“The Good Samaritan’s Concrete and Practical Love”, by Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Roy B. Zuck tells a story about a pastor who announced his topic for his sermon as “Ignorance and Indifference.” A person in the congregation saw that in the bulletin and asked his friend, “What does that mean?”

His friend answered, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate – it’s indifference.” To put it simply, the opposite of love is “I don’t care.”

While the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel passage exhibit “I don’t care” attitudes, the Good Samaritan is an example of “I care” practices.

One modern day Good Samaritan was William Booth. At the end of a fruitful life of caring and loving, he was buried with great honors. Members of the Royal Family attended his funeral. Next to the queen was a poor woman who placed a flower on the casket as it passed. The queen asked, “How did you know him?” The woman’s answer was simple but direct, “He cared for the likes of us.” William Booth was a good Samaritan to many poor people in need. (The story is also narrated by Roy B. Zuck).

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is found only in the Gospel according to Luke and is occasioned by the question of the scholar of the law, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The intention of testing the Lord may not have been a good motive, yet the question is an existential question that must be asked by every person. This, I believe, is the first challenge of the Gospel passage today.

Everyone of us, at some point in our lives, the sooner the better, for it may become too late, must truly and sincerely ask and grapple with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This we must do in view of finding the right answer to the question so that we can live it and put it into practice.

The road to eternal life is given in the scholar’s answer: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” In short, eternal life consists in the practice of the love of God and neighbors. Jesus himself affirms this: “You have answered correctly; do this and your will live.”

However, knowing that the combined love of God and neighbors, as found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 respectively, leads to eternal life is just the beginning. It is not enough to know and give the right answer; one must live the right answer. One must live and practice the love of God and neighbors to attain eternal life.

Eugene H. Peterson, commenting beautifully on the parable in his book “Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading,” says “there was nothing wrong with the scholar’s knowledge of Scripture. But there was something terribly wrong in the way he read it, the how of the reading” (Peterson, Eat This Book, 83).

This point is made clear when Jesus, according to Peterson, asks, “How do you read this, and not what have you just read?”

This becomes even more evident when the scholar, wanting to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?” He asks for a definition of a neighbor. Peterson says that the scholar wants to talk about the text, treat the text as a thing, dissect it, analyze it, discuss it endlessly… The scholar has just rightly quoted the words of the Scripture. But these words must be listened to, submitted to, obeyed and lived.” Indeed, we listen to and read the Word of God in order to live it.

Jesus does not give the scholar a definition of the neighbor, which, in the context of the time of Jesus, was expected to be in terms of one’s fellow countrymen (Leviticus 19:18). Instead, he gives a story of practical love, compassion and care.

The “I do not care” attitude and behavior of the priest and the Levite in the parable are expected. Not to allow oneself to be defiled by not touching what they probably perceived to be a dead body was actually observing the law found in the books of Numbers and Leviticus (Numbers 9:11-13; 14-19; Leviticus 21:1-3, 10-11).

What is shocking in the story, at least to the Jewish people in that time, is that the person who cared for the dying neighbor was a Samaritan. The Jews and the Samaritans were enemies. The Jews harbored resentments against the Samaritans, who were considered heretics and schismatics for being descendants of a mixed population resulting from the Assyrian defeat of the northern kingdom in 722 BCE. Of all people, it was a Samaritan, an enemy, who helped the dying Jew.

In concluding the story of the Good Samaritan with the question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man?” Jesus introduces a transition in the understanding of a neighbor – from being someone in need to someone who shows benevolence and practical love and compassion.

The scholar of the law again gives the right answer. The one who treated the dying man with mercy is the one who proved neighbor to the dying man. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Neighborliness is not a quality in other people; it is simply their claim on ourselves. We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey; we must behave like a neighbor to him.”

Once again, Jesus recognizes the right answer of the scholar, but utters the challenge, “Go and do likewise.” This is the second time Jesus is challenging him to live and do what he rightly knows. In effect, Jesus is telling the scholar to transition from knowing and understanding to living, practicing and doing. This is the only way for him to gain eternal life. “Do and practice the Word of God and His commands of love of God and neighbors and you will have eternal life.”

The Good Samaritan’s compassionate love is practical and concrete. The gospel passage tells us that he approached the Jewish victim, he poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them, he lifted him up on his own animal, he took him to an inn and cared for him. And he did many more. This is love and compassion in action and in the concrete. This is what God through the gospel parable today is asking us to do. We show our love for our families, relatives and friends and other neighbors, especially those in need, through concrete acts of love and compassion.

Someone commented, “Love is never in the abstract. The good ‘feeling’ is nice but isn’t love. Love is concrete.”

St. John of the Cross said, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.”

Blessed Mother Teresa also said, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”

Indeed, in the end, we will be judged on concrete and practical love. The outsider and despised Samaritan has become for us a model of practical love and of entry into eternal life. To gain eternal life, we must be Good Samaritans or be like the Good Samaritan.

About Fr. Robert and his reflections