15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) — July 10, 2022
St. Paul — Lyons, KS
Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-37; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37
What is our snap judgement of the parable?
This parable is famous. So famous, that you can ask pretty much anyone with any casual understanding of Christianity what it means to be a “Good Samaritan” and they could tell you, or at least give you a gist of what it means. The building next door: literally called the “Good Samaritan,” the “Good Sam.” There are “Good Samaritan” laws offering legal protection to people who offer assistance to someone in need. The “Samaritans” is the name of a suicide hotline. So safe to say it’s a pretty well-known parable.
When you hear this parable—if I were to have to stand up and give a homily on this parable, what would you say? What would be the “take-home” message? “Help those in need.” “Everyone is your neighbor, not just your friends or family or the people you like—everyone is your neighbor, so be a good and loving person to all.” “If you pray all day and go to church every Sunday, but don’t help the poor and those in need, you’re not a real follower of Jesus.” “We are meant to be Jesus’ hands and feet. We are sent to care for those in need.” “Being a follower of Jesus means helping others even when it’s inconvenient, even when it hurts to help.”
And you know what? None of those are half-bad. In fact, they’re all true. Everyone is our neighbor.
But my question for us today is this: What is the difference between an atheist humanitarian, someone who does not believe in God, who never goes to church, who is in fact opposed to believing in God—what is the difference between an atheist humanitarian, and me or you being a “good samaritan,” helping people, providing aid and assistance to those in need? I’ve been struggling with this question. Some of the best practitioners of unconditional compassion toward those in need—they’re not even Christians. I literally know people that practice this parable 100 times better than I do—and they aren’t even baptized. So, what is the difference between an atheist humanitarian and me being a “good samaritan”?
Heretic vs. Saint and Doctor of the Church
There is an exercise that I have kids do in Confirmation class or in the Catholic schools. I give them a sheet of paper with two paragraphs on it. Both are ancient, from letters written in the fifth century. One paragraph is written by a heretic (so someone who’s teaching has been publicly condemned by the Church)—one paragraph is written by a heretic and one paragraph is written by a saint and doctor of the Church. Their job is to tell me which paragraph is by the heretic and which one is by the saint. So, if you are a Christian, you should be able to distinguish between the two, you should be able to discern which of the two just by the sound, by what is familiar to you which is the heretic and which is the saint. I will read the letters and you can tell me which is which.
“You must realize that in the divine scriptures, which enable you to understand the complete will of God, certain things are forbidden, some are allowed, some are advised: evil things are forbidden…; intermediate things are allowed, perfect things are advised… So, in this great struggle which you are about to undertake let your chief concern…be to win an overwhelming victory for virtue…, to swear fealty to all God’s commands against the camp of the devil and not simply to shun the things that are forbidden but also to fulfill those which are commanded. For it is not enough for you to refrain from evil, if you refrain from good as well…[D]irect your mind’s attention to complete moral perfection and prepare yourself to lead a heavenly life for a heavenly reward…”Pelagius, A Letter from Pelagius
“We have been promised that we shall be like Him, for we shall see him as He is. By these words, the tongue has done its best; now we must apply the meditation of the heart.…The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when He comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.”Augustine, On the First Letter of Saint John
The first one is Pelagius (the instigator of the great Pelagian heresy), the second is Saint Augustine. And when I ask people why they chose which one they chose, the typical answer is, “Well, the second one sounds like what I want. But the first one is more familiar to my understanding of what it means to be a Christian.”
And what this always makes clear to me is two things. The first is that we’re doing a very good job at making heretical Pelagians out of our kids and out of people that come to church. And the second is that we’re not doing a very good job at communicating what it truly means to be a Christian.
Augustine wrote another letter against this Pelagian problem and about it said, “This is the horrendous, hidden poison of your error: that you pretend to make Christ’s grace consist in his example, and not in the gift of his person” (Augustine, Contra Pelagius).
Again, think in your own experience. The usual thing we’re taught is, “You get baptized, and then your job is to follow the rules, follow Jesus’ example, do what you’re supposed to do on the road to heaven.” But as Augustine reminds us, Christianity, being a Catholic cannot be simplified to laws and commands and examples we are to follow, but with the gift of his person, an act of holy desire for the face of the one who brings utter satisfaction.
