THE GOOD SAMARITAN AND US
The lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus answers with another question, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”—the lawyer shows that he has been listening to Jesus well, for he gives back what he heard Jesus say in answer to another question on another occasion: “What is the greatest commandment?” To which Jesus had answered by combining two statements from the Mosaic Law—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). The lawyer repeats Jesus’ answer. And then, so as not to look stupid (as already knowing the answer to his question), he asks what seems to be a reasonable follow-up question—and a very lawyerly question, at that: “And who is my neighbor?”
Apparently sensing the narrowness of the lawyer’s question (as in, “How much of the human family am I supposed to care about?”), Jesus refuses to answer that one directly. Instead, he tells the story of the Samaritan who, traveling through the hostile neighborhood of Judea (for Jews and Samaritans were centuries-old enemies), comes across a naked and unconscious (therefore without ethnic, or class or geographical identification) man lying by the roadside. Instead of moving along and minding his business (like the temple priest and the Levite who had passed the victim by), the Samaritan, amazingly, has the compassion to stop, take a close look, and seeing the man was alive, applies first-aid, puts him on his own animal and takes him to a local inn to care for him. Jesus then confronts the lawyer with a question of his own: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” Unable to bring himself to say “the Samaritan,” the lawyer says, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
So, what does that exchange between the lawyer and Jesus say to us? Most of us, I would guess, find it easy to apply this example to analogous circumstances in contemporary life: helping the stranger who has just taken a fall near-by. Or stopping to see if a motorist—with car hood up, stalled by the side of the road—needs some help, at least the use of our cell phone or a lift to the next gas station or car repair shop. Those are the easy applications. But the implication of Jesus’ story is—Help anyone you are in a position to help. If I live in a democracy, my neighbor is anyone with whom I am connected by way of the network of city, state, and nation. But when I look at neighbor that way, I feel like the lawyer who feels the need for a narrower definition. But wait! Meeting everyone’s need—isn’t that exactly the meaning of “the common good”? And isn’t that precisely what politics and government are supposed to be all about? This is exactly what our Church teaches, in words conveniently summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (in paragraphs 1906-12, to be precise; I looked it up). The whole purpose of government is to be a way of addressing the common good, the collective good of the community, which we are not able to deal with adequately through individual initiative. Further, to ensure that we address the whole of the common good, our Church has employed the principle called the preferential option for the poor. The name comes from the Latin American bishops as they met in Puebla in the 1970s. But the principle is as old as the Mosaic laws about paying special attention to widows and orphans. The new name has caught on, even with our recent popes. The preferential option for the poor means paying special attention to the effect of any public policy on our weakest members. Doing that is the only sure way to make sure that no one is left out.
If the parable of the Prodigal Son is the best known short story in the world. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan may be the most challenging short story. It is a powerful way of saying in story form what Jesus taught on the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) when he says, “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” To imitate with wideness of God’s takes more than effort; it is a gift we need to pray for. We need that compassion to serve the universal common good and to make an ongoing option for the poor—not only in our private lives but in our public lives as well, on the level of our national and worldwide citizenship,