When is Religion Supposed to be Practiced?

When is Religion Supposed to be Practiced?

There was a professor of religious studies at a college for girls who always began his first lecture of the new school year by paraphrasing the parable of the Good Samaritan. He said, “A certain freshman went from home to college and fell among sophomore critics, who said she had no style, that her manners were awkward, and that she had an unattractive personality. Then they stripped her of her self-confidence, her enthusiasm and her courage, and departed, leaving her hurt and lonely and half dead. And when the seniors saw it they were amused, and said, “What a good job the sophomores did on that freshman,” and they continued on by. Likewise the juniors saw her, and said, “Gee, that’s too bad, but she’d never make a good sorority member anyway,” and they passed on by. But a certain special student, seeing the freshman, was moved with compassion, and came to her and bound her wounds, pouring on them sympathy and understanding. And she took the freshman to her room and brought her into her own circle and was a friend to her. Which of these do you think was truly a neighbor to the girl who fell among the critics? Go and do likewise” (Edgar Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching, quoted in homily illustrations under “Compassion”).

The professor’s paraphrasing of Our Lord’s story made the students stop and think; they realized that Jesus’ teaching really did apply to their own lives, and that they fit into the parable in one way or another. This is also true of us. Perhaps without fully realizing it, we might be like the robbers who attacked an innocent person, or the priest and levite who ignored the victim’s needs and passed on by. Jesus calls us to be like the Samaritan who showed compassion—and all of us have opportunities to do this.

If we were to ask “When is religion supposed to be practiced?,” many people would answer “On Sunday mornings,” or “Whenever we need something from God,” or “If we suspect we’re soon going to die and be judged by the Lord.” Jesus would answer, “All the time—for true religion is meant to be put into practice in daily life.” Moses (Dt 30:10-14) tells the people that God’s law is not something remote and mysterious, or to be found up in the sky or far across the sea. Instead, he says, “it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” Religion is meant to be very practical and down-to-earth.  Jesus develops this idea in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37). A lawyer wanted to discuss what was necessary to obtain eternal life, and Our Lord agreed with his answer, “Love the Lord God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer then asked “Who is my neighbor?” He was probably looking for a very intellectual answer, but Jesus gave a simple one—one whose meaning was unmistakable. True love of God means helping anyone in need. As St. Paul (Col 1:15-20) says, we have received peace through Christ’s blood, shed on the Cross; one very practical and important way of expressing our gratitude is to show compassion to others.

When William McKinley was elected President late in the 19th century, he had to make many appointments to various government positions, including ambassadors to foreign countries. In one case, there were two men almost equally qualified for a prestigious overseas posting. As he was trying to choose between them, President McKinley remembered an incident from many years earlier. He had just taken the last seat on a streetcar in which one of the two future candidates was also a passenger. Moments later an old woman boarded, carrying a heavy basket. McKinley noticed the man turn away and pretend not to see the woman, so he himself stood up and gave her his seat. Recalling the man’s lack of kindness, he chose the other candidate for ambassador—for he did not want the United States to be represented by someone willing to ignore the needs of others (Walter Knight, Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 359).

Every day we are auditioning or applying, not for an important government position, but for a place in the Kingdom of Heaven—and this truth should definitely influence our behavior and values. Moreover, we’ve all been in need of kindness and compassion from others; we know what that experience is like. Probably all of us at one time or another have felt like the man attacked by robbers; many of us have been victimized, mistreated, or unfairly criticized at some point in our lives—so we know how important it is to have someone respond with compassion. We have to ask ourselves if we’re ever like the robbers in Jesus’ parable, causing suffering and pain to someone else—whether unknowingly or deliberately. We have to ask ourselves if we’re ever like the priest or levite in the parable, ignoring someone in need and failing to do what we can to help. Most importantly, though, we have to ask ourselves if we’re ever like the Samaritan who showed compassion—and if not, we must look for opportunities to change this.

When someone new moves into our neighborhood or parish, we can go out of our way to make the person feel welcome. When someone dies, we can express our sympathy and support to the family members. If a person makes a foolish and embarrassing mistake, we can spare his or her feelings by pretending not to notice or by changing the subject. If someone seems very lonely, we can offer our friendship. When we read in the newspaper or see online or on television a story about a tragic accident, crime, or misfortune, instead of saying “How sad!” and then turning our attention to something else, we can pause for a moment and say a silent prayer for the persons involved. Whenever someone needs help, sympathy, or understanding, Jesus calls upon us and expects us to do what we can.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a symbol of our lives. There may be times when we’re the victim in the story; if so, God wants us to call upon Him in trust while forgiving the one who harmed us. There may be times when we’re like the robbers who abused someone, or the priest or levite who ignored the person’s suffering or needs; if so, God wants us to turn to Him in sorrow and be forgiven, and, if we can, do something to make up for our failures. Most importantly, there can be times when we’re like the Samaritan, caring for and responding to our neighbor in need. God wants us to look for and use such opportunities–for this is how we truly put our faith into practice.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper