More than 50 years ago, I worked for a short time under a pastor who had broad mood swings: he would go from kindness toward one person to near cruelty to another. I learned that he had been badly mistreated in his first assignment as a young priest by a domineering pastor who forbade him, for example, to eat at the same table with him. It’s hard to imagine such things happening today, but in those days they certainly did.
It was all wrong, of course, embarrassing and regrettable. Jesus’ constant teaching and example were that doing good to our fellow human beings has absolutely nothing to do with their worth or merit or status – or even with how they act toward us. He said that God makes sunshine and rain fall on both the good and the bad. We are to love even our enemies, he said, and be kind to those who are mean to us. Pretty hard to do, I know.
The dying man in Jesus’ now famous story we just heard is really anyone in dire need, in this case someone who was beaten, robbed, and left to die. We are not given his name; he is anyone.
The two religious men who come upon him on the road are on their way to the temple to perform their sacred duties, according to their high standing in the Jewish community. Whatever their hearts may at first have told them to do, they both reasoned that they could not stop to help this unfortunate victim because that would have made them unfit for their sacred privileges. So, first things first: I must remain clean; after all, my turn at the temple comes around so seldom.
Enter the fourth character, a Samaritan. A Samaritan was regarded by the Jews as an out & out heretic. No matter who he was, no matter the quality of his or her life, the mere fact that he was a Samaritan made him deserving of unbridled hatred. To illustrate that more strikingly, I tell you that I have read that there was a sign at the Jerusalem temple’s entrance that proclaimed death for various categories of people who were forbidden to go there; among them was listed “Samaritan.” In Jesus’ provocative story, it is this despised outsider – not the priest, not the Levite — who treats the Jewish victim with compassion. Can you imagine how Jesus’ hearers must have reacted to that twist? Any wonder that many thought he was crazy and that many wanted to do away with him? Was it as he sensed the response of the crowds to his teachings that Jesus began to know that his own violent death could not be far into the future?
And he ends the lesson with a command to us: “Go and do the same.”
As we get older by the day, we think more about how our lives are going, whether we’re living up to our calling as human beings or not. We need a standard by which to measure ourselves: After hearing this gospel story, we need search no longer: the ultimate standard by which we are to gauge the quality of our life is simply unconditional compassion. We are to love others, do good to others, respond as best we can to the desperate needs of others without any regard to how they may feel toward us. We are to act that way because that is the way God acts with all, the way Jesus loves all.
By the way, this is what saints are for: they answer the question, “Is it really possible to live that way?” We know the answer is yes as we look at the life of a Francis, an Elizabeth, a Theresa, a Mahatma Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on.
It’s not the least bit complicated or mysterious: “Love one another as I have loved you.”