Thursday, July 11, 2013

Christ the Good Samaritan

Fifteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

If someone were to do a Pew survey on which is the all time favourite parable, I guess you would have a tie between the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. If the Prodigal Son is most commonly associated with the themes of repentance and forgiveness, the story of the Good Samaritan would most frequently be cited as a perfect illustration of love, especially the love of one’s neighbour. It is not difficult to come to this conclusion because the question which the lawyer, the expert of Jewish religious law posed to Jesus that led to the telling of this story, is ‘who is my neighbour?’ Thus, we are often exhorted to follow the example of the Good Samaritan to show neighbourly love and concern for the downtrodden, for those in need. And because we are all in serious need, this parable speaks deeply to every human soul.

While the above may be true, the occasion for the telling of the parable may also lie elsewhere. If you had been paying attention, you would have realised that the lawyer had actually asked two questions, the first, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and then after Jesus’ response the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbour?” The first question is vertical, it has to do with the lawyer’s own relationship with God, his justification. The second question moves it to the horizontal plain, and thus begins to examine the answer in the light of one’s relationship with fellow men. So, was Jesus answering the first question or the second or in fact, both? The common interpretation usually sees the parable as a response to the second question.  But a careful reading will reveal that the parable of the Good Samaritan does not really provide a direct answer to the lawyer’s second question of defining one’s neighbour. If Jesus had been asked, “How should we treat our neighbours?” and had responded with this story, perhaps “Be like the Good Samaritan” would be an acceptable interpretation. But if the story is told in answer to the first question on eternal life, this does seem to shift the whole emphasis from a mere call to display altruistic behaviour to one’s neighbour to a more vital question of how have we come to salvation.

According the Fathers of the Church, this tale teaches more than a lesson about helping those in need. In fact, they see it as an impressive allegory of the fall and redemption of all mankind. The early Christian understanding of this allegorical interpretation of the Good Samaritan is clearly depicted in the famous 12th-century cathedral in Chartres, France. One of its beautiful stained-glass windows depicts the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden at the top of the window and, at the bottom of the window, the parable of the Good Samaritan; therefore, the narrative of the creation and fall of man is juxtaposed with that of the Good Samaritan. What does the parable of the Good Samaritan have to do with the Fall of Adam and Eve? Where did this association originate?

The roots of this allegorical interpretation reach deeply into the earliest Christian Tradition. Various Fathers of the Church saw Jesus himself in the Good Samaritan; and in the man who fell among thieves they saw Adam, our very humanity wounded and disoriented on account of its sins. For example, Origen employed the following allegory: Jerusalem represents heaven; Jericho, the world; the robbers, the devil and his minions; the Priest represents the Law, and the Levite the Prophets; the Good Samaritan, Christ; the ass, Christ’s body carrying fallen man to the inn which becomes the Church. Even the Samaritan’s promise to return translates into Christ’s triumphant return at the Parousia.

Understanding this parable allegorically adds an eternal perspective and value to its message. It certainly takes it beyond the cliché, ‘Be a Good Samaritan’ rhetoric. This profoundly Christological reading positions deeds of neighbourly kindness within an expansive awareness of where we have come from, how we have fallen into our present plight, and how Christ has come to save us, the Sacraments of grace continue to sanctify us and the Church continues to nurture and heal us. In other words, this Christological interpretation shifts the focus from man to God: from ‘justification’, how do we work out our salvation, to sanctification, how does Christ save us and continue to sanctify us. It moves us away from the humanistic mode of being saviours of the world to a more humble recognition that we are indeed in need of salvation ourselves.

In a rich irony, we move from being identified with the priest and the Levite who were solely concerned over their personal salvation but never perfectly love others “as ourselves,” much less our enemies, to being identified with the traveler in desperate need of salvation. Jesus intends the parable itself to leave us beaten and bloodied, lying in a ditch, like the man in the story. We are the needy, unable to do anything to help ourselves. We are the broken people, beaten up by life, robbed of hope. But then Jesus comes. Unlike the Priest and Levite, He doesn’t avoid us. He crosses the street—from heaven to earth—comes into our mess, gets his hands dirty. At great cost to himself on the cross, he heals our wounds, covers our nakedness, and loves us with a no-strings-attached love. He carries us personally to the shelter of the Church where we find rest, where our wounds are tended and healed. He brings us to the Father and promises that his “help” is not simply a ‘one-time’ gift—rather, it’s a gift that will forever cover “the charges” we incur.

The context puts Jesus’ final exhortation to “go and do the same yourself” in perspective. It puts every work of charity, gesture of kindness, expression of hospitality on our part within the greater picture of the wonderful story of salvation. To inherit eternal life, you must keep God’s law perfectly, you must love Him with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and all your being, and this necessarily includes loving your neighbour as yourself. That may certainly give the false impression that it all boils down to us and our efforts. But the great commandment of love isn’t about some altruistic humanistic project – us saving the world. Reaching out to others, especially to those who labour under the heavy load of toil and suffering, is not just an act of goodness. It is a participation in the economy of God’s salvation – God saving the world through us and in spite of us. We can love only because we have been loved. We can only heal because we have been healed and continue to be healed by the Good Samaritan himself, Jesus Christ. We come to understand that just as the vertical dimension of our spiritual lives must always encompass the horizontal dimension of loving our neighbour, we must never forget that the horizontal is never possible without the vertical.

The great commandment of love proceeds from the great love of the Good Samaritan himself, Jesus Christ, who has descended to our pitiable level to pick us up from the ditch. To understand what it means to love, does not mean attempting to be a ‘Good Samaritan.’ To understand what it means to love, we need to gaze upon Jesus Christ, he is the ‘Good Samaritan.’ In his message on the World Day of Prayer for the Sick this year, Pope Emeritus Benedict beautifully paints the picture of the Good Samaritan for our contemplation: “Jesus is the Son of God, the one who makes present the Father’s love, a love which is faithful, eternal and without boundaries. But Jesus is also the one who sheds the garment of his divinity, who leaves his divine condition to assume the likeness of men (cf. Phil 2:6-8), drawing near to human suffering, even to the point of descending into hell, as we recite in the Creed, in order to bring hope and light. He does not jealously guard his equality with God (cf. Phil 2:6) but, filled with compassion, he looks into the abyss of human suffering so as to pour out the oil of consolation and the wine of hope.”

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