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Book ReviewsThe Best Book of All – The Good Samaritan

Despite the ubiquity of "best sellers," my experience is that only a minority of people – perhaps a small minority – actually read books. People offer a variety of excuses for not reading anything longer than a USA Today article or a webpage, most often their lack of time. Generally, lack of time is a pretty poor excuse, but I find myself pleading it on my own behalf this month. So, if you will be kind enough to excuse my lack of time this month, I offer from my files a little commentary I wrote some time ago on the a familiar passage from the very best book of all – the parable of the Good Samaritan from St. Luke’s Gospel.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live."

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Luke 10:25-37

Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s seemingly reasonable question is disconcertingly direct. He says, in effect, "You know what the Law says. Do it!" The lawyer, not wishing to appear a simpleton, pretends that he has not heard enough and asks for clarification: "And who is my neighbor?" In the profession, we call this "asking one question too many."

Jesus answers with a story and concludes with His own question: "Which of these three … proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" Jesus’ question turns the lawyer’s question around to show that it is the wrong question. Do not ask who your neighbor is, says the Lord, ask to whom you are – or should be – a neighbor. In other words, do not ask who is outside the compass of your love, ask how you can extend your love’s compass. Jesus does not want us to calculate the limits of charity. He does not want us to figure out who deserves it and who does not. He wants us to respond to the man in need without calculation. He never tells us in the parable whether the Samaritan initially knows anything about the wounded man’s identity. The robbers have stripped the poor man naked. He lacks any identifying marks or clothing. The Samaritan encounters nothing but the man in his wounded humanity, which is alone enough to call forth our charity, to oblige us to become the man’s neighbor.

Paradoxically, while the Samaritan at first responds to the man’s naked need, he cares enough to encounter the man as a person and not as an abstraction. The Samaritan’s charity establishes an intimate, personal relationship between them. The Samaritan annoints the man. He personally binds his wounds. He promises to return, not to the man’s need, not to the concept of charity, not to charitable work in general, but to him. Through charity, he has come to know the wounded man and their relationship will continue. Is it stretching the point beyond Jesus’ intent to say that charity must culminate in friendship?

In canonizing Brother Albert Chmielowski, our Holy Father of blessed memory, John Paul II, quoted the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own."1 "This," said John Paul, "is exactly what Brother Albert did …. He took upon himself Christ’s yoke and burden; he did not become merely ‘one of those who give alms,’ but he became the brother of those whom he served…."2 The Holy Father’s distinction between the charitable someone who merely gives alms and another who becomes a brother emphasizes that charity never flows in one direction, but instead creates a "reciprocal relationship" between people.

In reciprocal relationships between persons merciful love is never a unilateral act or process. Even in the cases in which everything would seem to indicate that only one party is giving and offering, and the other only receiving and taking … in reality the one who gives is always also a beneficiary.

* * *

An act of merciful love is only really such when we are deeply convinced at the moment that we perform it that we are at the same time receiving mercy from the people who are accepting it from us. If this bilateral and reciprocal quality is absent, our actions are not yet true acts of mercy, nor has there yet been fully completed in us that conversion to which Christ has shown us the way by his words and example, even to the cross, nor are we yet sharing fully in the magnificent source of merciful love that has been revealed to us by him.3

Thus, without reciprocity, which requires at least recognition of the person at each end of the exchange of "merciful love," what we have is not truly charity. Further, no matter what our intentions, any attempt at charity which does not culminate in friendship can easily degenerate into an attempt at domination. John Paul II would have said that man must always be a subject, i.e., a person, to whom the only proper response is love. We cannot allow ourselves to turn man into an object, not even into the object of something as well-intended as our charity. But whenever we seek no more than to meet needs rather than to encounter persons, we cannot help but reduce men to the objects of our charity, to the mere vehicles for accomplishing our own ends. We inevitably dehumanize them; we rob them of their human dignity; we deny their individual identities and turn them into impersonal problems or causes.

This is not what the Samaritan does. He encounters the wounded man in the normal course, while going about his own business. He has not joined any program for the relief of crime victims. He is not working under a foundation grant. He does not start a movement to make the way from Jerusalem to Jericho safe. He merely takes personal initiative to care for the one man he has encountered, pausing to become the man’s friend. Our Savior is telling us that here is charity par excellence. Charity does not demand that we go out of our way, that we join a program or pursue a crusade. But it does demand that we go out of ourselves, that we care for the people we come across in the normal course of life, that we recognize them as irreplaceable and unrepeatable persons, that we love them as friends.

 

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NOTES

1. Isaiah 58:6

2. John Paul II, "Homily for the Canonization of Agnes of Bohemia and Albert Chmielowski," L’Osservatore Romano [English Language Ed.], December 4, 1989, p. 9 [emphasis in original], quoted in George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Cliff Street Book/Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1999), p. 599.

3. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Dives in Misericordia, pars. 141, 143.

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