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Week Four: Christ the Good Samaritan
In this fourth week of retreat, I would like to reflect with you about a Gospel story that is very familiar to us. It is a passage that has spoken to many people through the centuries about who Christ is, the character of his relationship with us, and the mission he gives us. I believe that it is a helpful text for us to turn to in this final week of retreat. It is, however, a passage that we could easily gloss over because it is so familiar to us. We could miss out on its power and impact. I invite you to reflect on this story as if you were reading it for the first time.
Read Luke 10: 25-37. (Online Bible Resource).
The setting for the famous parable of the Good Samaritan is introduced with a question. It is a rather deep, penetrating question raised by a scholar of the Law of Moses. We do not know exactly why he posed this question to Jesus. Was it a theological query – an academic question on a disputed issue of legal interpretation? Or was his question more personal and sincere, reflecting something quite profound about this man’s search for God? Whatever his motivation, he actually asks Jesus two very essential questions. These are questions that get right to the heart of life. First of all, he asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, how do I need to live to be in right relationship with God in this life and the next? This is a question that each of us has asked many times, even if we have never articulated it in these exact terms.
Second, this scholar of the Law asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Who are those people who should be the recipients of my love, my compassion? Luke tells us that the lawyer asked this second question because he wanted to justify himself. He wanted to “get the whole thing straight.” Maybe he was one of those people who cannot live with any loose ends. All of us know such people. They are unable to live with any ambiguity. They need to have everything all tied up in a neat package. Or perhaps, like us at times, this man just felt overwhelmed by the needs of those around him and knew he could not respond to every need. So he wanted his duties and obligations precisely specified. Sometimes we feel this way when we receive multiple appeals for charitable aid and we have to make difficult choices between worthy causes.
To answer his questions, Jesus tells him a story. Weaving a powerful, arresting story was something Jesus loved to do. You and I have heard this story countless times – the story of the Good Samaritan. The term “good samaritan” has made its way into secular parlance, even for those who don’t profess religious belief. Many think of this Gospel story as a “nice” story. For Jesus’ hearers, however, this story would not have sounded so nice. It would have been shocking to them. It probably made many of his hearers very angry.
The scholar of the Law and the other listeners would most likely have been thinking: “Jesus, how can you possibly tell us a story about love of neighbor and have the hero be a Samaritan? Don’t you know what those people are like? What they have done to us through the centuries? Jesus, don’t you have a clue? They are heretics, traitors, our bitter, spiteful enemies. When our ancestors were exiled to Assyria, they intermarried with foreign settlers and gave up our heritage. They sold out. In later centuries, they opposed our efforts to rebuild our country and renew our religious practice. Jesus, how can you possibly tells us a story about love of neighbor that makes a priest and a Levite look so bad and a Samaritan look so good?”
If Jesus’ hearers had sentiments like these, they would have been right. In the minds of observant Jews, Samaritans had a very checkered history. And this anonymous Samaritan character looks amazingly good in the story. In the first place, he should not have been on this dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was a road famous for bandits and unsafe for Samaritans. And the response of this hated heretic is filled with extraordinary compassion. He stops for this bleeding victim of violence. He approaches him and tends to his wounds. He cares for the wounds of a Jew who would have considered this Samaritan “unclean” under normal circumstances and may well have been frightened of him. He takes time with this wounded man. Healing takes time; it often takes a long time for us. And this Samaritan takes the time to lift this bleeding man onto his animal, take him to the inn and promise to visit again on his way back.
Another unusual, far-fetched story told by this unpredictable teacher, Jesus!! It would be as if Jesus tried to illustrate the meaning of love of neighbor by telling you and me a story about a militant atheist who stopped to take care of an American Catholic businessman who had been mugged on a city street.
Jesus is quite clever and creative in the stories that he tells. He often seems to turn things on their head – upside down. He does that with the question that the lawyer asks him. The lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” In that question, “neighbor” is a noun (remember your English grammar!). He wants to know who fits into this category of neighbor, of those whom I must love as myself. But through the story Jesus changes the word “neighbor” from a noun almost to a verb. The Samaritan became neighbor through his compassionate action. It is no longer a question of identifying someone out there who is or who is not my neighbor. “Neighbor” is something inside of us. It is an attitude, a way of being, expressed in concrete actions . Neighbor is someone you become by doing.
