Many years ago a member of the parish to which I was assigned gave me a VHS video tape to watch. Yes, VHS, that’s how long ago it was. The video was home-made; it consisted of the parishioner complaining about changes in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. After watching a few minutes of it I understood completely the nature of his complaint.
He had grown up at a time when being a Catholic consisted solely of avoiding a list of sins and performing a list of required pious practices. Like playing Monopoly, or any other board game, if one followed the rules one was guaranteed some degree of reward. As it wasn’t possible for everyone to be the game’s winner, it was sufficient that one avoided being the game’s loser.
The Church of his childhood was neat and tidy, with a predictable and unchanging set of rules. He perceived the post-Conciliar Church to be a moral free-for-all in which nothing was certain. The actual state of the Church is a little more complex than that. The Second Vatican Council did not intend to abandon Catholic morality, as the man in the video surmised. Rather, the Council attempted to add a sense of covenant fidelity to Catholicism’s ethics. An illustration might be easier to understand than an abstract explanation.
At the time Jesus composed the parable in today’s Gospel reading, Judeans and Samaritans shared a set of Scriptures, a similar moral code and a hatred for one another. The priest and the Levite in the parable made a reasonable and wise choice. They avoided the robbers’ victim because of uncertainty about his identity (the man’s clothing had been stolen; as a consequence, it was impossible to know whether he was friend or foe).
The difference between the Samaritan and the Judean religious figures was that the Samaritan did not see his religion as consisting only of an ethics, and therefore, he did not see his religious ethics as static and restrictive. He was willing to go against common wisdom, and take the risk of helping the robbers’ victim – even if it meant helping someone who was a political enemy.
Jesus used this parable to explain his inclusive understanding of covenant fidelity to God. To “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind” requires that you love “your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) In Jesus’ mind, the designation “neighbor” referred to all people, but especially to the poor and the outcast. It was inconceivable to most Judeans that such a thing as a “good Samaritan” could exist. It was inconceivable to Jesus that such a thing as a good person could exist apart from an unconditional trustworthiness toward all people.
The religious authorities in Jerusalem, with whom Jesus had several conflicts over the nature of faithful religion, had created a very organized religious practice. The high degree of organization made their religious practice very manageable, and it provided them with a great deal of certainty about their own righteousness. Unfortunately, because it amounted only to avoiding a list of impious activities and performing a list of required devotions, it limited the scope of their religion to nothing more than their own activities. Their very tidy religious practice left little room for God because it was focused entirely on human accomplishments. Not coincidentally, their religious practice left little room as well for those who did not measure up to their exacting standards.
Jesus objected in the strongest possible terms to what the Jerusalem Pharisees had done. He found it scandalous that they had turned religion into a game in which the strongest competitors were guaranteed victory over the losers. He knew that, in the Scriptures, God consistently sided with losers and outcasts. For this reason, he preached a message of faithfulness to God and trustworthiness toward neighbor.
The fellow who gave me the video tape to watch was very uncomfortable with a version of Catholicism that makes demands beyond what can be easily managed in a day’s activities. Many of the Jerusalem Pharisees held the same opinion about religion. The attraction of this sort of religion is obvious: a static ethics is easy to accomplish. The failing of this sort of religion is equally obvious: it excludes both God and neighbor.
Jesus’ teachings reveal a simple truth about human relationships that is often overlooked. Jesus knew that there is a direct proportional correlation between one’s experience of other human persons and one’s experience of God. A choice to exclude people from one’s life is also and necessarily a choice to exclude God from one’s life. The positive expression of this truth is to say that holiness amounts to love of God and love of neighbor. (Luke 10:27-28)
Jesus’ vision of religion is one that is focused on others rather than self. To love God and neighbor requires more than merely completing a checklist of obligations and prohibitions. Rather than a spirit of competitiveness, Jesus’ teaching about faithful religion demands the complete donation of our lives to the project of loving God by serving our neighbor. Rather than some self-serving goal, the reward of faithful religion is the transformation of self and the entire universe.