Parable: It’s about who Jesus is before its about what we are to do
We read the parable and immediately jump to, “So it means to be a good person. Follow the rule of being a loving person. Follow Jesus’ example.”—that’s not how the earliest Christians understood it, that’s not how someone like Augustine understood it.
First and foremost, the parable was understood as being about who Jesus is and what condition we are in. Let me say that again. First and foremost, the parable was understood as being about who Jesus is and what condition we are in.
As Augustine would say, the traveler is Adam—it’s mankind, it’s you, it’s me. What condition are we in? We have fallen victim. Stripped, beaten, left half-dead. Stripped, beaten and left half-dead by whom? By the Enemy himself; the Enemy and his fallen angels. But even when we hear this, our snap judgment is usually to think, “Well, I mean, I’m not perfect, Father. But I don’t think I’m that bad of a guy.” That’s our snap judgment: I’m not that bad, it’s not like I’m doing horrible things.
But think deeper. Literally, close your eyes and think. Why do I feel like something is missing in my life at times? Why do all of the things that I think will help me not seem to work? My job, Netflix, food, vacation, my new car, grandkids, financial security—why haven’t these resolved everything in my life? Why do I find it impossible to forgive that person? Why do politics and ‘the other side’ rob me of my peace every day? Why do I worry so much about things? Why am I stuck with these feelings of depression? Why would God allow that to happen to my child? Why would God allow that to happen to me? Is life really just one day after another and then I die?
This is the condition we’re in. We have fallen victim. Stripped, beaten, left half-dead.
So who is Jesus? Again, think of your condition, and then along comes this One who is moved with compassion at the sight of you. He approaches you, pours oil and wine over you wounds—all of these things you experience day after day, He bandages them. Then He lifts you up on His own animal, takes you to an inn and cares for you. Moved with compassion, Jesus doesn’t tell you the rules for picking yourself up by your own bootstraps, tell you follow His example. No. He gives you himself. What the traveler, what I, what you, what we need isn’t just an example to follow; what we desire is a person, we desire to see Him come along the road.
Any Atheist Can Be A Good Samaritan
The objection is, “Yeah, Fr. Michael, this is all good. But Jesus literally said, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Ok, yes, duh, each one of us should be a good samaritan. But any atheist can do that! My question is what’s the difference? What is the difference between an atheist humanitarian and me being a “good samaritan”? How do I keep from just being a Pelagian? For us, as Christians, as Augustine himself would say—a true Christians is driven not by a desire to do good, but by a desire to be with the Good, to be with Jesus Christ, to see and experience Him.
I’ve used the example before. You can tell any 7th grade kid the rules and commands about going to school. And even if the kids follows them, that doesn’t mean much. He is not changed. He just follows the rules, does the “good thing.” It is not until that cute girl in his class looks at him that all of a sudden everything in his life changes, and his life is transformed. He jumps out of bed every morning to get to school, he showers before school, he desires to be at school. There is a zest to life; it’s a shock, like touching a live wire! Why? Because all of a sudden, his life is not dominated by doing the good, no—life, daily life, each and every day is dominated by a desire to be with the good, and this alone gives life a zest. Just to see her, just to be near her, the desire to see her smile—this changes every day, transforms every experience.
For each of us it is the same. It is one thing to do good, to be good samaritans—and we should, fair enough. But it is an entirely different thing, a life-changing, life-transforming thing when the desire is to be with the Good, to be with the one that can raise us up from our fallen condition and respond to everything that is missing in our life.
This only works if we perceive, literally perceive Jesus as a fact, as a concrete fact in our life; we wake up each and every morning 100% certain that He is still alive, that we can still meet him, still experience him. That’s when our life becomes centered on being with the Good, being with Christ himself. And in that experience, when we experience life like that—everything is for us, everything in our life is a gift, everything is for our good.
We go out as good samaritans, because that’s where Christ is; he’s on the side of the road with that person we really don’t feel like loving or forgiving or helping. In order to stay with Christ, to be with Him, to remain with the one that gives that fullness and satisfaction in our life, we have to go, we desire to go to that person in need because that’s where Christ is. If we stay on the road and pass the person by, we abandon Christ, and abandon the one who satisfies us.
The difference between us and an atheist humanitarian is that while they are seeking to do good, we are desiring to remain with the Good, which not only fulfills and satisfies us, transforms and changes our life and experience of life, but then brings that possibility to others as well.