Who Are the Samaritans to Me?

I was invited by the priest presiding at this morning’s Mass here at the Loyola on the Potomac Jesuit Retreat House to speak briefly at the beginning of Mass to set the stage for the readings.  Since I spoke without notes, I can’t share exactly what I said.  But following is a version of my reflection:

In today’s first reading, Moses exhorts the people to keep God’s commandments written in the book of the law.  And he tells them that what they are to do is not a secret they have to figure out, something they have to look high and low for, but something they already know.  It is already in their hearts.

We see a reflection of this in today’s Gospel, which opens with a “scholar of the law” asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. 

Jesus effectively responds – you already know the answer.  What does your law tell you?

The man responds: Love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself – what we refer to as the Great Commandment, but which was already the law known to the Israelite people well before the time of Jesus.

 It is pretty simple.  For all we try to complicate things, to come up with different criteria for who is in and who is out, Jesus says it is quite straightforward:  Love.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.

But the man pushes, asking: But who is my neighbor?  And Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story well known to all of us.

I invited people to reflect, as they listened to the Gospel to ask themselves: What does this parable tell me about who is my neighbor and what it means to love my neighbor?  To jumpstart their reflection on that, I shared two thoughts.

The first is about the Samaritans, who were hated in Jesus’ time.  From the perspective of the man in the ditch, Jesus’ audience would likely have not reacted well to the idea of receiving aid from a Samaritan.  To Jesus’ audience as well as to Luke’s early readers, the idea of a “good Samaritan” would have made no more sense than the idea of a “good rapist” or a “good murderer.”  So to say the neighbor to the injured man was a Samaritan was shocking.

Jesus’ story challenges his listeners to confront their prejudices about others. And in turn that invites us to ask ourselves: Who are today’s Samaritans for me?  Who is it difficult for me to call neighbor? For me to love as neighbor.

For some people it is Muslims.  For some gay or trans persons.  For some it is anyone whose background is strange or different.

And in today’s fractured climate, depending on where you stand, the Samaritan to you may be: Trump supporters or Kamela Harris fans; anti-vaxxers or those insisting on more stringent COVID requirements; Black lives Matters or Blue Lives Matter protesters; in religious terms, those currently referred to as “radtrads” or those with a Pope Francis leaning. And so on and so forth – politically, culturally, or religiously.

The invitation here is clear: to see as neighbor not only those who look like us, think like us, and worship like us, but those in whom we see nothing of ourselves.

Where is the difficulty for you?

The second thing I shared was an experiment I once read about.  A class of seminarians was given the assignment to prepare a sermon on this parable of the Good Samaritan. They were divided into two groups – one group was given two hours to prepare the sermon and the second group was given twenty-four hours. They then left the building. On the stairs of the building lay a man obviously in need of assistance (part of the experiment).

Can you guess the results? Almost none of the seminarians who had been given two hours to prepare their sermon stopped to aid the man as they left the building. Indeed, it was reported that one practically jumped over the man in his haste to get home to get to work on his assignment. (A much higher number of the group given twenty-four hours stopped to give the man assistance.)

Most of us have not jumped over an injured person on the street without giving assistance. But we do – more often than we’d like to admit – behave more like the priest and Levite than like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable:  When we fail to love our neighbor because what we are doing seems too important to recognize someone else’s need.

Ask yourself: Are there times when what I’m doing seems so important that I fail to offer a greeting or even a smile to someone I pass in the hall at work?

Am I so wrapped up in my important task that I fail to even notice that someone is suffering and could use a word of encouragement or a hand on the shoulder from me?

Have I squandered opportunities to offer compassion to another because of my preoccupation with my own projects?

What are the circumstances in which it is difficult for me to show compassion, love?

What do you hear in today’s parable of the Good Samaritan?  Who is your neighbor?  And what does it mean to love your neighbor?