15th Sunday of Year
Today’s parable of the Good Samaritan is often used as a moral story where we are to help anyone in the proverbial ditch. We need to go deeper. Familiarity with this story makes it easy to lose sight of its message. We can focus on the two religious leaders who should know and model God’s command to love. Jesus’ focus is on the Samaritan, and his actions. Jesus’ audience would have expected to hear about bad behaviour because Samaritans were despised enemies of Jewish people. There is a surprise twist as Jesus tries to stop the standard responses of people and nudge them into a new realization.
Merely saying, ‘The greatest commandments are to love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’ would have left people thinking they were on target. But this twist of loving behaviour from a least likely place shows what the Great Commandment means. And here we see the size of the task that God gives us. Jesus’ parable is strongly political and timely as people who have come to Australia by boat have been, and still are, detained, demonised, and traumatised. The lawyer’s question and Jesus’ response do not quite match up. The lawyer wants to know who counts as a neighbour when only fellow Jews could be neighbours. Luke presents Israel’s God as boundary breaking who loves the whole world. The more important point was not who the Samaritan regarded as a neighbour but who became a neighbour to the person lying by the roadside. The lawyer was locked in a certain view of what it means to be God’s people. He did not see his life as connected or bound up with another. What is at stake is whether God’s love is used to boost our own sense of isolated security and purity, or whether is seen as a call and challenge to extend that love to the whole world. We cannot be content with easy definitions that enable us to pass by as much of the world lay half-dead on the road. We are called to grow to new ways of thinking, acting, and relating that reflect God’s vision embodied by Jesus. Rachel Naomi Remen, in My Grandfather’s Blessings, provides a new lens with which to the characters in the gospel. She tells how her grandfather taught her that there are three ways people approach life: helping, fixing and serving. ‘When you help, you see life as weak; when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of ego, but serving is the work of the soul … We do not serve the weak or the broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual.’ The priest and the Levite do not see the victim as part of their wholeness. He is weak, broken and an inconvenience who could render them unclean. Their focus was self-centred thinking they served God by remaining ritually pure. This is not relevant religion! Jesus challenges attitudes to the ‘other’ where religion, politics or culture can make us into moral midgets. Jesus, like the Samaritan, did what is subversive: he touched people in need which instead of being an unclean action became a holy or sacred action. To touch the brokenness of a person, to enter into their pain, is to go into a sacred space – and to see the face of God. We serve God by serving, not avoiding, our neighbour. The Samaritan saw his wholeness as connected to the one lying in the gutter half-dead. He is seen as a fellow human being - as weak, broken, a problem, or inconvenience. It is an opportunity for wholeness – not only for the victim for the one who responds to be made whole as well.
Last week, Sister Luisa Dell'Orto, an Italian serving in Haiti for some 20 years was killed in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. Nicknamed by the Italian press as the ‘angel of Haiti’s street children,’ she died after being violently attacked by armed men where she had long ministered to homeless and wayward children from underprivileged neighbourhoods. Despite risks of growing violence and the 2010 devastating earthquakes, she stayed to help. Today’s gospel story is about going beyond boundaries – where there are no boundaries to love, no limits to neighbourliness and justice. It asks, ‘what kind of a neighbour am I?’
Jesus invites us to find the presence of God in one another. Whenever the scriptures are proclaimed the implicit question is: where is your sister/brother? The focus is clearly on the ‘other’ - the outsider, the enemy, the unacceptable one, the unlikely one to love. As with Sister Luisa, the Samaritan, became a neighbour by radical compassion and true humanity in spite of danger, which we see enacted on city streets, prisons, immigration detention centres, even bars and clubs, and among people deemed the lost and the losers. Rather than asking, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ they live it by snatching opportunities for encounter. There are no special rules. Prayer and compassion respond to need – not rubrics. Where do we find our neighbour? It is wherever another's slavery confronts our freedom, when another's sickness confronts our health, when another's poverty confronts our wealth, when another's ignorance confronts our education.
This powerful story does not allow for short-terms aid. It cannot be used to promote the survival of unjust social structures. It cannot be used to promote one off charity without addressing long-term justice. The story/parable provides some important lessons about charity, it must also raise questions relating to the promotion of justice. At what point would we do more than offer short-term help for the victims? At would point would we begin to critique the political and economic agendas of those in power who allow injustice to continue? The Good Samaritan would not only show love for the ‘other’ through momentary acts of charity, but also through sustained advocacy for the promotion of a common good and work to prevent people from being victimised in the first place. To only focus on charity at the expense of long-term justice, we fail to prevent further injustice against people but also enable the perpetrators. We need to critique policies and procedures that impact our neighbors by cooperating with advocacy organisations that strive to bring about structural change. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’ Whilst charity is necessary because of enduring injustices, our goal is to reach a point where such acts are no longer required.
The hero is a stranger despised by the majority community and is unexpected to help. It would have been impossible, at the time, to put ‘good’ and ‘Samaritan’ together. Only a hated foreigner – a person of the ‘wrong’ race and/or sexual orientation – stops to help and give generously. God not only hears the cries of the poor. God inspires the outsider to be our teacher that God’s love embraces us all which we are called to embody ourselves. For Jesus, the preferential option is for justice, for the poor. For some the preferential option is caution, comfort, legalism, and security. God has a concern for the pain of the world – indeed God is ‘the fellow sufferer who understands’ (Alfred North Whitehead), not as an observer, but from the inside – and God seeks to minimize preventable pain by working with us and our business and political structures to bring justice to the world.
In 1942, Sister Denise Bergon, a superior of a convent which included a boarding school in France, sought to hide Jewish children. Her activities were largely kept secret for fear that harm would come to the other sisters. Concerned about lying, bearing false witness, the Archbishop (Toulouse) told her: ‘Let’s lie, let’s lie as long as we are saving human lives!’ She searched for Jewish children wandering and alone in the forests and accepted children brought to her by parents or the Underground. She explained the presence of these new students by saying that they were refugees from the East, who knew nothing of the Catholic faith because they were raised as atheists! With the threat of discovery a daily struggle, the children were paired and taught to run into the forest whenever a Nazi inspection of the convent seemed imminent. After the liberation, some children were reunited with their parents and many others helped to build new lives.
We might applaud this heroism and courage but this 30-year-old woman, in a desperate and dangerous situation, asked a pivotal question, ‘Do I stand or do I not?’ Her response was clear. How would we respond? It reminds me of the logo for last week’s National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Culture (NAIDOC): ’Get up! Stand up! Show up!’ Though we may see the Samaritan as a Christ figure, Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’. There is no shortage of wounds to bind.
Pope Francis, in his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, states, ‘The Church must move from her comfort zone in order to reach all people, especially those in the peripheries in need of the light and the mercy they long for, and where the hearts of those ministering also are converted and transformed.’ We go to the margins, the fringes and peripheries humbly acknowledging we do not hold all the answers, and that we are also searching for healing and mercy. In this sacred encounter, the children of God journey together – all in need of healing, and all healers.’ We all journey together – all in need of healing, all healers.