Bishop Anthony Fisher’s Homily for 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, 11 July 2010
It’s a story we’ve all heard before, so often we could almost recite it from memory. We know the ending of this warm, comfortable, almost sentimental tale. Yet when first it was heard, the Story of the Good Samaritan was far from comfortable: it was packed full of shocking little jibes...
In the first place, there is the implicit criticism of the clergy – for their un-neighbourliness, self-protectiveness, ritual pernicketiness. It’s not unlike the criticism, justified and unjustified, recently levelled against the bishops and clergy.
Then there’s the shocking suggestion that lay people might be more neighbourly than clergy!
Last of all, there’s the intimation that a traditional enemy like the Samaritans could be good, indeed good to Jews, indeed better than Jews at being good to Jews. That’s rather like telling Benjamin Netanyahu that his most reliable neighbour in difficult times would be the Palestinians!
This is typical, of course, of the reversals of common expectations that we meet so often in Jesus’ preaching and action. In this morning’s story the hero not only helps, he helps a great deal, extending his care beyond the immediate emergency, seeing to the victim’s longer-term good as well.
Once again, Jesus is proposing something shocking: a far less measured kind of justice or charity than even His most open-minded and charitable hearers would have thought appropriate, let alone required.
If this story shocked Jesus’ first hearers, how does it confront us, two millennia later, in our very different world? Lawyers don’t tend to ask questions about eternal life these days, at least not in public. But they are still very interested in the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ for this is at the heart of the big damages cases in negligence.
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus invites His hearers to expand their notions of neighbour and friend, kith and kin, until we see all Christians, indeed all humanity, from near or far, living and dead and still to come, as our people, ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.
Piece by piece Jesus breaks down the tribalism, the ancient animosities, the in-groups and out-groups, enlarging our moral imaginations and sensitivities, so we can put ourselves in the shoes of others affected by what we do or fail to do.
There’s not much that’s new about the so-called ‘new’ atheism of some recent books. But one strange claim of these authors has been that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has made no real contribution to human welfare.
Now, there are various things one might criticise in Christian history, but this is surely unfair. Inspired by the Story of the Good Samaritan, Christians have, down through the ages, established orphanages, hospices, schools, hospitals and soup kitchens.
Sainted individuals, religious congregations, lay associations such as Vinnies, local organisations such as Centacare and international organisations such as Caritas, have established many projects that contribute to human welfare that are now part of the fabric of almost civil society and are widely imitated.
Following the Good Sam’s lead, these charitable works serve not only to ‘our own’, but anyone in need; indeed they make anyone in need ‘our own’. As in the story they focus not only present need but ongoing welfare.
And each of these works, as lived, contemporary versions of Good Samaritanism, challenges us to greater moral imagination, sensitivity and response towards those who suffer. They call us to com-passio, to identification with every suffering person, and to immediate, active and continuing care.
This is what drove Jesus: he cared, not just in the abstract, like the reader of a novel sympathising with a fictional character; not like a bureaucrat devising a strategy from a distance; but as one who laughed with those who laugh and mourned with those who mourn, shared in their lives, had passion for their passions, suffered in their suffering, and so was impelled to respond. Jesus identified Himself with those He met, invested Himself in them, made their good His own, their salvation His purpose.
This was not merely a peculiar feature of Jesus’ psychology, as if he were a bit of an old softie, a bleeding-heart sentimentalist: it is replete with theological significance.
The God described so often in the Psalms as “full of compassion and steadfast love” is the One Jesus knew in prayer, in liturgy, in His personal life as His Father. It was this loving Father-God whose only love-child Jesus was and whom Jesus made known.
The Good Samaritan is God in Christ, coming with healing balm and boundless generosity to a broken humanity, and to each example of broken humanity, every case of dire and desperate need.
God in His Christ comes seeking no gratitude, no recompense, making no inquiry into how deserving the victim, how great their contribution, how many boat-loads of others there might be, whether they have queued properly and have their papers in order…
This month our Diocese is celebrating 60 years since three of our priests were ordained and 50 years for another. Between them they’ve served the people of Sydney for 230 years, longer than the time elapsed since European settlement!
They have lived through times of extraordinary change in Church and society, and remained faithful. Their priestly task has been not just that of Good Shepherds – our most common way of thinking biblically about our priests – but also of Good Samaritans.
Why do I say that? Partly, it’s because they have undertaken so many corporal works of mercy, such as assisting the needy at their presbytery doors and visiting those in prison or shut-in at home. Between them they’ve attended thousands of bedsides of the sick and buried thousands of our dead.
But priests, like all Christians, serve suffering humanity in many ways, and often this is people beaten and left for dead, not physically so much as intellectually, psychologically, morally, spiritually.
Christ contended and His followers must contend still, not just with hunger, sickness and dying, but with other evils such as ignorance, depression and sin. These can do terrible damage to whole cultures, societies, families, individuals.
Consider the harm done by soulless bureaucracies, markets and military machines; by believers in distorted religiosities that cross to the safer side of the road while people are struggling to survive; by godless ideologies that in the century past killed and maimed so many; and in the religion-free zones that leave so many young and not-so-young people disoriented and addicted, dissatisfied and wounded.
Christians respond not just by holding the hands of those who are suffering, but by bringing them a saving word. Christ came not just for sore bodies but for sore souls, and His Gospel is nursing care for a wounded culture.
By imitating the Good Samaritan in action, but also by retelling his story, priests and parents, preachers and teachers, expand our notion of what a person needs and what it is to help a needy human being.
Jesus’ call to moral imagination, to compassion, to let our minds be turned upside down and our stomachs inside out, challenges us today as much as any ancient Jewish lawyer.
So does His call to pour oil and wine on wounds, and to ask what wounds men still and why, and what might be done about it.
Suffering humanity needs works of social justice and of charity, for the poor will always be with us. But it also needs spiritual alms deeds, such as praying for the living and the dead, instructing the ignorant, counselling the confused, comforting the grieving, admonishing sinners, forbearing and forgiving.
Mankind thirsts and is sickened, imprisoned and dying spiritually and emotionally and morally for want of sound Catholic teaching and preaching, of beautiful worship and music, or good direction and reasons to hope.
The story of the Good Samaritan speaks to every priest and every Christian, not just those in the caring professions. Whatever our vocation, there is some way in which we can relieve hurting humanity. “Go now,” says Jesus today, “and do the same yourselves!”