We live at a time when it is popular, and enticing, to exclude from our lives the people who are different from us, who hold unfamiliar values and who strive for distant hopes. There might be a very high price attached to the sense of comfort and control that comes from excluding all but a few from our mercy and compassion: we might find ourselves to be among those excluded.
A note on the Scriptures:
The parable called “The Good Samaritan” features an unidentified man, some violent criminals, a Samaritan and two Judean religious figures. Judean religion and Samaritan religion were two, differing forms of Hebrew religion. The Judeans were the descendants of the Israelites who were repatriated to Jerusalem and Judea after the Babylonian Exile. The Samaritans were the descendants of the few Israelites who had escaped deportation at the time of the Exile. Both groups practiced Hebrew religion. Both groups used the Torah. Both groups ascribed to a similar ethics. The significant differences in the beliefs and religious practices of the two groups were the result two very different histories (one in exile and the other in desolation). At the time of Jesus’ ministry, Judeans and Samaritans had come to regard one another as heretics.
According to the ethics of Judeans and Samaritans at the time, the priest and the Levite in the parable made a reasonable and wise choice. The robbers’ victim had been stripped of his clothing. (Luke 10:30) At the time, one’s clothing was a statement about one’s origins and identity. As the robbers’ victim was unconscious he could not identify himself; the absence of his clothing provided the priest and the Levite with no information about his identity. They avoided the robbers’ victim due to fear that they might become unknowingly involved with someone who was an enemy of Judeans.
On the surface this parable is about ritual purity, that is, keeping the Judean kosher laws. Dead bodies (the robbers’ victim appeared dead or dying), non-Judeans (the Samaritan) and even objects belonging to non-Judeans (the Samaritan’s wine, oil and pack animal), could impart ritual impurity to any Judean who touched them. In the story, the priest and the Levite did the right thing by avoiding ritual impurity. The Samaritan, on the other hand, took an absurd risk. The Samaritan risked the consequences of offending an injured Judean and his family.
This was a very challenging ethical teaching. To suggest that it was acceptable to incur ritual purity, or that one should be merciful to one’s enemies, would have been very unpopular notions in Jesus’ lifetime. It is important to keep in mind, however, that parables are metaphors. Parables are fictional stories referring to something other than the elements composing the story. Therefore, this parable about ritual purity and ethics is obviously a reference to something other than ritual purity and ethics.
The parable about unlikely goodness in a Samaritan was occasioned by the law scholar’s attempt to gain an advantage over Jesus during a debate. The law scholar had asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) His concern seemed to have been more about personal gain than about fulfilling God’s will. Although Jesus approved of the scholar’s understanding of the Scriptures (Luke 10:27-28), the scholar’s second question (Luke 10:29), and Jesus’ parable, indicate that the scholar held a very narrow view of what constituted a holy life.
Jesus’ universal application of the obligation to show mercy to one’s neighbor was a reflection of his understanding of God. For Jesus, God was God of all, rather than God of the elite only. This is the lesson of the parable, namely, that superior ethical performance is no guarantee of fulfilling God’s will. Jesus knew God to be compassionate toward the unethical as well as the ethical. Righteousness, according to Jesus, is a matter of imitating God’s universal and unconditional mercy. (Luke 10:37)
Jesus did not intend to challenge only the ethics of the law scholar, but also to challenge his understanding of God’s nature. The challenge is addressed equally to us. What if God is someone other than the commonly held image of God as the judge-like source of eternal reward or punishment? Forgive the anthropomorphizing, but what if God is more humane than we tend to imagine God to be? What if God is deeply concerned with us as individuals, with all individuals, but not so concerned with our petty selfishness?
Jesus said that it is a pointless endeavor to try to win God’s favor by virtue of our own righteousness. It is a pointless endeavor for two inarguable reasons. First, God offers God’s favor to all, indiscriminately. Second, our struggle for righteousness is neither with God nor our neighbor. Our struggle is always with ourselves: to get past our self-righteousness, and to see ourselves as members of one family of God.