Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (EF), August 23, 2020 at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
Strangely, this parable of the Good Samaritan, familiar to us from childhood, makes no appearance in the three-year Sunday cycle of the lectionary of the calendar of the Ordinary Form of the Mass – although it does appear several times in the weekday lectionary. I say “strangely” because, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in one of his interviews, this Gospel pericope “is particularly attractive to contemporary man,”1 given the highly social dimension of this passage. It’s not a stretch to say that this is also probably the most anti-clerical passage of the New Testament as the representatives of “organized religion” – the priest and the Levite – are cast as the uncaring villains of the story.
This parable is found only in Luke, whom we might dub “the Evangelist of mercy,” but also the Evangelist who stresses, more than any other, the universality of the call of Christ, irregardless of ethnic or social identity. Hence, we find Our Lord setting up as the hero a “good Samaritan,” “good” since no Jew of the first century would expect to encounter any Samaritan who was good because, as a race, the Samaritans had sullied the Jewish blood line through intermarriage with Gentiles and had sullied the purity of the revealed religion of Judaism as well, these points undergirding Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel according to St. John (John 4). And, of course, we have the poor old Jewish fellow, who has been mugged by brigands (he would meet the same fate if he were living on the Upper West Side these days, eh?). So, now that we have the dramatis personae in place, where do we go with all this?
Jesus presents this parable because he has been goaded on by a lawyer who asks an important question, not to get a honest answer, but in order to get off the hook, personally: “Who is my neighbor?” St. John Paul II teaches us in Veritatis Splendor: “. . . it is significant that it is precisely the second of these commandments which arouses the curiosity of the teacher of the Law, who asks him: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Lk 10:29). The Teacher replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is critical for fully understanding the commandment of love of neighbour (cf. Lk 10:30-37)” (n. 14).
Therefore, from the very start, followers of Our Lord understood what the lawyer tried to evade: Everyone is my neighbor. And thus, charity and mercy have been the hallmarks of the Church as a body and of each of her members as individuals. That’s why Tertullian could recount how pagans were so impressed by the conduct of Christians, of whom they would say, “See how they love one another.” Christian love, however, is not limited to those who can produce a baptismal certificate; it is expansive, embracing every human being because the love of Christ is all-encompassing.
It is significant, but rarely remarked, that once the Church was able to emerge from the catacombs, she engaged in works of charity by founding schools, hospitals, and orphanages – institutions unheard of before the dawn of Christianity. To be sure, you could get a good education in the Greco-Roman world – if you could afford it; yes, you could obtain decent medical care – if you could afford it. That proud Christian heritage continues unabated to the present day; that is why the second largest employer in the State of New York today – after governmental agencies – is the Catholic Church. We can assert, without fear of contradiction, that were the Church to “go out of business” (per impossibile), civil government would never be able to absorb the children we educate in our superb schools or the sick of mind or body tended to in our hospitals, nursing homes, and various outreach programs of Catholic Charities. It could only thus have been immense ignorance (although not necessarily invincible ignorance) that would cause the Associated Press to question why Catholic institutions benefitted from the Paycheck Protection Program. It could only be malevolence of the first order that would try to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to act against their highly formed Catholic consciences.
What the Church does as an institution is possible because believers are convinced of the need to respond with generosity to Christ’s challenge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, instruct the ignorant. Christian charity, however, is not merely institutional; it is also personal: a slice of pizza and a cold drink to the hungry guy standing on the corner of 37th and Broadway; accompanying a sick person to a doctor’s appointment; manning a hot line for a pro-life outreach; sponsoring a scholarship, so that a needy kid can have the blessing of a Catholic education. We do good, not because our beneficiaries are Catholic, but because we are. That having been said, our works of charity are likewise works of evangelization. Let me offer two examples of what I mean.
