The Radical Nature of the Good Samaritan
36 “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36-37 (ESV)
St. Patrick grew up in fifth-century Britain when the occupying Roman power was on the decline. Kidnapped by pirates, he was sold into slavery in Ireland. For six years he toiled in captivity, but then he escaped and returned home. Years later, he had a vision of an Irishman calling him to return and share the gospel with his one-time captors. Though many objected, Patrick answered the call and crossed the sea to preach. He knew first-hand that the Irish were desperate for a saving message from God, and so he left the comfort and safety of home for an open-ended mission of mercy: “I am prepared to give even my life without hesitation and most gladly for His name, and it is there [in Ireland] that I wish to spend it until I die, if the Lord would grant it to me1 . . . [E]ven though I should be denied a grave, or my body be woefully torn to pieces limb by limb by hounds or wild beasts . . . I would have gained my soul together with my body.”2
When a lawyer asked Jesus, “[W]hat shall I do to inherit eternal life?” the Savior turned the tables and asked what the Law said. The lawyer replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-27). Jesus approved of the answer, but the lawyer pressed Him, asking, “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29). Jesus then delivered the Parable of the Good Samaritan, teaching that even distasteful people are one’s neighbors. The text doesn’t say so, but it is quite likely that the lawyer, like the rich young man in Mark 10, went away sorrowful.
The Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies. The latter, whom the Jews considered half-breeds and heretics, built their own temple at Mt. Gerizim, a structure destroyed around 128 B.C. by the Jewish military ruler, John Hyrcanus. Then, between A.D. 6 and 9, a group of Samaritans desecrated the Jerusalem Temple during Passover. No wonder John could write, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). No wonder, also, that Jesus used a story featuring this group of outcasts to drive home a scandalous point—godly compassion knows no cultural boundaries.
When believers think of charity, their thoughts turn most readily to those who are down-and-out in their own cities or those who are wasting away in drought-ravaged regions of the world. The most common images are those of innocent children, despondent parents, and woebegone drifters, victims of misfortune or their own foolish choices. Less naturally does the Church consider charity toward its ideological, cultural, or military foes. Tears readily flow for a burnt-out war veteran living in an abandoned refrigerator box or for a starving infant with bloated belly and fly-ridden, encrusted eyes. Less compelling is the sight of an anarchist wounded by his own explosives, a drug dealer frantic to protect his family from the retaliation of his rivals, or the negligent parents of a violent teenager who has done much harm in the community. But these are surely neighbors as well.
Some critics of the Church claim that it is merely a haven for weak souls needing comfort and pious platitudes. What they often miss is the radical call to risky love. And the pastor who wants to shake up society’s mistaken image of the Church as a blandly domesticated or politically partisan club can simply apply Jesus’ upsetting teaching in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When he leads his people to love the hateful, help the prickly, and serve the hostile, then he joins a long line of ministers who have given the world a gospel jolt and not just a gospel lullaby.
Patrick, “Confession,” in The Works of St. Patrick, trans. Ludwig Bieler, (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1953), par. 37.
Ibid., par. 59.