Fr. Gerard D’Souza, OCSO
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Whenever I hear this parable my knee jerk reaction is – the priest and Levite are the bad guys and the Samaritan- well is the Good Samaritan. But there are details about the story that might make us think twice.
In the ancient world, a person could be identified by his speech and his dress. In this parable, the victim is stripped and he is half dead and cannot speak. He therefore cannot be identified by looking at him. He could be anyone – was he a Jew, a Gentile, a Samaritan? Jesus says nothing about this.
With this in mind you can then sympathize with the priest and the Levite. They had to be ritually pure. It was their job. They could not tell if the man lying half dead was a Jew or not just by looking at him. But neither could they investigate this. They could they come within 6 feet of him without risking pollution. The priest had just finished his mandatory two weeks service and was on his way home. If he were to become unclean he would have to go back to the Temple. Stand in line with all the other unclean people, buy an expensive heifer, offer it to the Lord, burn it – all this in order to be ritually pure again. It would be time consuming, expensive, plus his colleagues would wonder how he became unclean – there would be shame and a loss of reputation.
It is in this context that we should consider the Samaritan. He was not a Gentile but bound by the laws of the Jews and risked becoming impure too. Moreover what if the victim were a Jew? Jews hated Samaritans. The Jewish Mishnah had harsh words for them ‘He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine. The ultimate insult. Then Jesus adds a very small detail to the story that can be missed by us. The Samaritan poured oil and wine over his wounds. Oil and wine were poured out on the high altar before God in Jerusalem. With this little detail tucked in, Jesus joins the worship of God in the Temple with the love of neighbor on the road to Jericho. The love of neighbor is also high liturgy for Jesus, as important as liturgy in the temple. The priest would have poured out oil and wine on the high altar in the Temple but he neglected the other high altar – the other part of the greatest commandment – the neighbor.
The Samaritan took the man to an inn and stayed the night with him. He also promised he would return to check on him. This may seem insignificant to us but not for those harsh times in the Middle East – there was blood revenge. And the Samaritan by forfeiting his anonymity risked being killed by a clan member of the victim. Finally the Samaritan paid the innkeeper and he knew nothing about the finances of the victim – which means he did not expect to be repaid. In terms of risk taking the Samaritan would be considered crazy by anyone listening to the parable. Normal people in the Middle East of the first century, did not do this. Normal people acted like the priest and the Levite. This is precisely what Jesus intended to convey. This was crazy love. No human being was capable of such love. Only God. Which brings us back to the lawyer.
Jesus told the parable to answer the lawyer’s question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ If you remember the lawyer was asked ‘What is written in the law?’ He rattles it off confidently. Jesus tells him – do this and you will live. What I find truly amazing is the pride of the man – he is totally confident that he loves God with his whole heart, his whole being and all his strength. He does not even question it. All he needs is assurance on was whether he was really loving his neighbor. Well Jesus is the master of making His point ever so gently. Here He is taking the lawyer’s question ‘who is my neighbor?’ very seriously, but in effect He is speaking to the deeper question ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus’ answer is – you cannot. You cannot earn eternal life. If it is impossible to love your neighbor in the manner of the crazy love of the Samaritan, how could you ever think you could love God as He should be loved? You cannot.
My brothers and sisters, so it is for us. Jesus did not tell us this parable so that we could judge the priest and the Levite. We are the priest and the Levite. We would love to imagine ourselves as good Samaritans but there is only one Good Samaritan – Jesus. The rest of us are sinners. We cannot love. We are born self-centered. If the Good Samaritan had not died for us we would be dead in our sins. Only with Jesus are we anything. Only with Jesus can we even begin to love God. Only with Jesus can we love our neighbor in the way God wishes to love him. With Him we will never be afraid of loving too much because we will love with His life and His strength.