The lawyer in today’s gospel is not to be confused with the lawyers of our day. He was a student of the Torah–a word which is more properly translated as “instruction” or “revelation.” Today, he would be called a theologian. And he asks the question that is primary in the mind of every theologian, namely, how do we human beings achieve the fulfillment intended by our creator? Jesus gives the classic answer from Deuteronomy 6: 5 (love of God) and Leviticus 19: 18 (love of neighbor). Everything else is secondary.
Jesus moves quickly then to illustrate the practical implications of these commands in the story of the Good Samaritan. The contrast drawn is dramatic: the priest and Levite belong to the class of professional men of religion whereas the Samaritan is a member of that generally despised and uneducated group of Jews who were left in Palestine during the Exile and whose religious “purity” was highly suspect.
According to Jesus’ story, however, it is this religious outcast who has understood the real meaning of the Torah while the professional practitioners of religion seem concerned only about the external, ritual elements of Judaism. As in the case of the Publican and the Pharisee, Jesus is not suggesting that one should become a Publican or a Samaritan. Rather, he insists that we should be authentic persons who know how to observe the spirit of our religion and not just its externals.
We should note, first of all, that this is only a story. The fact that it never really happened should cause us to focus on its powerful symbolic message. As such, it offers us a sharp lesson about the danger of hypocritical behavior. It is relatively easy to claim an office or a title or hold a membership card, but the only proof of one’s religious sincerity and authenticity is the way in which one’s religious profession actually changes one’s behavior.
In this story, the new behavior is to respond to need regardless of whether we think the one in need deserves our help. Observing religious rituals or even receiving the Eucharist can unfortunately co-exist with self-centeredness and rash judgment. Real conversion demands that our following of Christ include our determination to offer help to others to the best of our ability, which usually means doing all that we think we can…and then a little bit more!
Such Christian behavior does not mean that we should become doormats or must cater to obsessive-dependents. But it does mean that we should be sensitive to the often-hidden needs of others and ready to help in any way we can. Real love will know how to do this wisely and effectively.
We should also note that when obviously Christian persons do not act in accordance with the ideals taught by Jesus, they scandalize others who may well reject Christianity because they are so repelled by those who proclaim themselves Christians. We all recall the challenging words of Jesus: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.