“Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Read the complete readings)
“Go and do likewise.”
Not “Go and think likewise.” Not “Agree with the moral of this story” or “Find stories like this inspiring.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ best-known, most beloved parables. We all love stories of modern-day Good Samaritans — like that German rescue-boat captain, Carola Rackete, who rescued scores of migrants and refugees last month who were stranded in the Mediterranean, dying of thirst.
She was arrested for violating a blockade, but a little over a week ago a judge freed her, saying that she had only been carrying out her duty to protect life. Those people would have died if she hadn’t rescued them. Clearly a Good Samaritan.
And we could all nod our heads and say “Good for her.” But no one inherits eternal life by having the right ideas.
Jesus told this parable to help explain his answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s a practical question: There’s something we must do. But what? What must we do?
What Does the Parable Really Mean?
Does the parable mean helping strangers lying on the side of the road? Or just generally helping people who need our help whenever we have the chance?
That’s part of it, yes. If we see people in need and aren’t willing to help them, how can we be saved?
On the other hand, we can help people in need all day every day and never enter the kingdom of God.
What does the parable mean? Does it mean overcoming prejudice, crossing social dividing lines, uniting people separated by boundaries of nationality or race or whatever it may be?
Again, that’s part of it. Remember, Samaritans and Jews were enemies; Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans, St. John tell us when Jesus was speaking with the Samaritan woman.
In Christ There Is No “Us” or “Them”
It’s no accident that Jesus made the good neighbor in this parable a Samaritan! Our Lord came to break down dividing walls between peoples. Between Jews and Gentiles. Between “us” and “them” — whoever “us” and “them” may be. St. Paul, in our second reading today, proclaims that in Christ
all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.
He goes on in the same passage:
And you — you Gentiles, you non-Jews — who once were alienated and hostile in mind because of evil deeds he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through his death.”
Who was reconciled? We were all reconciled to God, but also to one another: Jews and Gentiles; men and women; rich and poor; black, white, brown, Asian…
So the parable of the Good Samaritan does challenge us to look at a stranger, a potential enemy, and to see a neighbor. If we aren’t willing to do that, how can we be saved? On the other hand, it’s possible to spend your life fighting prejudice and divisions and never enter the kingdom of God.
What Must We Do to Enter the Kingdom of God?
In another Gospel, speaking to the rich young ruler who had spent his life keeping the Ten Commandments, Jesus said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Would you be shocked if I said we can give away all we have and still not enter the kingdom of God? St. Paul tells us exactly that in the most famous chapter of the New Testament — a chapter almost all of you, if not all, have heard at weddings.
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not…” What? Love. If I have not love, I gain nothing.
Let’s look again at today’s Gospel. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Does Jesus turn immediately to the parable of the Good Samaritan? No! “What is written in the law?” he asks. And the scholar answers:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
“You have answered correctly,” our Lord says. “Do this, and you will live.”
The Master Commandment
Love of God and love of neighbor is the one thing necessary if we would enter the kingdom of God. Not only is this the greatest commandment, it’s the great commandment, the master commandment — the one that sums up the whole law. St. Paul says:
He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:8–10; cf. Galatians 5:14)
“And who is my neighbor?” The scholar wants to limit his obligations. Surely there are limits! My neighbors are my fellow Israelites … my fellow Catholics … my fellow Americans. People outside that scope … their problems are not my problems.
And now Jesus tells the parable.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Is my neighbor anyone who needs my help? Yes.
Is it people who are separated from me by social dividing lines? Yes.
Is it anyone else?
Let me cut to the chase: Whoever we tend not to regard as our neighbor? That’s our neighbor. Whoever we find hardest to love, if not easiest to hate; whoever we struggle to forgive, to pray for: that’s who the parable tells us we need to love.
They may be people struggling on the bottom rungs of society: people regarded as undesirables, perhaps with habits or histories that make it hard for us to love them.
Or they could be people at the top, rolling in wealth and power and privilege, all too often using that power in ways that, again, make it hard to love them.
Or it could be someone much closer to home: a parent or sibling, a cousin or an aunt or uncle, who seems to make everything harder than it needs to be.
It could be someone at church, a fellow parishioner or perhaps a deacon or a priest! Or maybe someone at work or in our neighborhood — even our literal next-door neighbor, the one who’s made life a trial ever since they moved in.
That’s who we have to love.
Impossible … But Not Too Hard
How? The Lord commands it, but can we love on command? What if I don’t love my neighbor as myself? What if I don’t love my enemies? Isn’t that too hard?
Oh, no. It’s not too hard. It’s impossible, but not too hard.
Naturally speaking, loving our neighbor is impossible because in ourselves we don’t have it in us. But it’s not too hard because God who is love loved us first, as unlovable as we were and are still capable of being.
God has made us his children by adoption through baptism. We have been born of God. We share in his life and love. It grows in us through frequent participation in the sacraments, through prayer, through good works, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
He who loves us loves them too — those we find hardest to love — and to love him, to return his love, means to love them. Not in our own strength, but with the strength and love of Christ himself, Christ in us.
You Have Only to Carry it Out
Let’s go to St. John, the Apostle of Love.
In his beautiful letter, First John, near the end of the New Testament — it’s not long; you could go home read the whole thing in probably less than 15 minutes — he writes over and over about three things: loving God; keeping his commandments; and loving others.
Except they aren’t three separate things. They’re inseparable!
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.
If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
It’s not burdensome. It’s not too hard. It’s impossible, but not hard. It’s like Moses’ words to the people in the first reading:
For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky … or across the sea … No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.