustrations of true love of neighbor in the history of the world.

In the context of the Doctor-Prescribed Suicide ballot item on which Massachusetts citizens will be voting in two-and-a-half weeks, we could ponder a twist on Jesus’ parable to highlight what is being proposed:

“A man was heading from Jerusalem to Jericho and he was brutally attacked by a team of bandits, who beat and abused him, stole his clothes and left him in a ditch to die. Soon after, a relative of the victim was passing on the way, but when he heard the man’s cries for help, he just kept on going, too busy with the various tasks he had to accomplish that day to stop. A little later, a doctor passed by and likewise heard the man’s pleas for help, but he was on the way to make a house call to someone else and refused to be delayed. Finally, a Samaritan approached. He heard the naked victim groaning that he was in so much pain and filled with so much shame after the abuse he had suffered that he was begging God to end his life. The Samaritan didn’t ignore the man’s pain and drew near. ‘I’m here to help you,’ he said comfortingly. He took out a flask of wine and poured it into the man’s mouth as an anesthetic. He opened up a container of olive oil and bathed the man’s wounds, to palliate a little of the pain. As the suffering man began to thank him, the Samaritan reached once more into his sack and pulled out a knife. He placed it in the victim’s hand and said, ‘I’ll hold your other hand as you do it.’ He promised not to abandon the man, and that after it was over, he would take the man’s cadaver to the graveyard and arrange for a proper burial.”

This new version of the parable, which would have shocked Jesus’ original listeners and should shock us, is actually what’s being proposed by those pushing to give doctors in the Commonwealth the legal permission to prescribe poison to help their patients commit suicide. Proponents believe that a compassionate response to those who, because of their suffering and pain, are thinking that life is no longer worth living is to give them the means to end their lives.

But this is not a response of true compassion. It’s not an attempt to share the person’s sufferings. It’s not even an attempt to help treat the person’s sufferings. It’s the decision to end the person’s sufferings by helping the person end his life. For that reason, Blessed John Paul II called the practice of assisted suicide and euthanasia a “false mercy” and a “perversion of mercy.” Real love of neighbor doesn’t lead us to try to help others kill themselves because they or we cannot bear their pain. Real love of neighbor leads us to inconvenience and sacrifice ourselves to accompany them and try to lift them from the depression leading them to think it’s pointless to go on.

The true Good Samaritans always try to persuade others not to take their lives. They don’t facilitate their suicide.

We all admire those volunteers who staff the Samaritans’ anti-suicide hotlines in order to help people at their most vulnerable moments not to make the most tragic decision of all. On the Samaritans USA website, the Samaritans say they are “caring, responsive and motivated individuals who not only talk about helping others but actually do something about it.” They recognize that suicide is always a tragedy and they want to go beyond talk, beyond “feeling” compassion for others, to dedicating their time and efforts to try “showing compassion” by trying to save rather than end the lives of those contemplating suicide.

As we approach the November 6 election, the question is what type of Samaritan we’re going to be and what type of Samaritans we’re going to enable in our culture.  A “yes” vote on ballot item #2 is to vote to give “Bad Samaritans” a steady supply of knives to place into the hands of the most vulnerable and to pass by on the other side of the road as they seek to take their lives. A “no” vote — while not as significant as volunteering at Samaritan hotlines — is to bring the values of the Good Samaritan into the voting both and try to carry out electorally what true Samaritans seek to do on the phone.