I've often thought there are few things more exasperating than asking a question and not getting a real answer – whether what one gets is no answer at all or an evasive kind of answer or (worst of all) instead of an answer another question throwing it all back at you. So I suspect the lawyer in today’s Gospel [Luke 10:25-37] may well have been very exasperated indeed!
After all, the question he’d asked was a perfectly legitimate one to ask of a religious authority figure: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus, however, had answered him with a question of his own, putting all the onus back on him: What is written in the law? How do you read it?
Now the lawyer certainly knew his subject. Having had the ball thrown back at him, he took it and (as they say) ran with it – and ran rather well, judging from Jesus’ approving reply, You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.
Not a bad answer top get from Jesus anytime!
But, of course, the lawyer had answered correctly because he had been properly taught in the first place. Properly instructed in the Jewish law, he could quote it correctly and well. But the Gospel says he wished to justify himself, and so he demanded further clarification. The law says to love my neighbor as myself. OK then, exactly who is my neighbor.
This time, Jesus replied at length, but with a story, a parable, the one we call the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”
At this distance of some 2000 years almost, we’ve all heard it so many times, that we already know the story. So we are not surprised when a Samaritan appears as the good guy in the story. So we call it the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” conveniently forgetting or ignoring what a complete contradiction in terms a “Good Samaritan” would have seemed to Jesus’s audience.
Of course, our only experience of Samaritans is this parable and others like it. We haven’t experienced the way the lawyer and the rest of Jesus’s audience would have experienced them – as permanent ethnic and religious enemies (something like the way Sunnis and Shiites see each other today).
And so we miss the surprise in the story – and so miss the parable’s point, its invitation to think about things in a very new way.
And, as the title we give it suggests, we also see the story from the Samaritan’s perspective – forgetting that Jesus’ hearers would not have known in advance who the hero was going to be and would have heard the story from the victim’s perspective.
Let’s remember the point at issue. It’s a discussion about the law, the Old Testament law of love for God and neighbor. Jesus never answered the lawyer’s original question. He let the lawyer himself do that. We don’t need Jesus to quote the Bible to us. We can do that ourselves. But we do need Jesus to make the commandments come alive in our world – to tell us who is our neighbor.
The problem is that, like the lawyer, when we ask that question, we mean “To whom am I obligated in some way?” The ordinary logic of our ordinary world asks: “Is this man left on the road my neighbor? Do I have to help him? Is that something he’s owed – by me? In other words, what is the moral minimum that I as a conscientious person am obliged to do?
But, if you look at it from a different angle, if you look at it from the perspective of the man left on the road, then your question will be a very different one. Jesus has subtly shifted the focus from neighbor as an object of obligation, someone to whom something may be owed, if perhaps grudgingly, to neighbor as someone who acts on your behalf, someone who intervenes and saves, someone who comes close enough to touch me and become my friend.
As everyone listening would have understood, in an ordinary world both the priest and the Levite had legitimate reasons to pass by and stay on the opposite side. To do their jobs, they had to be ritually pure, which precluded contact with corpses ( a real danger since the victim, we’re told, was left half-dead). The Samaritan, however, was already impure – just by being a Samaritan. So he had nothing to lose by touching the wounded man – nothing, that is, except his right to remain free and aloof.
But the point of the parable, of course, is that he did not remain free and aloof! The stranger became a neighbor!
Jesus’ parable portrays otherwise ordinary people in an otherwise ordinary world – in which nothing is ordinary anymore. It gives us a glimpse of how God acts – as seen in the actions of Jesus. The question for us is whether we want to be part of that new world.
To ask, as the lawyer did, what my minimum obligation is to another presumes we see ourselves as free individuals for whom the connections involved in community with others are a burdensome obligation to be kept to a minimum. That is the logic of our ordinary world – very much so in our contemporary world in which social networks and community connections are increasingly damaged and in decline. It was to counter that logic that this past Monday Pope Francis made his first pastoral visit outside of Rome, a pastoral visit of great symbolic and social significance to a Mediterranean island which serves as one of the primary European entry points for immigrants from North Africa, a site associated with the sorts of human tragedies that often threaten immigrants, where hundreds of migrants have drowned or gone missing in this past year alone. Celebrating Mass there on an altar built from an old fishing boat, the Pope lamented: "We have become used to other people's suffering, it doesn't concern us, it doesn't interest us, it's none of our business!"
Such is the moral logic of our ordinary world.
But the God who is no longer a stranger, because he has made himself our neighbor in Jesus, has given us – in Jesus – a glimpse of God’s logic in God’s kingdom.
And so, says Jesus, finally answering the question: Go and do likewise.
Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 14, 2013.