15th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son are likely the two most famous parables of all, perhaps because they best both encapsulate the mercifulness that Jesus calls us to. The story of the Good Samaritan has been told and resonated with audiences for centuries, and it is easy to see why.
A man is beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho, a dangerous one that he should have never traveled alone. A priest and a Levite see him and pass him on the other side in order to remain ritually pure as they prepare to serve at the Temple. (I remember my first mass 18 years ago back at my home parish and this was the Gospel. I thought did we have to have the Gospel in which the priest is the bad guy?) Finally, a Samaritan, the hated enemy of the Jews, treats the victim with tremendous generosity. He cleans and binds his wounds, puts him on his own animal and takes him to an inn where gives the innkeeper an exorbitant amount of money to care for him with the promise of more if it is needed. Even the self-justifying scribe who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” must admit it is the one who treated a stranger like a brother.
It is a powerful story. It is kind of a perfect story with twists and a strong moral message. But in a week like this, I wonder if it has lost its meaning. Does it seem quaint and antiquated? Is it responsive at all to our era? This was my forlorn thought as I prayed over the parable in the midst of two more young African-Americans killed tragically. When I heard of the horror in Dallas where the five officers were murdered, I went out to my porch to pray and immediately I saw a man leaning his entire upper body out of the car to yell at the driver in front of him. There is so much anger and what people consider a right to be angry for their own reason, by their own lights, uninterrupted by civility or even the rule of law. It is reflected in our political discourse (and trust me I do not single out any person or party) where the rhetoric grows sharper and more divisive. The word neighbor is not becoming more inclusive, but is narrowed to the people who look like me, think like me and believe like me. How can this old story still inspire? Has it lost its value, its sway in our world?
But a closer look reveals that the parable of the Good Samaritan, still packs a punch, still answers our needs. For it is a story about racism. How did the Samaritan feel about helping someone who likely hated him; more importantly, how did the Jew feel about a Samaritan saving him? And it is about authority as the two religious figures pass the victim on the side of the road. And in the embroiled cultural and governance disputes of Roman occupied first century, it is also clearly a political statement.
I was invited recently for a meeting at the Niskayuna school district about our schools. Someone said that we need to promote tolerance, but a member of the Sikh community said that tolerance is a bare minimum; what we need is love and harmony. If we give up on the parable of the Good Samaritan, we have given up everything. We have given up on the idea of the tremendous dignity of every person, that we are truly God’s children and Christ is truly our brother. We would have given up on the idea that we are not to judge and continually assign blame when we are called to be a people of reconciliation. We would have given up on the idea that we were commanded by Christ to love one another. We would have given up on the idea that Jesus told us to do but one thing with to our enemies – to love them. I will not give up on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
I do not want a namby pamby political correctness where we cannot discuss our ideas and differences, where we cannot truly address what ails our country and neighborhoods. But if we are to heal our discourse and relationships it must begin with three simple words, “I love you.” Only then can we treat each other as neighbor. I don’t expect that at the first Presidential debate that Donald and Hillary are going to begin with “I love you.” But treating each other with respect would be for me a sign of leadership that is desperately needed. We too must embrace the role of Christian neighbor. What is it like in someone else’s shoes, be it a cop or a young black male? How can I learn to respect what I do not understand? How can we ignore those who are hurting by blaming them? If we don’t try to understand, we are simply passing by on the other side of the road.
Only love and harmony and understanding can heal us. Only generosity and care for the stranger can make us whole. Reluctantly, the scribe recognized the Samaritan was neighbor to the victim. We must follow the command that Jesus gave him. “Go and do likewise.”