What should we do with this story? How should we wrestle with it today, especially as we make this retreat together? In the early Church, many famous teachers loved this story. In re-telling it, they gave a name to this fictional character. They put a face on this Good Samaritan. And they loved to gaze on that face and to help others do so. They took a long, loving look at this face. The name they gave the Good Samaritan wasJesus Christ . It was the face of their crucified and risen Lord, the Lord who is risen with his wounds. For many theologians and spiritual writers of the early Church, it was Jesus himself who was the first and the preeminent Good Samaritan.
Listen to the way in which an influential third century theologian reflected on this parable. Origen of Alexandria (Egypt) was a brilliant biblical scholar and theologian who wrote a famous homily on this parable. He cites a tradition that likens the man wounded and left half-dead to Adam. Adam, the first human being, was wounded by sin and vice. The man left half-dead by the roadside actually represents a wounded humanity. The priest who does not stop to help represents the Law. The Levite symbolizes the prophets. Something, someone, greater than the Law and the Prophets is needed to save this humanity so sorely wounded. The Samaritan, the one who stops and draws near, is Christ the Son of God who became incarnate for our sake. He drew near to us in order to become our neighbor. Origen says that Christ, our Good Samaritan, bears our sins and grieves for us. He comes to the wounded man and brings him to the inn, which Origen believed represented the Church. The Church is meant to be the place of refuge where everyone is accepted and help is denied to no one. Origen proceeds to exhort his hearers to imitate Christ the Good Samaritan and to show compassion for those who have “fallen among thieves.” Christians are called to draw near to these people, to bind their wounds, put them on our own beasts, and bear their burdens.
In our own personal lives of faith, it is important for us to recognize that Christ the Good Samaritan stops for us. Each of us has had our own personal moments when we have been “lying by the roadside”: moments of anxiety and confusion; times when were in need of Christ’s forgiveness; experiences of facing illness and dealing with the loss of loved ones. Usually through other people, Christ has stopped for us to be a source of healing. It is through our awareness of his being Good Samaritan for us that you and I are empowered to stop for others by the roadside.
One more story. This is a true story about someone who influenced my life when I was studying to be a priest. He was a Passionist priest who died of a brain tumor not long after I was ordained. Flavian Dougherty, CP, had been the Provincial Superior of the Passionist community when I first entered it as a college student. “Flav” was one of those larger-than-life people we sometimes meet. Robust, talented, enthusiastic, he was a born leader who could light up a room with a story or joke and just by his presence. He had been an all-city high school quarterback in Philadelphia who could have played big-time college football but chose to enter the seminary after high school. He remained a great competitor all through his life. I remember playing tennis with him when I was a student. The match resembled something like trench warfare, with neither of us willing to give an inch!
After Flavian finished his terms as Provincial Superior he moved to Chicago, where I was studying theology. In his new ministry, he became actively involved with the community of disabled persons. He met with them regularly, listened to their concerns about life, society and the Church, and worked diligently with them. He learned a great deal from these people with physical and mental disabilities. Flavian often spoke about how much he learned from these people, how much he learned even about God and his Christian faith. Along the way, he became an advocate for their well-being and rights. He petitioned the Chicago Transit Authority to provide more adequate bus service for persons in wheelchairs. He was instrumental in securing funding for an apartment complex to be built that was specially designed for persons with disabilities. He persuaded pastors that it was okay for a person in a wheelchair or with braces to be a lector at the eucharist. He even began a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for persons with disabilities. Flavian never seemed to see these activities as a burdensome chore. Rather, he received new life and enthusiasm from his interaction with these people. All his life, Flavian remained the “quarterback” leading his “team” down the field. This time, however, his “team” was comprised of persons with disabilities.
