Not too long ago there was a Jewish couple traveling on a New York City subway car. When one of the fellow riders greeted them “Merry Christmas,” they responded “Happy Hannakah.” There were 10 young gang members who overheard the exchange and became enraged. They started to beat the Jewish couple. Several people in the train car saw this but did nothing until one man stood up and came to help. He was a Muslim.
He rushed to the aid of the couple pulling off one of the assailants. When he did this the other nine pounced on him. Meanwhile the young couple was able to pull the emergency brake cord and authorities came. The Muslim man received two black eyes and a broken nose.
I ran across the story in an Internet article which listed 10 different real-life stories of persons identified as “Good Samaritans.” Most people familiar with the New Testament would have heard the term and the story Jesus told to the “scholar of the law” that is the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy from the Gospel according to St. Luke.
The passage begins with the scholar asking Jesus a question. St. Luke tells us that he asks the question to “test” Jesus. The question he asks is: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus in turn asks him: “What is written in the law?”
The scholar answers correctly by summarizing the entire law as the love of God and love of neighbor. He is actually quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5) for the first and the Book of Leviticus (19:18) for the second. Then he asks, “and who is my neighbor?”
St. Luke tells us that the scholar asks this question because he “wished to justify himself.” The man’s engagement of Jesus is not an authentic one. He does not honestly approach Jesus with an open mind and heart; rather, he wishes to confirm what he already believes about God and about himself.
The scholar is not seeking to grow in his understanding of God or his relationship with Him; rather he is content to remain as he is, convinced of his own standing before God.
Such a disposition is familiar to us in the Gospels. Recall the story of Lazarus begging at the gate of the rich man. Satisfied with his own standing and success, the rich man did nothing to allay the needs of Lazarus who he saw every day in front of his house (cf. Luke 16:19-31).
Recall the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the Temple for prayer. The prayer of the Pharisee was, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” The tax-collector on the other hand prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (cf. Luke 18:10-15).
So Jesus tells the scholar the story of the Good Samaritan illustrating the law of love. The twist to the story is that the persons who would have been expected to know the law were the ones who walked by the injured man, not doing anything to help him. The priest and the Levite are the ones who walked blindly by the victim in his need.
These two represent those who were so fixated on following the minutia of the law that they missed the most general and fundamental law – love of God and love of neighbor. They were so concerned with the purity regulations that they were paralyzed to help the man. All they could do was nothing.
For the original hearers the fact that the Samaritan man stopped to help would be startling. Recall that the Jews and Samaritans had a deep-seated distrust and dislike for one another going back several hundred years at this point. The Samaritans also worshiped YHWH and considered themselves part of the people of the covenant. So the fact that the Samaritan “got it right” as contrasted with the priest and Levite would have been a jolt to the consciences of the original hearers.
A further contrast can be developed between the Samaritan and the “scholar of the law” who prompts this story. At the end of the story Jesus asks the scholar: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The answer is obvious as the scholar replies: “The one who treated him with mercy.” The reply may indicate a deepening appreciation of the “law of love” for the scholar, who now articulates it in terms of mercy.
As Jesus tells the story he notes that the Samaritan was “moved with compassion” as he came upon the injured person. Compassion or pity moves the heart to recognize the needs and plight of another. It is compassion that moves that moves the Samaritan to act with love and mercy.
In doing so he not only fulfills the law; he reflects the two primary attributes of God as He has been revealed – He is the God of love and mercy. We see these two attributes personified in the life of Jesus Himself, who is often “moved with compassion” for His people.
Interestingly no names are given in the story Jesus uses or the retelling of the story by St. Luke. The scholar is unnamed. The injured person is unnamed. Likewise the priest, Levite and Samaritan remain nameless. Perhaps this is so that when we encounter the story we might see ourselves in these characters. The one we want to be like is the Samaritan and perhaps many times we are like the Samaritan. At times we may be more like one of the other characters.
The message, however, remains the same. Jesus’ invites us to live the law of love in our lives. He challenges us to unite our love of God with love of neighbor. He invites us to be instruments of his compassion and mercy.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.