Sunday, July 11, 2010

Homily 15th Sun O.T. Year C: The Good Samaritan

    This parable today, of the Good Samaritan, is like the Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats – they are so memorable they have almost become part of Catholic "pop culture." We could easily think, "Oh, I've heard that one before, I know what it means" and tune it out. Last summer I had an experience of this. I was at Creighton University in Omaha, NE for a spiritual formation program with about 300 other seminarians from across the country. At the beginning of the summer we had an 8 day silent retreat. Each day consisted of four holy hours in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, each hour centered on a particular scripture passage. One of them was the Parable of the Prodigal Son and I thought "Oh, great, I have to pray over this silently for an hour? What else could I possibly get out of it?" But, by opening myself up to Jesus in quiet prayer, I began to see it in a much deeper way and returned to it over and over. This is what we should do today, or any time when we think we already have a parable or a passage figured out. That kind of attitude, already, is an invitation to go even deeper. I typically don't like to just retell the readings in a homily, because you all listened to them once already! But this warrants a re-telling so that we can uncover its deeper meaning.

    A scholar of the Old Testament law approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus essentially answers, "You tell me!" The first part of the scholar's answer is a no-brainer for any Jew: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, …soul,…strength,…and mind." A faithful Jew prayed these very words from the Book of Deuteronomy twice every day. But this scholar, a pious Jew, who understood the true spirit of the law, added onto the end a reference to the Book of Leviticus, "and [you shall love] your neighbor as yourself." It would have been very unexpected for a Jew to make this connection. In fact none of the writings of the rabbis from this period made this connection: Loving God necessarily involves loving our neighbor.

    But who is my neighbor? For the Jews, one's neighbor was a fellow countryman or a pilgrim in his country. It did not include those outside of Israel, those who were non-Jews, or who were sinners. Their whole concept of holiness involved being faithful to God by avoiding contact with those who could lead them away from Him or who could make them ritually impure. And this wasn't necessarily a bad approach because the Jews were influenced so greatly by the pagan worship of those who conquered them or surrounded them. So, contrary to what we might immediately think, we shouldn't resent the priest and the Levite for passing by the man who had been robbed, stripped, beaten, and left half dead. The law dictated that they should only have contact with the corpses of their immediate family or else they would be impure for worship. But Jesus teaches the scholar and us that the bar has been raised. Holiness was once found adequately in acts of strict obedience to the law. Now it must be found in acts of mercy for all people, especially those in need, whether they are a part of the same community or not. And Jesus used the example of a Samaritan, a nationality hated by the Jews, to make this point.

    In the Book of Sirach, chapter 50, verses 25 through 26, the author gives praise and thanks to God and asks Him to bless all of mankind. But then he says, "My whole being loathes two nations, the third is not even a people: Those who live in Seir and Philistia, and the degenerate folk who dwell in Shechem." Those "degenerate folk who dwell in Shechem" who are "not even a people" are the Samaritans. We would understand then if the Good Samaritan ran right past the fallen Jew as well, in order not to be seen or persecuted. But, moved with great pity and mercy at the sight of the man's suffering, the Samaritan dresses his wounds with oil and wine, takes him to an inn, and gives the innkeeper two whole days wages, enough to pay for several days lodging. He even offers to pay more if needed. He did not simply bandage the man and move on, he made sure he would be increased to full vigor. The scholar, no doubt humbled by Jesus' use of a Samaritan to explain the type of behavior which merits eternal life, answers correctly that it was he who was the victim's true neighbor, not the victim's fellow countrymen, the priest and the Levite.

    Now, again, just a surface reading of this parable could lead us to resent the priest and the Levite and to simply admire the Samaritan for his good deed and close the book at that. But we must also appreciate the need for ritual purity at that time, the courage that it took for the Samaritan to act, and what neighborliness and holiness truly are: Love and Mercy toward all in need. But, we can go even deeper still because the early Church Fathers, like St. Augustine, saw this not only as a parable, but as an allegory: the characters and the objects in the story represent spiritual meanings. By looking at the spiritual meaning we are taught not only how to love and who to love. We are taught also that we should receive love.

    For St. Augustine, the man robbed, beaten, and left half dead represents Adam who, through his Original Sin, is beaten by Satan, robbed of immortality, and left half dead to sin. The priest and the Levite represent the Old Testament laws and regulations which were unable to heal man's soul and raise him to new life. But, the Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ, who comes to man's side as his neighbor in order to rescue him from death. He doesn't simply restore mankind to level zero, he increases him by taking him to the inn, which is the Church. There we are healed by the oil, wine, and refreshment of the seven sacraments. And for such gratuitous gifts he paid not two silver coins, or two days wages, but the infinite price of his Precious Blood. And he promised to continue to nourish us, whenever we need it, through the innkeeper, the ordained priesthood, which continues his ministry until the end of time.

    The Parable of the Good Samaritan is much more than a generic command to just "love everyone." Each of us, personally, is offered love in a concrete way through the sacramental life of the Church and has a commitment to it. The Church and the sacraments are God's great and superabundant gifts of love and mercy for each of us. Do we let Jesus heal us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or are we content with our sins and the havoc they cause, telling him to move on down the road – "No help needed here." Do we allow Jesus to heal us of our venial or "minor" sins by worthily receiving Holy Communion, or do we persist in serious sins which close us off from being able to receive Him? Do we ask Jesus for his healing oil in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick whenever we begin to be in danger of death from sickness or old age? Or do we receive it when our health is not seriously impaired or worse, put it off, thinking, "Oh, that's just for those who are dying." We are given so many graces through the sacraments and all of the prayers, devotions, and blessings of the Church's Tradition that there is no reason why we can't live life not only restored, but increased and strengthened by God's own Divine life. Do we help others to receive this new life? Do we take our children or grandchildren to confession monthly? Do we take them to daily Mass when they are home from school? Do we pray with them at home or at Church or encourage them to receive the sacraments often and worthily? Our Lord wants to be the Good Samaritan to us who are wounded by our sins and weaknesses. Let him take you to the inn, to the Church, which is not a haven for saints, but a hospital for sinners.

Listen to this homily: Recorded mp3

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