The young boy would visit his grandmother often in her South Carolina antebellum home. It had a sitting room with many family portraits of aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents. In the middle of the large display was an old photograph of a Union soldier. One day the boy asked his grandmother who it was and why was there a portrait of a “Yankee” soldier on their family wall. The grandmother replied that she would answer him when he grew up.
Years later the grandmother told him the story shortly before she died. She began telling her grandson of his great-grandfather. He was 19 years old and a Confederate soldier. During a battle near Williamsburg, Virginia he had been shot in the leg. He had been hit just below the knee. After the battle he laid in a ditch, in great pain and losing a lot of blood, as the lower leg was barely attached. He was full of fear. The Confederate troops had gone. He was at the mercy of the Union soldiers, if anyone would find him before he died.
Meanwhile, a Union officer was scouring the field looking for Union casualties. When he came across the soldier, he called for medics who took him to the Union field hospital. The doctors amputated his lower leg and stopped the bleeding. The chaplain looked over the young soldier during his recovery. When he was well enough to travel, he sent him home. The officer was also a chaplain and was well known. The young man looked him up after the war. They started a life-long friendship and correspondence. It was this Union officer whose photograph was displayed in the South Carolina home. The great-grandson would later write in telling this story: “No one had to preach the parable of the Good Samaritan to my family. We had lived it.”
The expression “Good Samaritan” given to us by Jesus and put into writing by St. Luke is still a regular part of our vocabulary. We know exactly what it means. Even non-Christians will be familiar with the term, almost 2,000 years after it was first used. We hear that first use in the Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy.
Dictionary.com defines a good Samaritan as “one who is compassionate and helpful to a person in distress.” The term “Good Samaritan” has been used so broadly that we might miss some of the impact of Jesus’ story.
We need to remember to whom Jesus was telling the story. The audience in broad terms was, as Jesus himself was, Jewish. What’s more, the person with whom Jesus was directly speaking was a scholar of the law. Now, the Jewish people and the Samaritans were enemies. They both worshiped the same God but had different interpretations of the covenant as well as different liturgical practices. The animosity between the groups, by this time, had been around for many centuries. The enmity was very much a part of the cultural makeup of both groups.
The “scholar of the law” when asking “who is my neighbor?” would not have expected the “Samaritan” to be the hero of the story. He might even have been shocked by it. The true “neighbor” turns out to be the one thought of as an “enemy.” Categories, prejudices, biases are all turned upside down as the Samaritan shows what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
St. Luke tells us that the scholar in the story asks Jesus the question because “he wished to justify himself.” The motivation of the scholar adds emphasis to Jesus’ response. The original question the scholar asked Jesus was: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus in turn asks him: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man quickly replies quoting the shema in the Book of Deuteronomy.
On the surface, he seems to clearly know the law. However, when he asks that second question, seeking to justify himself, one might wonder if he has grasped the underlying meaning of the law which is based on love and mercy. His wish to justify himself would allow him to be stagnant, set in place, or perhaps self-righteous. Jesus’ interpretation, which is the story of the Good Samaritan, seeks to shake him out of that complacency into action.
The Union officer chaplain in the story above was indeed a Good Samaritan. He showed mercy to a fellow human being, even one who was on the other side of the war. He seemed to have grasped the heart of Jesus’ teaching. When he saw the wounded man, he did not see the “enemy” but a human being in need of help. Jesus calls us to go beyond what is expected.
At another time, he will say: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father…. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:44,46)
Jesus asks the final question in the Gospel passage when he finishes the story. He asks the scholar: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The scholar now understands as he replies: “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus’ words to him are words he speaks to us: “Go and do the same.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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