There are all kinds of good reasons for not stopping to help a stranger: I have other pressing obligations. It’s dangerous—what if the robbers are still lurking and attack me? I don’t have any professional skills or resources to help this person. If I move him and make his injuries worse he might sue me. And on and on.
I can easily talk myself out of any good deed, just like the scholar of the law in today’s Gospel. He knew what to do. He knew what his religious convictions prompted him to do. He could recite the law perfectly. He also knew what his heart was urging him to do. He just needed somebody to reassure him that his rationalizations were well founded and that no one would expect him to do anything for some stranger in need.
It would have been easy for Jesus to give him the answer he wanted: “Yes, of course you’re right. He is not your responsibility. Someone better equipped will tend to him.” But he does not. Jesus knows it will not be easy for the scholar to hear his answer. Better than rational arguments, a story will help the scholar move out of his head and listen to his heart. There is, however, a twist to the story that Jesus tells. It is not a straightforward tale about someone like the scholar who is “moved with compassion” that he might easily emulate.
The complication is that the scholar of the law would never identify with a hated Samaritan. More likely he would see himself in the person in need at the side of the road. From that perspective, he would watch in horror as the priest and Levite, the ones he would expect to act with pastoral attention, pass him by while justifying themselves. To receive lavish aid after that from a despised Samaritan breaks open the strictures of his heart, as he experiences a flood of grace from this unexpected source.
The parable asks the scholar, stripped of his defenses, to accept the ways in which divine compassion and grace have been showered upon him in undeserved ways. From this place, he could then be prompted to extend these to others.
The question is not really, “Who is my neighbor?” Deep down the scholar knows that each human being and every creature are neighbor and kin, all relying on one another in the fragile web of life. The scholar does not want to admit this to himself because of what it will ask of him. In the depths of his heart, however, he knows what he must do to aid a fellow traveler in need. It is not really too hard or too mysterious to figure out, as Moses tells the Israelites in the first reading. You do not need someone to “go up in the sky” or “cross the sea.” How to live out God’s way as elaborated in the Scriptures is actually “something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out,” as Moses asserts.
Sometimes we need to be helped out of our rationalizations for not doing what our listening heart prompts us to do. At other times we are asked to be the one who can speak truth lovingly to a friend who struggles to do what compassion asks of them.
Heeding the voice of God to know what is the right action and the right time requires deep listening, in contemplative silent prayer, in honest conversation with trusted friends and in openness to hearing the cacophonous cries of needy neighbors at hand and throughout the globe. We do not know whether the scholar of the law let go of trying to justify himself and was able to “go and do likewise.” The parable remains open-ended, inviting us to hear it addressed to ourselves. How will it end?