The risk we run right now is the one of reducing considerably the lasting, ongoing, shall I dare to say, relentless impact that the parable of the Good Samaritan must have in our life. We should never give in to the temptation to stop our ears and shut our heart to the call with which Jesus leaves us at the end of this most familiar parable.
“Go and do likewise.”
If that is crucial for our salvation we might want to remember that Jesus intends that urging to be lasting, ongoing, relentless as if saying: “Keep doing likewise; keep doing it around the clock as if your life depended on it.”
Let us start by reflecting on the intent and the inner disposition of the scholar, because it might reveal our own intent in what we do and in things that we should do, but fail to do. It might also reveal what lies at the root of many of our choices.
There could be indeed inner dispositions that determine our conduct but are still unknown to us and, thus, beyond our will do redress them. Whenever we are confused, or torn between two choices, or eager to justify our motivations and our actions, the Lord Jesus invites us to resort to the Word as the source of truth, light and resolve in choosing right: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
In telling the story that defines “our neighbor,” Jesus cuts right through all the vagueness, the uncertainty, the endless discussions with which experts like this scholar were engaged in without ever reaching the desired conclusion that had been pointed out by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:14: “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”
The definition of neighbor is well known to each one of us: it is already in our mouths, as we studied in our religion classes when we were kids and, whether we are willing to admit it or not, it is also written in our hearts. The law of love is physically written on scrolls; it is memorized in the classroom and repeated occasionally in our priests’ homilies but, most importantly, it is poured in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. (see Romans 5:5)
The scholar of the law thought that he could embarrass Jesus, but he found himself embarrassed by the Word made flesh. Hence, we better be careful not to ignore the written law of love, forget what we learned in church or in the catechism and, most significantly, we should never silence our heart. What a teacher Jesus always is!
We should never be so foolish as to try to justify ourselves if we fall short of loving any of our neighbors. The first detail mentioned by Jesus is that in genuine loving there is no need to identify our neighbor to make sure that he/she falls within our narrow definition of “neighbor.” At times it might be impossible to do so. For true Christian believers, every single person qualifies as “neighbor.” Actually, for us it should be an impossibility that we embrace and welcome fully.
The unfortunate victim of robbers was stripped naked. He had no telltale garment or headdress to prove his ethnic background. So the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan traveler had no way of determining if the unlucky man was a Jew, i.e. “neighbor,” a Samaritan, a Gentile, a stranger, a nomad or somebody else.
Lesson #1: the law of love makes no distinction, nor sets any boundaries of engagement. The law written in our hearts orders us to be neighbor to anyone in need.
Confronted by this unsettling and troubling situation, the priest and the Levite conveniently silenced the cry from their hearts and justified themselves by invoking very specific laws relative to ritual purity. The robbers’ victim could have been dead. Touching him would have made them impure and thus, incapacitated to offer God a lawful sacrifice prior to climbing back up to Jerusalem and undergoing lengthy rituals of purification. Unable to silence the law of love clamoring in their hearts they had to pass by on the opposite side of the road. They had to put physical distance between themselves and the man to whom the law in their hearts was telling them to draw near!
Lesson #2: the countless victims of violence, exploitation, indifference, greed and all other heartless dispositions will remain teetering between life and death for as long as we silence the law written in our hearts and manage to live with rationalizations, application of legalistic clauses and convenient justifications.
Jesus, as the consummate teacher and storyteller that he is levels the hastily-built tower of our disengagement by shattering our mindset. Logically, after a priest, a Levite, the third person coming down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho should have been a Jewish layperson. Instead the third one (who turns out to be the hero of the story) is a hated, despised, written-off heretic, a Samaritan!
Lesson #3: the law of love is such that it can be heeded by those whom we look down upon and be ignored by those whom we place on a pedestal.
The Samaritan draws near, that is, becomes “neighbor” to this unknown man in trouble. He responds to the law written in his heart; he is moved with compassion; he dresses the victim’s wounds; he inconveniences himself liberally and substantially; he even risks a great deal including violent retaliation from the victim’s family if the wounded man were to die while in his care.
Lesson #4: Love is proven not by empty words and by trumpeted display of some perfunctory care but by concrete, quiet acts.
Genuine love is also bestowed in an open-ended fashion free of calculations about reward and recognition as well as free of worry about personal cost incurred. “Go and do likewise.” This order confronts us every single time we see a person in need as, without fail, the law of love cries out from our hearts.
One thing should be clear, so clear as to remove from us any trace of self-righteousness: Jesus replies the scholar’s insidious question by quoting the two major commandments of the law. However, with his death on the cross Jesus has given us a new commandment: to love each other as he loved us on that cross. And his resurrection proves the validity of that new commandment.
Hence, to avoid self-righteousness, now we have to lead our lives according to the second commandment: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
This realization is simply unsettling but beneficial. From the time we do take Jesus’ new commandment seriously, we will avoid a possible pious delusion and we will begin to have an accurate measure of our real love for God. (see 1 John 4:20)
If we want to know how much we love God we can simply ask ourselves which of the four lessons taught by Jesus, realistically, we are able to implement. We might find out that we have a hard time just getting started with the first lesson. Hence, I see an urgent need to invoke the Holy Spirit to come to our aid. He has already poured the love of the Holy Trinity in our hearts. So the law of love is in its right place. We need his divine assistance to practice the four lessons with determination and firm will. We should practice them until it becomes a reflexive, automatic action for us to become neighbor to anyone in need.
That would be the only sure way to inherit eternal life.