Margaret Thatcher once claimed that the Parable of the Good Samaritan showed Jesus’ endorsement of the benefits of capitalism! The then British Prime Minister argument ran that the hero of this famous story is the one who could afford to pay for the victim’s care. She surmised that the reason the Samaritan had the wherewithal to do such a charitable act was because he worked hard and saved his money wisely. Mrs. Thatcher said this central Christian parable was a justification of her government’s policies demanding that unemployed people work for social security and that they should be educated about saving their pennies. Politicians should be careful of using the bible to back up their positions. It has a habit of saying the opposite of what they think or want it too. Like many people, Lady Thatcher reads this parable in terms of charity, and even then she got it wrong. Jesus says it is a lesson in mercy. The difference matters. It is not by accident that the phrase "as cold as charity" is still current. Deciding on whom we will be kind to, just based on our warm "fuzzies" and the glow of our purses, may make us feel good; but it will result in a very wintry experience for the not-so-lucky recipient. When we "do" charitable things, we can often remain powerful and untouched by the situation of those our money helps. St. Thomas Aquinas, however, calls charity the mother of all virtues. He argues it is more concerned with the feelings of the heart than external action. Aquinas maintains that charity enables us to sort through our desires, to see what we really want--whom we actually love; it helps us use the other virtues to act accordingly. Christian charity is not a feel-good moment; it is a life-changing experience. Understood this way, the Good Samaritan can be a great example of charity, but quite differently from that outlined in the Gospel according to Margaret! For Jesus, nonetheless, he is a model of mercy. The Good Samaritan is not "good" because he has the money to act on what he sees. His greatness is that he has eyes to see it at all. To really see it. The Priest and the morality-teaching Levite pretend it’s not happening and walk on the other side of the road. But the most unlikely, the least liked person in Israel--a Samaritan--has the view of mercy. Christian tradition teaches us that mercy and justice are intertwined. Thomas Aquinas says that mercy helps us hear, and justice calls for us to do something. The Samaritan does what he can at the scene of the crime and then he takes the victim with him. He not only sees, but judges and acts. In doing so, he breaks nearly every religious and social law in the book; but it doesn’t matter. The virtues of mercy and justice enable us to see all sorts of things more clearly, even civil and religious laws that inhibit the justice of God. This entire episode in Luke’s Gospel is about the movement from an individualized faith, which can think that it is just "me and Jesus against the world," to a faith that goes out to the world acting mercifully and justly. This parable is about what we see, whom we love, and what we want to do about it. The example of the Good Samaritan should enliven our charity, mercy and justice; and it should challenge us to see clearly who needs to be carried with us on the Gospel road. Richard Leonard, S.J.
The Gospel according to Margaret