As an Anglican clergyman, John Henry Newman was virulently anti-Catholic. As a young man, he and two friends went on a Mediterranean cruise, which included Sicily. Newman remained on and ended up contracting a very serious disease, which he thought deadly (truth be told, Newman was a bit of hypochondriac). At any rate, he was nursed back to health by a Catholic gentleman; that tender, loving care began to open the eyes of the young Newman: Perhaps these Catholics aren’t really so bad, after all. He reflects on this in one of his many poems composed on that trip; quite appropriately, it is entitled, “The Good Samaritan.” He laments the Church’s bad theology (in his opinion, at the time) but he is haunted by the many open churches bidding welcome; in the second verse, he reveals his willingness to consider a religion that produce someone like his kindly care-giver. Take a listen:
Oh that thy creed were sound!
For thou dost soothe the heart, thou Church of Rome,
By thy unwearied watch and varied round
Of service, in thy Saviour’s holy home.
I cannot walk the city’s sultry streets,
But the wide porch invites to still retreats,
Where passion’s thirst is calm’d, and care’s unthankful gloom.
There, on a foreign shore,
The home-sick solitary finds a friend:
Thoughts, prison’d long for lack of speech, outpour
Their tears; and doubts in resignation end.
I almost fainted from the long delay
That tangles me within this languid bay,
When comes a foe, my wounds with oil and wine to tend.
Yes, there comes an apparent “foe, my wounds with oil and wine to tend.”
A similar story is found in the life of Mother Seton. As you will recall, Elizabeth Ann Bayley married William Seton; they were part of the high society of Old New York and parishioners at the very “tony” Trinity Episcopal Street at the head of Wall Street. Quite unexpectedly, William took seriously ill and a change to a more moderate climate was recommended, bringing the young couple to Leghorn, Italy, becoming guests of some of their business friends. Elizabeth was singularly impressed by the kindness, attention and consideration William received from their Catholic hosts, the Filicchi Brothers (Antonio and Filippo) and Filippo’s wife Amabilia, causing Elizabeth to write to a friend, “Oh, my! The patience and more than human kindness of these dear Filicchis for us! You would say it was our Savior Himself they received in His poor and sick strangers.” Unfortunately, William died, however, the Christ-like solicitude of the Filicchi Family opened the mind and heart of the young widow to the Catholic Faith. A year later, she walked the few blocks from Trinity Church to St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street to make her profession of faith as a Catholic.
Cardinal Newman puts a finer point on all this. In his sermon, “Jewish Zeal, A Pattern for Christians,” he acknowledges that under normal circumstances, one might not associate with those whose beliefs do not correspond to our own. However, he maintains that the calculus changes when we find someone in difficulty:
But the case is very different where men are brought into extremity. God “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” [Matt. v. 45.] We must go and do likewise, imitating the good Samaritan; and as he thought nothing of difference of nations when a Jew was in distress, in like manner we must not take account of wilful heresy, or profaneness, in such circumstances.2
What he is calling for is the proffering of “disinterested” love, not “uninterested” but “disinterested,” which means a love that goes to the rescue without considering the worthiness or unworthiness of the one in need.
Now, we can ask, whence comes our ability to render such disinterested love? Many of the Fathers of the Church reflected on today’s parable in allegorical ways. Thus, the victim of the parable stands for fallen humanity after the sin of our first parents; the Samaritan is Christ, who is likewise the inn-keeper; the inn is the Church; the oil and wine represent the sacraments. Because Christ has come to our rescue – unworthy though we are – saving us by His passion, death and resurrection and tending to our daily needs in and through the Church’s sacraments, we are made whole, indeed, made holy. And so, we are able to perceive anyone in need as our neighbor and to respond with open hearts to the Master’s challenge, “Go, thou, and do the same.”
Again, in Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul observes that “the Evangelist [Luke] echoes the moral preaching of Christ, expressed in a wonderful and unambiguous way in the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:30-37) and in his words about the final judgment (cf. Mt 25:31-46).” Notice how the Holy Father links today’s parable with the final judgment. Simply put: The final exam on the last day will not be a test in dogmatic theology (that’s a given) but a test in moral theology – based on what we did or did not do for the Christ revealed in our neighbor. Or, as St. John of the Cross puts it so succinctly and eloquently: “In the twilight of life, we shall be judged on love.”
1Interview with Jacques Servais, October 2015.
2PPS 3:13, “Jewish Zeal, A Pattern for Christians.”
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