Shock Therapy by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" He said in reply, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.' Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
The parable of the Good Samaritan is, of course, one of the most well known. As with all the parables, however, it is not enough to know the story; we must also know the context. Our Lord gives the parable in response to "a scholar of the law who stood up to test him" (Lk 10:25), who "wished to justify himself" (Lk 10:29). He speaks to a lawyer who has no real interest in the truth, who wants to spar over legal texts for his own purposes. The man's questions are self-serving, not sincere. This explains why our Lord deals so abruptly with him. We do not sense in our Lord any of the gentleness and patience shown to others. Ultimately our Lord addresses to this man - and to everyone who wants to test God and justify himself - the parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable intended not to console and comfort but to shock and challenge.
The parable answers the Lawyer's question, "who is my neighbor?" - a cynical question meant to validate his narrow interpretation of the commandment to love one's neighbor. Knowing this, our Lord seeks to call him out of himself, to deliver him from his selfishness. So he chooses a figure guaranteed to shock: a good Samaritan. Recall that the Israelites and the Samaritans, while geographically more than neighbors, were far less than neighborly. Their mutual enmity had simmered for centuries. To the lawyer, the Samaritans were worse than foreigners. By the choice of such a protagonist our Lord intentionally scandalizes the lawyer. He shocks this complacent and self-serving man into a genuine understanding of love for neighbor.
The parable itself contains several different lessons. First, it presents the Samaritan as a neighbor - to show that we ought not set limits to our charity. We can never say of our love, "thus far and no further." It must extend even to our enemies. Second, the parable presents the Samaritan as the exemplar of love for neighbor, to show that God's grace extends beyond Israel, enabling even Samaritans to love as He commands. Finally, the story heightens the meaning of "neighbor." The lawyer begrudgingly acknowledges that the true neighbor was the "one who treated (the robbers' victim) with mercy" (Lk 10:37). To be a neighbor, then, means not to measure stingily another person's degree of relation but to treat that person with mercy. The lawyer (and we) should worry less about who his neighbor is and more about being a neighbor to all.
Thus the parable provides an inspiring standard of love for neighbor. And the saints continue to teach the lesson. St. Patrick returns to Ireland to evangelize the people who enslaved him. St. Francis tries to covert the sultan at war with Christendom. And St. Maria Goretti prays for her murderer while dying.
But the parable also carries a great deal of shock value. Two thousand years distant, we tend to miss how scandalous the use of a Samaritan example must have been. And in this regard we can discern still another, more basic, lesson. The lawyer's mistake haunts us as well; we come to the Lord to test Him and to justify ourselves. We seek His endorsement of what we have already decided, rather than first asking what He wants. Instead of conforming our lives to Him, we first establish our lives and the try to fit Him in. And if we have to chisel away some of our Lord's more demanding features so that He can fit into our small, confined lives, then so be it. Thus our Lord's shocking response to the complacent lawyer should also draw us away from any self-serving devotion.
The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that our love must be generous, sacrificial, extending even to our enemies. But on a more basic level its shocking character teaches us to set aside our own notions of who and how to love, and allow the Lord Himself to instruct us.
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