Jesus outwits the lawyer in today’s Gospel who asks him two questions to trip him up.
The first is, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back on him: you’re the lawyer, answer your own question from what the law says. The lawyer does so and Jesus agrees with him. “End of.” Jesus basically shuts him up: Why did you ask me a question to which you already knew the answer?
The lawyer is embarrassed that Jesus has bared his real intent to catch Jesus out, but won’t lie down to it. Instead of learning his lesson, he asks a second question. The answer to this one he clearly does not know. In fact, as Jesus soon makes clear to him, the lawyer even got the question wrong. “Who is my neighbour?” he asks of Jesus. In response, Jesus relates the parable of the Good Samaritan. Towards the end of it, he corrects the lawyer’s question. He should not have asked “who is my neighbour?” but rather “to whom am I neighbour?” That is the question to which the parable is the answer.
In other words, neighbourliness is not a matter of theoretical definition but of practical action: the words of Jesus, “Go and do the same yourself”, finally make the lawyer hold his tongue.
The parable teaches us what is involved in the practical action of being a neighbour to others. It tells the story of redemption.
So firstly, we need to be clear that the Good Samaritan is above all Jesus himself. Secondly, the victim of the brigand is each of us; it is every human being. Thirdly, the brigand is Satan who tricked us out of our freedom and wounded us with sin and death, leaving us half dead. Jesus comes along and “ransoms, heals, restores and forgives” us, as a famous hymn puts it, paying the cost in his own person, with his own precious blood. He humiliated himself to be the mule that would carry us, not to the inn, but to the Church where we are fed and looked after by the sacraments and the Word. On his return, he will take us to heaven itself.
People often say that they take others as they find them. That’s surely a good starting point in our relations with our neighbours. But Christ invites us to go further. Unlike the priest and the Levite, who took the victim as they found him but then proceeded to leave him as they found him, if not worse, Jesus takes him and leaves him much better than he found him. That is what it means to be a neighbour to others. It means “to better” people and so to share in the work of redemption.
Clearly, we are not called to go and start interfering and fixing people’s lives for them as if we were Christ. We would be chased, and rightly. But nor can we pass indifferently by, with the self-complacency of never getting involved. We certainly cannot ransom or forgive the sins of others as Christ did, although we can and must forgive offences against us. What we can always do, however, is to heal and restore others in some way. How?
Through the simple kindnesses of charity, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, friendliness and friendship, empathy and encouragement. Perhaps there will come a rare moment for tough love or fraternal correction, too, carefully discerned and judiciously expressed. The exercise of the human virtues which mark our common humanity can give much life and hope to our neighbour, especially when we exercise them consciously in our own minds in the name and power of Christ.
Of course, to all this there is an obvious corollary. If we are to leave people better than we find them, then we must not leave them worse than we find them. How easy it is to fall into gossip, prejudice and character assassination, complaining and moaning endlessly and pointlessly; how quickly worldly and demeaning talk and other such things seem to surface. All this only makes matters worse for our neighbour and for ourselves. That is hardly the work of redemption. If that’s what we are going to do, then it would be better to be like the priest and Levite in the parable and walk on by. Instead, when approaching people, it is good to make an interior resolution to build up, to edify, not to knock down and depress. The happiness of so many people, the solution to so many problems, is to be found in simple acts and words of love. If people received more love, maybe they would not have to take so many pills!
Like the lawyer in the Gospel, we don’t really need to ask Jesus how to love our neighbour. We already know. So, with renewed resolve and renewed awareness that we are co-workers with Jesus the Good Samaritan in the work of redemption, let us go, too, and be mules of redemption, and do ourselves the same as him.