The Gospel for July 10th, 2016: “The Greatest Commandment” and the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”
Reflection: Open Hearts, Open Minds
*Warning: This is a long one.
The pairing of “The Greatest Commandment” and “Parable of the Good Samaritan” passages is an example of brilliant teaching. Notice the Socratic, dialogic nature of Jesus’s conversation with the Scholar of the Law. The young man asks Jesus the deepest of questions, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (25)? Jesus responds with two questions, “What is written in the law? How do you read it” (26)? When the young scholar gives his answer, he does not quote the law, but rather interprets it meaning to answer the question. I think his answer is inspired in its pithiness. He has reduced the Ten Commandments down to two: Love God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus refrains from superfluous comment and simply confirms the correctness of the young man’s answer, followed by brief encouragement to live those two simple commands. In His choice of responses, Jesus has allowed the student to arrive at the answer himself, and then lets the truth of those words stand unobscured by further elaboration.
But the young scholar is not finished with his questions. He asks, “And who is my neighbor” (29)? Jesus again proves to be the exemplary teacher, for He recognizes an illustration is a far better answer than an abstraction. So he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, who although the least likely choice when compared to a Levite and a priest, is the one that acts as “neighbor” to the victim of a robbery. The Samaritan is under no obligation to help the injured man along the side of the road. He is bound by neither social nor religious obligations, as the Levite and priest would be, and yet unlike them he does not pass by “on the opposite side” of the road. Instead, he gives his own time and money to help this man in need (30-35). Finally, the dialogue over this questions ends similarly to the first. Jesus asks the young man who among the three passers-by is the victim’s neighbor. He replies with similar eloquence by saying, “The one who treated him with mercy” (37), instead of calling the neighbor a Samaritan. This time Jesus does not even bother to tell him he is correct, but goes directly to a call for action: “Go and do likewise” (37).
I have highlighted the clarity of Jesus’s teaching in this gospel to emphasize the difficulty is not in the understanding of how to live as Christians, but instead in the doing. Just this week I had an experience that reminded me of this quite powerfully. I was driving into a nearby city from my rural home. While stopped at a light at a large intersection, my vehicle was approached by a man begging for money, which according to his crude cardboard sign would be used for blankets. Since I am occasional visitor to this city, I had observed panhandlers like this one from a distance before, but had never been close enough to be approached. As he walked toward my vehicle, I froze. Quickly, I tried to think through what I should do. My ability to reason failed me, so I stared ahead and ignored the beggar and pretended he was invisible. Mercifully, he did not extend my discomfort and quickly walked back to his corner. The discomfort was intense (probably nowhere near that of the beggar), colored by feelings of fear, shame, and embarrassment.
Why was I paralyzed to answer this man’s need with some money from my wallet? In particular, why was I afraid to help? Why did I walk to the other side of the road as the Levite and priest did in Jesus’s parable, rather than move to help the man as the Good Samaritan did? In my struggle to answer these questions, I did a Google search for “Should Catholics give money to beggars?” Predictably, there were discussion board and blog posts on this question that represented a variety of views. What I read can be summarized into three categories. There were those that reasoned many street beggars will use the money for destructive behaviors and that it is better to give to charitable organizations that will do a better job ensuring the money will be used wisely in its aid to the poor. Some among this group also pointed out that they did not have enough money for every street person who asked and that some may be con artists who make a decent income preying on the generosity of others. Another group agreed with the concern the money might be used to further addictions to drugs or alcohol, but they still wanted to be able to give some immediate help. Therefore, they would give food or gift cards, or offer to buy a meal in such encounters rather than just give cash. Finally, there was a group who said the right thing to do is give what you can without concern for how the money might be used or if they will have enough for every indigent person that comes along.
All three of these are reasonable positions by good Catholics who strive to live the gospel. Also, many who commented live in cities where they face this decision on a daily basis, unlike me who may go months or years before something like this happens again. So for them, having a policy that makes sense both spiritually and financially is necessary. I get that. However, for myself, I can only conclude that I had a twenty dollar bill in my wallet that I could have given that man. My fear over how the money might be used or what would happen if I tried to give it to him and the light turned green stemmed from a closed heart. When the young scholar answers “how” he reads the law, he lists loving the Lord, God, with all our hearts, being, strength, and minds (27). My first move was to the mind instead of the heart. And yet the heart comes first in this gospel about love and mercy. In contrast, I mindfully calculated the risks of being merciful and failed to include my heart in the decision. I judged, wrongly, this man, his circumstances, and my ability to answer his need, because I only used my mind and ignored my heart. This is why I was afraid to look at and interact with him. I was more concerned with myself than with loving him. We do not love with dry intellect; we love with the heart of Jesus. We act without the concern for self as the Good Samaritan did. My point is not to endorse an abstract policy that Catholics and Christians are obliged to give to anyone who asks at any time. I believe Jesus teaches using parables to avoid blind adherence to rules that reflects legalism. Instead, I think context and truth matter. As we make these decisions about helping others, using our hearts and minds together and guided by the Holy Spirit, God will lead each of us to our role in His divine mercy. Also He will lead us to truth and justice even though we may not see the logic of it. When we close either our hearts or minds in our dealings with others, out of fear or inconvenience or selfishness, we also close ourselves to the presence of Jesus inside us and fail to use the gifts He has given us.
Had I opened my heart in those few seconds, I might have discovered there was not time to give him the money. Perhaps he was a scam artist or posed some risk to me, and God would have would have intervened in some way to make sure His justice was done. Or perhaps I would have given him the money so I didn’t spend it on some selfish desire that only strengthen its hold on me. Or perhaps, I really was the person intended to meet his need for that day, and, like the Levite and the priest, I walked by under the rationale of some baseless, hypothetical excuse. The harm of those missed opportunities is great. Gary Hoag, in an article in Christianity Today, shares some wisdom from John the Almsgiver that applies here. About a person who accepted alms from his ministry who was not really in need John said this: “Give unto him; he may be our Lord in disguise.” I think he is right. Missing the opportunity to meet the Lord in disguise is not worth it. I pray that next time, I do better.