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In today's Gospel,
we hear a story that has become so universally known that its
protagonist has become a sort of “household word,” if not a cliché.
Millions of people have some idea of what is meant by a “good
Samaritan,” even if they have never set foot in church. There are at
least three important things that we should learn from this Gospel, but
first it might do us well to know a bit about why our Lord chose this
particular figure to be the center of His parable.
The Samaritans are
essentially a Jewish people who lived in a part of the country that was
north of Judea where Jerusalem is located, and south of our Lord's
native Galilee. They had intermarried with pagan colonists from
Assyria, about 700 years before the time of our Lord. They still
practiced the Jewish religion in most of its details, but had
established a temple of their own that rivaled the one at Jerusalem. As
often happens with people who are “almost like us, but not quite,” the
Jews hated (or, more accurately, despised) the Samaritans. So, whenever
you hear one of these parables in which our Lord refers to Samaritans,
try to remember that he is purposefully designing His story around a
group of outcasts in order to illustrate a point about charity, or
humility, or some similar virtue.
The first and most
obvious lesson to be learned from the parable is the one that most
people come away with when they hear it. The Samaritan is described by
Jesus as one who will gain eternal life because of his charity for his
fellow man. Even though he may not have been a priest or a Levite; even
though he may not have been what most of our Lord's audience would have
considered a very good Jew, his charity proved him to be a good neighbor
to the man who had been robbed—and as a good neighbor, he was keeping an
important part of the Law which our Lord said would lead to eternal
We see also that the priest and the Levite, who were presumably more
religious people than the Samaritan, passed up this opportunity to “lay
up treasure in heaven” for themselves. So, our Lord is telling us
clearly that our hopes for eternal life depend—at least in part—on how
well we demonstrate that we can be good neighbors to those who need the
spiritual and corporal works of our mercy.
A second and less
obvious lesson is learned if we pay careful attention to our Lord's
exact words. He says we must
our neighbors, and the lawyer who asked the question about eternal life
then asks, just “who is my neighbor?” And if we pay close attention, we
see that he is told that, at least in this case, the Samaritan is the
one who is called neighbor—not the man who was robbed and whom one might
expect our Lord to commend to our charity. So, if we take the parable
literally, He is also saying that we should love those who are
charitable as our neighbors. And remember, He is talking about a
Samaritan—so He is saying in effect, that we should have brotherly
affection for all good people, even if they are not exactly like us. If
they have some defects, even some serious ones, people of good will
ought to be treated as our neighbors. And all the more should we pray
for them if they are deviating in some way from God's law as the
Samaritans apparently were. So the second lesson is that we should love
those who do good; and that good people who are in error deserve both
our prayers and the benefit of our good example (perhaps we should say,
our best example).
The third lesson is
most important of all. It is often overlooked because whenever we hear
the name of the “Good Samaritan,” most of us tend to think only about
being charitable toward the man who fell in among the robbers. And, of
course, many will appreciate the admirable characteristics that are
found in this Samaritan, even though he is something of an outcast from
the Jewish perspective. But please note the answer to the lawyer's
question about how to gain eternal life:
“Thou shalt love
the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul and with
thy whole strength, and with thy whole mind; and thy neighbor as thy
We would be clearly
wrong to ignore the first three quarters of this answer and think that
we will gain eternal life by focusing only on love of neighbor. Note
the superlatives that our Lord uses when referring to God, but which He
omits when speaking of the love of neighbor: “whole heart … w hole soul
whole strength, and
There is a similar
passage in St. Matthew's Gospel that has a young man ask the same
question. Our Lord answers in a similar way, by telling him to keep the
Commandments. Instead of asking who his neighbor was (as he does in
Luke's Gospel), the man asks which Commandments he must keep. But here
again, our Lord phrases His answer in terms of duties toward our
neighbor, and he enumerates the last seven Commandments. But only the
foolish would suggest that Jesus is minimizing our duties toward God.
The “lawyer” in today's reading was not an ambulance chaser, but,
rather, a doctor of the Law of Moses. If he was typical of those we see
in the New Testament, he already knew about his duties to God, but
needed to be reminded of his duties toward men.
In our times?
Well, that's not so clear. Surely most of us need to be reminded of our
duties toward God. There is a lot of philanthropy in our world; a lot
of money spent on the poor; but even with that, it is not always clear
that it is really being spent for their well-being or for any other
lasting purpose. So, being realistic, we need all three of the lessons
contained in this parable.
If we are to gain
eternal life we must be charitable to those in need, loving our
neighbors as we love ourselves.
We must be
neighborly to people of good will, in spite of their differences from
us, always keeping them in our prayers and giving them our good example.
But most of all we
must love God with our whole heart, and whole soul, and whole strength,
and with our whole mind. And, given this last, the first two come
naturally as well.
And only the
foolish would try to talk about the love of neighbor without first
acknowledging the need for the love of God.