After years of ministerial assignments in other cities, I returned to live and minister in Chicago in 2004. I often walk down the street and pass by the apartment complex for persons with disabilities that Flavian was instrumental in having built. It is still filled to capacity. It makes me think of him and of what he taught me. I can picture this healthy, energetic man sitting at the dinner table next to a person with the most severe disability. A person who on the surface looked so entirely different from Flavian. I can picture Flavian taking time with this person, listening to her, learning from her. Flavian was never able to bind up the wounds of these people and send them on their way. He knew well that he could not fix their disabilities. But he knew he could stop for them, listen to them, learn from them. He allowed himself to be moved to compassion and in that he became an instrument of healing. Flavian became neighbor to these persons with disabilities. In so doing, he discovered hope and renewal in his own life. Flavian taught me a great deal about the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He taught me about gazing on the face of Christ the Good Samaritan and seeking to imitate Christ in my own life.
During times of retreat, we often come into closer touch with some of the wounds in our own lives. That is a very common experience for people on retreat. We encounter some of the marks of the crucifixion that we bear in our minds, bodies and spirits. That may have happened for you if you participated actively in this online retreat. The healing that Christ offers us is not magical. It is not like “divine plastic surgery” that makes the wounds we bear simply disappear. Many of the wounds and burdens that we bear are things with which we struggle all our lives. And the scars of those wounds may remain with us. The healing that Christ offers us is the hope and the energy that allows us to move forward in life. He empowers us to move on with the trust that he walks with us all along the way. We can be confident that he continues to stop for us and to look on us with compassion. Because of the presence and grace of Christ in our lives, we do not have to remain stuck, imprisoned, in the past. We do not have to remain fixated on the negative. Because of the presence of Christ the Good Samaritan, we can move forward in freedom.
Christ also commissions each of us to become mediators of his compassion to a good but wounded world. Ours is a world that is holy but that is also in need of the healing, life and redemption that Christ alone can offer. Christ sends us to our homes and our neighborhoods where it is all too easy to cultivate prejudice toward those who are different from us, toward the “Samaritans” in our own society. We are sent to a society in which human life is threatened in all its stages, from conception until death. The society in which we live is one in which people seem to find it increasingly inconvenient to reverence the gift of human life. There is certainly a great deal of beauty in the world in which we live. There is much that is good and life-giving in our culture. As Christians we need to recognize and to prize that goodness. At the same time, the world in which we live is in need of Christ the Good Samaritan. And the hands of Christ the Good Samaritan are your hands and my hands. The compassionate gaze of Christ is offered to people today through your eyes and my eyes. Christ takes our hands and uses them to tend to the wounds of those who lie by the roadside in our world. Christ the Good Samaritan acts through you and me, as we learn what it means to be neighbor to those around us.
“The Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him.” Lord Jesus, risen with the marks of your crucifixion, you have been Good Samaritan to us, you have been neighbor to me. Show me how to become neighbor to those to whom you send me this day. Remind me to stop and not to rush on in haste. Give me your eyes to look with compassion on those in need. Give me your hands to tend to the wounds of those who need to see you in seeing me. For I want to be a friend to you, and a neighbor to them. Renew in me the grace of your friendship that will enable me to be neighbor to those around me.
Reflection during the week (Online Bible Resource)
Tuesday – Read the parable of the Good Samaritan again. Think about the moments in your own life in which you have been the person in need and Christ has stopped for you. How has that happened for you? Express your thanks to Christ for being the Good Samaritan in your life.
Wednesday – Read Matthew 25: 31-46. This famous scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew bears similarities to the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke. Christ explicitly identifies himself with those who suffer from hunger, thirst, homelessness, imprisonment, etc. In responding to them we are responding to Christ. In your prayer, think about one or two people in your own life who need you to be neighbor to them at the present moment. Pray for these people and ask Christ for the grace to know how to be Good Samaritan to them.
Thursday -- Read Matthew 28: 16-20. This is the scene of the “great commissioning” in which the Risen Jesus sends out his disciples to continue his work in the world, promising to be with them always in that work. As you draw this retreat to a close, ask the Lord for deeper insight into your own participation in his mission. How is Christ calling you to share the grace of this retreat with others to whom he sends you?
Friday – Read Ephesians 3: 14-21. We reflected on this Scripture passage during the first week of retreat. How has this experience of retreat enabled you to come to a deeper appreciation of the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge? What have the graces of this retreat experience been for you? Give thanks to God for those graces. Renew your commitment to friendship with Christ and to service in his name.