has come to mean anyone who reaches out to a stranger in need, even though Jesus' parable by the same name points to other defining factors (cf. my scripture commentary below). Language, however, is constantly evolving, and while many use
to refer to a "kind and helpful person," what is also understood is that this person often puts himself or herself at risk. Take, for example, all the stories of Good Samaritans who stop along the roadside to help a motorist whose car has broken down; sadly, many end up being hit by another vehicle as they attempt to change a tire or jump a car battery. Or think of the countless stories of Good Samaritans who drown while attempting to save the life of a swimmer in difficulty. And, again, think about those amazing individuals who give resources or shelter to those who knock on their doors, only to become the victims of violent crimes. These are just some of the profiles of "Good Samaritans" that we read about in the news. What they share in common is that sometimes their altruism leads to paying the ultimate price -- with their lives!
Interpreted in this light, the
could be described as a Christ-figure or Savior. As Christians, we are all called to be the Christ or
wherever there is a human need, our task is to respond to the best of our ability, not to cross the road and keep on going. Too often, however, like the priest and Levite in today’s Gospel, we fail to respond, whether out of fear or indifference. Fortunately, there are always those, of any faith or none, who are willing to respond to a humanitarian crisis. Right now, for example. American citizens are facing jail time for leaving food and water for undocumented migrants attempting to cross the Arizona desert. Arrested in 2017 and facing three felony counts, Scott Warren, a 36 year old college instructor now faces up to 20 years in prison; for him, trying to save the lives of those who might otherwise die in the desert is a religious obligation:
And what are our religious obligations? Are we silent bystanders, the kinds of Christians who during World War II allowed their Jewish neighbors to be rounded up by the Nazis and sent to death camps? Or are we like Oskar Schindler whose compassion and creativity saved the lives of the 1200 Jews he employed in his factories?
To be a Christian is to be subversive. It means placing God and neighbor before human laws, regardless of the price. It means being a Good Samaritan, even if we would prefer to cross that road and avoid our brothers and sisters in need.
But because he wished to justify himself, the scholar of the law said to Jesus,
"And who is my neighbor?"
"A man fell victim to robbers
as he traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They stripped him, beat him and left him half-dead. Now, a priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. In the same way, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw the injured man, he, too, passed by on the opposite side.
But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him
was moved with compassion at the sight.
LK 10: 25-37
A parable, by definition, is a story that stuns, startles, shocks, and then leaves the reader --or listener-- to ponder over additional meanings. Parables turn our world upside down and allow us to view reality from multiple perspectives, while recognizing that there is always that something more we may have missed. And so it is with the parable of
The Good Samaritan
. Even the title itself is an oxymoron: for the Jews of Jesus' time, juxtaposing "Good" and "Samaritan" would have been as offensive as we would find a story about
The Good Neo-Nazi.
The familiar interpretation, of course, is that the character in the parable who acts out of compassion belongs to an ethnic-religious group which the Jewish victim most likely despises; in contrast, two members of the Jewish priestly class avoid all contact with their fellow countryman and keep to the opposite side of the road. The Samaritan, then, is the "good neighbor" while the priest and Levite are not. This insight is usually where homilies and scriptural commentaries end. The moral of the story is that the Christian is to imitate the Good Samaritan, reaching out to all those in need, regardless as to whether they are friend or foe.
But there is more! With the previous interpretation, one could substitute the word "Jew" for "priest" and "Levite" without any significant thematic shift. Jesus, however, is deliberate in his choice of words. The priest and the Levite are not necessarily callous individuals but they place rules before charity. Though Jewish law insists that it is morally binding to love one's neighbor and to reach out to people and animals in need (Lvt 19:16; Dt 22:4), both priest and Levite place ritual purity before compassion. Both men know that according to the Law, if they have contact with a corpse they become "unclean" and will be banned from the sanctuary and from performing religious duties until they have gone through the prescribed purification rituals (Lvt 21: 1-3; Lvt 21: 11; Lvt 2-3). The parable, in addition to answering the question,
"And who is my neighbor?,"
points out that love of neighbor supersedes all other
or commandments -- all 613 of them.
As a church, we have forgotten this. Priest and Levite avoid contact with a man they presume dead and we find this shocking. However, in some parishes and dioceses, "ritual purity" is more important than serving those who are "non-conforming" --the LGBTQ community, for example; or those who have divorced and remarried without first procuring an annulment; or the undocumented, the homeless and those suffering from mental illness; or the victims of domestic abuse; or ex-felons....
Parish and diocesan services and programs often exclude those who need them the most and, instead, focus on members who are "in good standing." Instead of mirroring Jesus' all-inclusive table, we tend to welcome people most like ourselves who already "belong." Just as during the Black Death some religious communities barricaded their doors so as to avoid contamination from the outside world, so we figuratively "barricade" ourselves in, keeping out the "unclean."