To answer the scholar’s testing question: “who is my neighbor?” Jesus has told a parable which many of us have heard so many times in our Christian lives: the Good Samaritan. Instead of defining who is the ideal neighbor and who is not, or the extension to which a neighbor should be, Jesus has provided the scholar a model to be a good neighbor, instead of saying who would be our neighbors, Jesus tells us how to act like a merciful neighbor. Is it that “Being a good neighbor, a compassionate one” truly what we need to be so that we can inherit eternal life?
A couple of years ago when I taught an RCIA class at my Vietnamese parish; there was a young man who wished to become a Catholic. He was eager to do everything to marry a Catholic girl. They were a nice couple who always sit at the front row and participated in all class activities. Everything progressed pretty well until one day the man called and told us that he couldn’t continue anymore. Surprised and disappointed, I took time to investigate and found that in one of our “Gospel sharing”; they discovered that their families are in great conflicts. Actually, they consider one another enemies. The young man who is an exchanged foreign student from Vietnam comes from the family who has major involvements with the communist party. His father is a high ranking communist soldier. The girl’s family, her father was also a high ranking soldier of the overthrown Republic of South Vietnam. Her family was forced to abandon their home to a new deserted economical area and her father as the member of the defeated party had to be reeducated in prison for more than 7 years before they escaped to the US. The couple had broken up. Who is then the neighbor to both of them?
Who is then 2000 years ago the neighbor of the victim in this parable? Jewish people understood “neighbor” in a very limited sense. The Jews would not regard Samaritans as neighbors. Samaritans are outsiders. They were living in Samaria, north of Jerusalem and were Jews until the eight century BC when they intermarried with foreigners who colonized Samaria (2 Kings 17:5-41). After that time the Jews no longer considered the Samaritans as Jews since they had lost the purity of their Jewish race. From then on there was constant friction between the Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans refused to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and built their own temple. They refused to accept the Old Testament that the Jews had and they had their own version of Old Testament. In revenge, in the year of 128 BC, the Jews destroyed the Samaritans’ temple and their relations were at an all time low after that. Reading the parable in this context, the challenging question of the scholar to Jesus isn’t trivial. To what extent of the term neighbor is understood in the love command here?
The Jews after listening to the parable must be stunned, mostly by insults, by the unexpected goodness of the Samaritan. It was probably not a shock that the priest passed by on the other side of the road because if the injured man were dead the priest would be unclean according to Jewish law and would be unable to function as a priest for a week. The Levite passed by on the other side of the road and that may not have been a shock either since Levites were the priests’ assistants. Because that twenty mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well known for robbers, it was not unusual for someone to be attacked and robbed. And fear of the injured man being a decoy may be a reason why someone would leave a man by the side of the road. So for a number of reasons those listening to Jesus may not have been too shocked at the priest and Levite passing by on the other side of the road, even though that is what shocks us.
What shocks the Jews was that it was a Samaritan who went over to the injured man. The Jews are expecting a fellow Israelite to whom Jesus would make the hero. But it is a Samaritan whom Jesus does. In fact, the help of the Jews’ hated Samaritan goes far beyond the minimal steps required to save the man’s life. Moved with compassion, he not only overcomes his enmity between himself and the Jew but even willingly spends his own resources to help the stranger to recover. Compassion turns out to be much stronger than the hatred that is fostered by the social relationships between the two groups. The Good Samaritan parable is God’s answer to the complicated question of the Jewish scholar, a striking side of Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies. Jesus is challenging the thinking of those who listen to him, inviting his listeners to think in a new way, to change their attitudes, to no longer regard the Samaritans as enemies but as neighbors worthy of love and furthermore to willingly cast the so- called enemy as a morally superior person as it is the Good Samaritan in this story. The parable challenges us to identify ourselves with the victim in the ditch because that is perhaps the only way we can experience the required change of heart. One can’t really abolish the category of “enemy” as long as one continues to hold the ground that our group is more superior to yours and hence justifies out hatred of you. One can only make the required change of heart if one really acknowledges the equality or even the superiority of the enemy. Then one may discover the enemy too can be equal. To the Samaritan, the Jew in the ditch is no longer an enemy but simply a helpless victim for whom the Samaritan has compassion and the resource to help.
My dear brothers and sisters, we are saddened by the hatred, violence and destruction of wars occurring throughout the world especially in the Middle East today; and the imperfect sinful acts of many members of the Church throughout history, but we firmly believe that God creates the world according to his loving plan and won’t let this world trapped in endless cycles of violence and retaliation. The Good Samaritan’s deed of compassion is the answer to all of these perplexing issues. The enemy does not have to be an enemy because compassion can transform such deeply ingrained prejudices in the time of Jesus and also in our time.
As we come together and prepare to receive the Body of Christ in this Holy Mass, the source of all compassions, we ask God to help us to live out God’s living words which is something very near to us, already in your mouths and in our hearts, and we only have to carry it out. We implore God to unite and strengthen us, to make us understand the essential meaning of us being merciful neighbors to everyone instead of questioning who our neighbors are. And by doing likewise we will inherit God’s eternal life!
Dcn. Vincent Đàm Hữu Thư