The Good Samaritan

"A Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion." When we hear or read, in the news of the day, that a person went out of his or her way to help someone in need, they are often called a "good Samaritan." This parable has become part of our language. At first hearing, the meaning of the parable seems clear: if you see someone in need or in danger, you should reach out to that person, even at cost to yourself. If that’s all it means, then we don’t need this homily; the story speaks for itself. But there’s more to it. If that was all Jesus wanted to tell his hearers, he shouldn’t have made the hero a Samaritan. We say "good Samaritan," but as far as many of the Jewish people of that time were concerned, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan! For centuries there had been deep-seated hatred between the two peoples. Today, for "Samaritan" read "Palestinian," and you get the idea. The lawyer asks Jesus "who is my neighbor?" At first sight Jesus instead seems to tell him what it means to be a neighbor--to reach out and help. But in a subtle way he tells him who the neighbor is by making him not a fellow Jew but a foreigner, an outsider, a member of a despised ethnic group. In the battered, bleeding man by the side of the road, he Samaritan sees not a Jew but a fellow human being who desperately needs his help. And he does what we all like to think we would have done in those circumstances. This story must have bothered those who first heard it; it was threatening to them. What about us? The name "Samaritan" has no negative connotation today. But think of other names of other races, other nationalities, other religions, other ethnic groups. Do any of them arouse negative feelings in you? If you feel no hostility at all to any of them, you are most unusual. It means you have grasped one of the central features of Jesus’ message: that in the sight of God, differences of race, nationality and sex have no importance compared to our common humanity. Christianity is a universal religion. It teaches that all men and women are sons and daughters of God, members of one great big family, all equally deserving of our respect and concern. There is no place for prejudice, disrespect or discrimination. It is obvious that this is one of Christianity’s greatest failures. Down through the centuries and in our own day, Catholics and other Christians have a sad history of tribalism, a spirit of "us" against "them" that makes us fall short of the ideal. It’s not surprising that we stumble. In asking us to go beyond tribalism, Jesus asks us to overcome a basic human instinct. It’s like when he asks us to overcome such feelings as the desire for revenge. Don’t be fooled by the common saying that "all religions say the same thing." They don’t. Christianity is a very idealistic, demanding faith. Without God’s grace, we couldn’t even come close to living up to it. But the good Samaritan did. And what Jesus said to the lawyer, he says to you and me: "Go, and do the same." James DiGiacomo, S.J.
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