by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“A Samaritan travelling the road came upon the man. When he saw the condition he was in, his heart went out to him…” Luke 10, 25-37
People of all faiths and of none know the tag “a good Samaritan” for it is an expression that has found its way into countless languages. Most of us have so often heard the story of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus in today’s gospel-reading that we know it by heart. What triggered Jesus to tell it was a serious question put to him by a thoroughly decent lawyer who was looking for confirmation that he was being faithful to the law. His simple question “And who is my neighbour?” prompted Jesus to tell a story that is a lesson in morality or, if you will, ethics, as well as an illustration of how we can allow prejudice to infect our decision-making.
We can hear this story and be over quick to conclude that it is about “goodies and baddies”; that the priest and the Levite failed to measure up to their responsibilities. After all, couldn’t it be said that they would have been schooled in the two Great Commandments to love God and neighbour?
We have to remember that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, made so by groups of brigands and robbers intent on ridding travellers of their possessions. In addition, the priest had an obligation to remain ritually clean in order to perform his priestly duties in the temple. Venturing to within thirty paces of a dead person or the blood of an injured man would disqualify him from ministering to the worshippers he was meant to lead in prayer and sacrifice. By putting the focus on the priest and his possible reasons for choosing to by-pass the wounded stranger, Jesus is suggesting that strict adherence to the letter of the law might be trumped by care and compassion. Note that Jesus does not criticise the priest but opens the way for those hearing the story to consider that the priest, on reflection, might have made a better decision.
The Levite who followed the priest down the road was lower in the pecking-order of importance. Jesus’ audience would have regarded the priest as the Levite’s superior or boss. So, the Levite would have been equivalent to a deacon or a temple official. He, too, sees, the beat-up man in the ditch and very likely concludes that the priest ahead of him also must have seen the poor fellow, and that if he didn’t stop to help, he could be critical of him were he to stop and help.
The decisions of both the priest and the Levite reflect to us issues with which we, ourselves, are familiar. In recent months here in Australia, we have been challenged by marked increases in the prices of fuel and other consumer goods. Those increases relate to supply and demand issues. Fresh vegetables, for example, are scare as a consequence of severe floods in areas close to the east coast. We have been shocked that the cost of a lettuce has been as much as 12 dollars. The very sudden large hike in fuel prices has been attributed to the war in the Ukraine. Business owners and managers of transport companies have argued that price increases for fuel should, in turn, be passed on to their customers if they are to keep their workers employed. Good business sense makes no allowance for consideration and compassion for ordinary people struggling to keep food on the table and fuel in their vehicles.
The Levite’s reasoning for not wanting to depart from what he saw as the expectations of his boss raises the age-old issue of being pressured to conform to behaviour that is less than ethical. Once again, here in Australia military personnel have been accused of atrocities perpetrated in Afghanistan and Iraq at the direction of superior officers. Parallel situations are repeated in politics and industry where ordinary public-servants and employees become aware of corrupt practices but are pressured to remain silent because they feel their employment will be terminated if they dare to act as whistle-blowers. Implicit in Jesus’ examples of the conduct of the priest and the Levite are questions about ethical dilemmas with which we are all confronted at some time or other as we go about our everyday activities.
What about the Samaritan in the story? The man left for dead on the side of the road was a mirror image for that Samaritan. Jews regarded Samaritans as of no consequence. That he went to the aid of a wounded Jew would have done nothing to earn him credit or admiration from the Jews to whom Jesus was telling the story. But Jesus does not shy away from challenging their comfort and sense of superiority.
We are all aware of neighbourhoods and societies in which the majority of members have regarded themselves as superior in status to newly-arrived immigrants and asylum-seekers who have been granted temporary residency-visas. We have all seen people who have neglected to water plants or feed animals and, when challenged, have pleaded: “That’s not my job!”
The underlying message of Jesus’ story is that there are times when we are tempted to protect ourselves with the letter of the law, and there are times, too, when we find it almost impossible to acknowledge the prejudices we harbour. When, at the end of his story, Jesus asked the lawyer: “Now, who was neighbour to the one who was robbed?”, the good man could not bring himself to utter the word “Samaritan”. He could only say: “The one who treated him with compassion”. And what of the man who was rescued by the Samaritan? He had to come to terms with the reality of accepting help from a stranger for whom he had not the slightest respect.
And so, I conclude with a story from Fr William Bausch:
A nine-year-old third-grade boy has just inexplicably wet his pants. Utterly mortified, he knows that, when the other boys find out, he’ll not hear the end of it, and when the enemy camp, the girls, learn of it, they’ll scorn him. In desperation, he puts his head down on his desk and prays: “Dear God, this is an emergency. Please, I need help now!” When he looks up from his prayer, he sees the class teacher heading in his direction. Heading across the teacher’s path is a girl named Susie, carrying a gold-fish bowl full of water. As the teacher steps aside to let Susie pass, she accidentally bumps Susie, causing her to tip the bowl of water onto the boy’s lap. Pretending to be upset, the boy prays under his breath: “Thank you, God! Thank you!” Instead of being an object of ridicule, the boy receives sympathy, and is sent downstairs to change into his P.E. shorts. Meanwhile, Susie is being criticised for her clumsiness. At the end of the day, as they are waiting for the bus, the boy ventures across to Susie and says: “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” Susie whispers back: “I wet my pants once, too.” Looking into the face of the enemy, the boy quietly says: “Thank you.” The story of the Good Samaritan gives us much on which to reflect, not the least being the fact that the man in the ditch found a neighbour in a stranger whom, until that day, he would have seen as a bitter enemy.