Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
July 10, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
As many of you know, I was a lawyer. Over the twenty years I practiced, I heard all the lawyer jokes and all the put-downs directed at lawyers. I am now permanently retired from the legal world, yet I still keep up with the latest case law and analyze events as a lawyer would do. This parable of the Good Samaritan is no exception.
One of the things at which lawyers are good is asking questions. If a lawyer works in litigation, as I did, you ask questions of clients and opposing attorneys and witnesses in Court and at depositions. Some people think I ask too many questions, and to that allegation, I plead guilty.
The scenario in today’s Gospel is this. Jesus converses with a lawyer, who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. This lawyer studied the law given to the Israelites through Moses for his entire life. Jesus asked, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer quoted the Book of Deuteronomy, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” He also cited the Book of Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms that the lawyer was correct, and indeed, he was.
But then the lawyer asks Jesus to clarify who exactly one’s neighbor is. Some biblical commentators see the lawyer’s question as contentious like he was trying to pick an argument with Jesus or entrap Jesus into some legal error. I don’t see it that way.
I actually think this lawyer was brilliant. He asked the kind of questions I always asked witnesses in Court or at deposition, and it was a question that gave the witness a chance to explain herself or himself fully. So it was an excellent question.
Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, probably one of the more widely recognized and quoted parables of the Gospels. After all, we have Good Samaritan Hospitals worldwide and Good Samaritan laws that protect those responding to an emergency from legal liability.
Today’s Gospel illustrates the usefulness of asking questions of the what-do-you-mean-by-that variety. That’s a type of question lawyers ask all the time to flesh out the facts of a case and expose the emotions driving the parties involved in it. Perhaps unknowingly, he gave Jesus that chance to tell a story that makes a critical point about Christian behavior.
The first thing Jesus tells us is that someone was robbed and left for dead. This was a common occurrence on the highways and byways in the days of Jesus when there were no police departments as we know them and no cell phones to enable those in distress to call for help.
Jesus doesn’t tell us the victim’s ethnicity, economic status, political leanings, or religion. Jesus didn’t care about those things. What mattered to Jesus was that a human person was in distress and needed help. Jesus made this point: we all owe mercy to others in distress. Those people are the neighbors to whom Jesus referred in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
But that wasn’t the only point Jesus made as he answered the lawyer’s question about who is one’s neighbor. Consider who helped the man in distress and who did not. The priest and the Levite who passed him by on their way were prominent leaders in the local Jewish community. In those days, priests and Levites worked in the Jerusalem Temple. As such, ritual purity mattered to them. But here, they are caught in a dilemma. Even if they wanted to help the man on the road, they thought he might have been dead, and if he was and they touched him, they would incur ceremonial defilement. The question facing them was this: should they fulfill their obligation to help a fellow human, or should they protect their cultic purity so they might satisfy their ritual obligations? They chose the latter. For Jesus, what mattered was not ritual purity but human needs. We see that also where Jesus healed sick and injured people on the Sabbath, much to the chagrin of the religious powers-that-be.
The only person whose ethnicity was explicitly identified was the individual who helped the robbery victim. He was a Samaritan. The story doesn’t tell us about the ethnicity of the man in distress. More likely than not, the victim was Jewish, as was everyone else in the story except the Samaritan. So why was the Samaritan identified as such? That’s because, in those days, Jews considered Samaritans inferior.
Here’s a bit of background on this. Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which fell to the Assyrians in seven-twenty-two B-C. Its people were, for the most part, deported and scattered. But some of them survived and forged their own religious path with a version of Judaism that differed from that of the Southern Kingdom known as Judaea.
They were ethnically mixed people of Jewish and pagan heritage. Although they worshipped Yaweh, the Samaritans limited their Bible to the Torah, that is, the first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; they kept a strict version of the Sabbath and meticulous cleanliness laws; and, they worshipped God on Mount Gerazim instead of the temple at Jerusalem.
Based on that history, in the days of Jesus, Samaritans and Jews generally avoided contact with one another as a matter of custom. They traveled different routes from place to place to avoid encountering one another. Jesus, however, being the radical person he was, did not accept those customs.
In contrast to his fellow Jews, Jesus and his disciples showed great concern for the Samaritans by traveling through their land and staying with them. You may recall that in the Book of Acts, Philip went to Samaria to preach the Gospel, and Peter and John also preached in the area. You may also recall the story of Jesus cleansing ten lepers, where only a Samaritan thanked him. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus engaged in an extended conversation with a Samaritan woman, which ended with Jesus telling her that with the coming of the Kingdom of God, the divisions between Jews and Samaritans as to the place they worshipped God would not matter.
The alien nature of the Samaritans, as commonly perceived by the Jewish people in the days of Jesus, underlines the ironic sting of the story of both the grateful leper and the parable of the good Samaritan: the only one out of ten who returned to express thanks was a Samaritan; and in today’s Gospel, the Samaritan stranger was the good neighbor, not the priest or the Levite.
What we see here is another example of a continuing theme in scripture, the “Great Reversal,” where things don’t always happen as expected. The poor and lowly are exalted; social outcasts made prominent, the hungry fed, and devils driven out, all situations that turn our understanding of life and of God inside out. We exalt Jesus as the image of an invisible God, and then we stand at the foot of the cross seeing his blood flow from his crucified body. The exalted one is humiliated, and it is precisely through his humiliation that he is exalted in the glory of the Resurrection.
In today’s Gospel, the outcast Samaritan becomes the story’s hero. He goes the extra mile not only to rescue the unfortunate victim from his distress but makes it his business to make him healthy again.
What comes through loud and clear from this Gospel is that how the Samaritan businessman treated the robbery victim is what we’re supposed to do as Christians. Today’s first reading inveighs upon us to keep God’s laws. But the law to which Moses referred was not a harsh injunction against bad behavior. Nor is it something mysterious, remote, or up in the sky. No, the facts right before you tell you what you should do. Here, the Samaritan businessman saw a victim in distress. He may not have had a detailed legalistic understanding of God’s law but was moved by mercy to do the right thing. Mercy comes first. The law is secondary.
Yes, mercy. Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus asking the lawyer whether the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan did what was right in God’s eyes. The lawyer answered without hesitation, “the one who showed mercy.”
Yes, mercy. At least five times in each Mass, three times in the Kyrie, and twice in the Agnus Dei, we ask for God’s mercy upon us. By doing so, we acknowledge that we worship a merciful God and not a harsh, judgmental God. What many people in the religious community do not grasp is that God expects us to show mercy to others.
The refrain in today’s Responsorial Psalm is, “Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.” Thus when others turn to us in their need, we are expected to respond in the way the Samaritan did in today’s Gospel. We are expected to show mercy.
One way to understand the meaning of mercy is to look at how a lack of mercy looks. The news of the past several weeks has illustrated that.
We’ve seen the obvious merciless behavior of those who perpetrated multiple mass shootings.
Yet our country has a merciless Supreme Court which decided that the right to own a gun has a greater priority than public safety, including killing police officers.
The same Supreme Court also exhibited a lack of mercy for human health when it decided that the Environmental Protection Administration could not limit power plant pollution.
But those two bad decisions were not the Supreme Court at its merciless worst. For years, I have avoided speaking about abortion from the pulpit. No more.
What changed is that we have a Supreme Court majority that shows no mercy whatsoever for women pregnant against their will, no matter how tragic their circumstances. The lead opinion specifically stated that the constitution is all that matters, not the practical effects of the Court’s decision, no matter how harmful to flesh and blood human persons. That kind of thinking drove me out of the legal profession.
Here’s an example. I read a story about a ten-year-old pregnant child in Ohio, the victim of incestuous rape, who was denied an abortion in her home state, despite the obvious and serious risk to her health, because her doctors were scared that they could no longer count on the local courts to uphold her right to an abortion. So she had to travel several hundred miles to get appropriate medical care.
This story about the girl in Ohio is just the beginning of things to come. It will not be long before Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and John Roberts all have blood on their hands because abortion care is denied based on their despicable ruling. These individuals are anything but merciful. They are more attuned to the drumbeat of their political ideology than they are to the dignity and welfare of human persons.
So, “What about mercy for a fetus?” Isn’t a fetus a person? However, defining when human life begins is not a question science can answer. It’s ultimately a religious question that can be argued both ways. Conservative Christian abortion opponents paste together unrelated passages of scripture out of context to prove that human life begins at conception. However, other religions don’t agree. Most contemporary Jews rely on Genesis Two-seven, which tells us life begins when one takes one’s first breath. Keep in mind that Jesus was Jewish. Although Jesus had nothing explicit to say about abortion, he more likely would have looked to Jewish principles rather than anticipate what his followers might do several centuries later.
The number one principle of Catholicism, whether Old Catholic as I am, