Homily: The Good Samaritan, violence, race, and politics

What it means to love our enemies

The good Samaritan heals the traveller (Nicolaes Roosendael, 1665)
The good Samaritan heals the traveller (Nicolaes Roosendael, 1665) (photo: Screenshot)

Note: I share this lightly edited text of today’s homily, the second of my fledgling diaconal ministry, with some misgivings. Although I was asked to post the text online by a number of people, as a neophyte homilist I am uncomfortable sharing like this what is only my second effort, which I do not consider an exemplary or model work in any way. Be that as it may, the message is topical to the present moment, and will never be more applicable than it is right now. If I did nothing else in this homily, I tried to express something of what I believe today’s Gospel has to say to us today, so the time to share it is now. — SDG

You might have missed a story this past week from Texas involving law enforcement officers and criminals. Not the story in Dallas, of course. You probably didn’t miss that one … or the tragic events in Louisiana, Minnesota, and elsewhere.

This is a Good Samaritan story from the courthouse of Parker County, Texas, where eight convicts in a holding cell noticed the armed guard outside their cell slump in his chair and lose consciousness. They called to the guard, shouted for help, and finally forced open the cell door. Still shackled, they found the guard had no pulse, and began shouting and banging on the walls. Finally some deputies heard the commotion and came running.

Those prisoners could easily have stayed behind bars. The deputies, who had no idea why the prisoners had broken out of their cell or why the guard was unconscious, might have shot first and asked questions later. Thank God they didn’t. The prisoners went quietly back to their cell and deputies started CPR; paramedics arrived, used a defibrillator, and saved the guard’s life. When asked why they went out on a limb for a guard, one of the prisoners, a meth addict, said, “That’s a good man. He saves lives.”

The phrase “good Samaritan” has become part of our language. Anyone who helps a stranger, like those prisoners helping the guard, is a “good Samaritan.” There are “good Samaritan laws” to protect people who take a chance helping strangers, and so forth.  

And all this familiarity, ironically, can make it hard for us to see clearly what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel and what the Gospel is saying today. Sometimes Bible stories we’ve heard all our lives we know so well that we don’t see them at all, because we no longer see how surprising they are, and certainly how surprising they were at the time.

The paradox of the “good Samaritan”

Take that phrase “Good Samaritan.” Who were the Samaritans? You might remember in the Gospel a few weeks ago Samaritan villagers wouldn’t welcome Jesus because he was on his way to Jerusalem, and James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on them. In John’s Gospel the Samaritan woman at the well is amazed when Jesus asks her for a drink, because as John tells us Jews and Samaritans have nothing to do with one another. Even Jesus tells the woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we Jews worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”

Later in John’s Gospel, when angry Jewish leaders want to throw the worst insult they can at Jesus, they say, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” You don’t just have a demon, you’re a Samaritan with a demon!

Samaritans to the Jews were heretics, half-heathens — literally half-foreign offspring of Jews intermarrying with foreign colonists at the time of the Assyrian conquest. The bottom line is to Jews in Jesus’ day the idea of a good Samaritan was almost a paradox. It would be like if Jesus were preaching in India and told the upper castes a story about a good “untouchable.”

Or if he were in America, say, 150 years ago, and saw signs in shop windows and classified ads with the letters N.I.N.A. — no Irish need apply — he might have told the parable of the good Irishman. Half a century later, it might have been the good Italian.

If Jesus were preaching in America today, who would the parable be about? Depending on the neighborhood, it might be the good undocumented Latino…or the good Muslim refugee. In some college classrooms where you’re considered a terrible person if you follow the teachings of Jesus, it might be the parable of the good Christian! Who would it be for us? For me or for you?

The story of sin and salvation: division and reconciliation

In this election year battle lines are being drawn over political views. And this week, there was a terrible blow to already strained relations between black Americans in particular and police officers, and to race relations generally. So often people look at each other over these dividing lines, and many others, and instead of seeing a neighbor to be loved, they see an enemy.

The revolutionary message of the Gospel, according to St. Paul, is that Jesus has come not only to reconcile humanity to God, but also to remove the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, and every other kind of social division or barrier, so that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, no rich or poor, no man or woman, no free or slave.

The story of sin is the story of division, alienation, estrangement: First man was alienated from God: Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden of Eden. Then man and woman are alienated from each other: Adam blames Eve for giving him the fruit. Then it’s brother versus brother: Cain kills Abel. Death, the wages of sin, is the separation of the soul from the body. And at the Tower of Babel the whole human race is divided against itself as the speech of men is confused and all go their separate ways, splitting up into separate peoples, nations, tongues, and tribes, everyone against everyone else.

The story of salvation is the story of union, reconciliation, coming together. First God unites humanity to divinity by taking on our human nature in the Incarnation, becoming a man in Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus reconciles fallen men to God by bringing forgiveness for sins. While we were still sinners and enemies of God, Jesus died for us on the cross — and then reunited body and soul forever in the glory of the resurrection.

And then he founded the Catholic Church. What does the word “Catholic” mean? It means universal. It means relating to all of humanity as well as the fullness of truth. Jesus is the universal Savior, the Savior of all mankind, Jew and Gentile, man and woman, black and white, Hispanic or Latino, Asian and Indian, rich and poor, old and young, slave and free.

On Pentecost — the birthday of the Church — the Holy Spirit falling from Heaven on the Apostles empowered them to preach to people from many different nations all over the known world in all their different languages, so that all heard the Gospel, and thousands were baptized into the Church. It was the reversal of the Tower of Babel: Language barriers were lifted as a miraculous sign of the Church’s mission to call the whole human race into one new people, the people of God, the Catholic Church.

Love of enemies

Pope Francis, preaching on this very Gospel, warns us that being religious doesn’t automatically translate into love of neighbor:

It is not automatic! You may know the whole Bible, you may know all the liturgical rubrics, you may know all theology, but from this knowledge love is not automatic…The priest and the Levite see but ignore; they look but they do not offer to help. Yet there is no true worship if it is not translated into service to neighbor…before the suffering of so many people exhausted by hunger, violence and injustice, we cannot remain spectators. What does it mean to ignore the suffering of man? It means to ignore God! If I do not draw close to that man, that woman, that child, that elderly man or woman who are suffering, I do not draw close to God.”

Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love? Jesus’ answer here is the most radical moral teaching in history. Many things Jesus taught were said by moral teachers before him, but not this. Remember, Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Jesus taught that we cannot love our neighbor and hate our enemy; we must love even our enemies.

This is such a hard teaching that we’ve defanged and declawed it by spiritualizing the word “love” away so it doesn’t make any demands on us. Christians have perfected the art of saying we love people when you’d never know it from our actions: how we treat them, how we talk about them, behind their back, to their face.

But Jesus tells us exactly what he means: Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other. If someone makes you go a mile, go two miles. If someone takes your coat, let him have the shirt off your back.

And the Galilean Jews Jesus was preaching to knew exactly what he was talking about. They had plenty of experience with people cursing and abusing them, striking them on the cheek, making them go a mile, commandeering coats, food, shelter or whatever else they needed. Who did all those things to the Jews? Roman soldiers.

Bad Roman soldiers, I mean, at least as regards the cursing and striking. There were good Roman soldiers. Roman soldiers came to hear John the Baptist and asked what they should do, and he told them: “Wrong no one by violence or false accusation; be content with your wages.” There was the Roman centurion who was beloved of the Jews of Capernaum, who had helped build their synagogue, and who gave us the words we say at every Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” Those words come from a Roman soldier!

Of course there were bad apples. And there were violent Jews called Zealots who wanted armed rebellion against the Romans — but Jesus says even when they harm you, do good, bless them, pray for them.

Following the good Samaritan today

Do you think this has any relevance to this week’s violence? To the good officers of the world, John the Baptist says what to do: Wrong no one by violence or false accusation. And to those who may be faced with bad cops, Jesus says what to do: Whether they’re good or bad, do good in return, bless them, pray for them.

This was hard in Jesus’ day and it’s hard today, especially when it seems like in many ways things are getting worse instead of better. St. Paul says in Romans, “Weep with those who weep.” A lot of people are weeping right now. We need to weep with them. Paul goes on, “Insofar as it depends on you, leave peaceably with all. Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What does all this mean in this election year? Does it mean say only nice things and don’t criticize and oppose bad candidates, bad agendas, bad laws? Of course not.

It does mean, to begin with, that we have to be as fair to the other side as we want them to be to us. If I don’t like it when other people misrepresent what I stand for, or ascribe bad motives or bad faith to me and my people, I need to be careful not to do those things to others.

It’s very easy to see an inflammatory article on Facebook about my enemies and hit the share button — but is the story true? Is it fair? Have I checked? Or if I see or hear my people attacking those on the other side, and I know what they’re saying isn’t true or fair or charitable, do I speak up? Am I willing to come to the aid of my enemy — like those prisoners did — if my friends are wrong?

If I don’t, am I following the example of good Samaritan, or that of the priest and the Levite, who saw the need, and just kept walking?