Ps 19 R/. The precepts of the Lord are right, and give joy to the heart.
Today in our Gospel reading we encounter one of Luke’s great parables of mercy — one of the best-known parables of the Bible along with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I think it’s safe to say that most people know this story by heart.
But knowing it and understanding it are two different things. While this parable touches the human heart of all who hear it, how many of us are moved to imitate it? When we hear it, do we just say, “Yeah, I know that one. Mercy is good; Jesus is good. It makes me feel good”, or do we reflect on it and say, “Wow, that’s really challenging! I generally don’t help people in this way. Maybe I should. With the help of God’s grace I will!”?
You see, too often we hear the words of Jesus and our selfishness filter kicks in and we push them to the back of our minds and pat ourselves on the back with reassurances that we’re nice to others and that we nonetheless do ‘good’ things, even if we don’t go as far as the Good Samaritan. But this isn’t enough!
In the last verse of today’s Gospel, Jesus is quite clear, Go and do likewise (v. 37). Jesus wants us to go and show mercy to others, and He doesn’t make it a suggestion, He commands it: Go and do! And as Moses tells us in the first reading, Obey the Lord your God by observing His commandments and decrees (Deut 30:10). To be merciful as God is merciful is a necessary dimension of the Christian life (cf. Lk 6:36)! This has been a central message of Pope Francis’ pontificate and the reason why he’s given us this Jubilee Year of Mercy: we really do need to go and do likewise.
But in order for us to do likewise, we first need to experience and understand the depths of God’s mercy, and that’s also at the heart of this parable.
Jesus gives this parable in answer to a question, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (v. 25). In other words, to inherit eternal life we must be merciful like the Good Samaritan. It’s not enough to just love God; we must also love our neighbour, and this love is expressed first and foremost through mercy.
In the parable, the Priest and Levite — Jewish ministers of God — pass by the half-dead man. Now it’s not that they didn’t see him or that they simply ignored him, or even that they didn’t feel moved by his condition. They most certainly did see him, but they were stopped from helping him because they put themselves and their needs and plans ahead of the man.
You see, in Jewish law, touching a dead body would defile you, make you ritually impure. Had they helped him, the Priest and Levite could not have fulfilled their religious office as ministers, at least for a week or so. They refused to help the man in order to stay pure, to remain ‘holy’ according to the Law. They put themselves ahead of the needy man; they didn’t want to be inconvenienced. They were being selfish, and this is what prevented them from having mercy. It’s this attitude that Pope Francis decries as ‘pharisaic’. Through this parable Jesus calls us not to be concerned about what the needy person believes, how they live, what they think of us, and so on; He just calls us to respond to their needs, and to do so with love.
The Good Samaritan didn’t let the purity laws be an obstacle. Moreover, Samaritans and Jews were sworn enemies, and yet, he was moved with pity (v. 33) for the half-dead man. He was able to see and respond to the needs of the man with mercy and compassion because he understood that the Law of Moses was intended not to make him cold-hearted, but loving. He understood that charity trumps the Law, and so he allowed his love of God to move him to mercy, and was able not only to help the man but also show that he in fact loved God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind, and his neighbour as himself (cf. v. 27).
But the Parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t just a moral lesson; it’s also an allegory of our own life. St. Augustine says that we are the man half dead by the road. Through the devil’s deceptions, we’ve been beaten by sin to the point of death. Jesus is the Samaritan who, moved with pity, picks us up and brings us to the inn (the Church) for healing and recovery through the Sacraments (symbolised by the oil and the wine). It’s Jesus who goes down into the ditch of our sin to carry us out and bring us forgiveness, healing and holiness. This is what Pope Francis means when he says the Church is a ‘field hospital’; it’s where Jesus brings wounded sinners for healing and recovery.
Is this how we see ourselves? Do we see ourselves as wounded sinners, half dead along the road, in need of mercy, healing and forgiveness? Only when we see ourselves as being in need of mercy, of being rescued by Jesus, of being saved by Jesus from sin and death — only then will we be able to turn around and be merciful to those around us.
The Priest and the Levite thought they could achieve holiness by their own efforts in strictly following the Laws of Moses. The Good Samaritan understood that God’s love for him called him to help the man in need. Jesus tells us that we, too, need to recognise our own brokenness, allowing it to lead us into His care and grace, so that in turn we might go out and be merciful to those in need; that in gratitude for the mercy we’ve received from Him, we should ‘pay it forward’, as it were.
As we celebrate this Year of Mercy, may we allow God’s mercy to bring us to repentance, healing and conversion, so that in turn we might go and do likewise, bringing mercy to a world, half-dead and in desperate need God’s mercy, healing and grace. Amen.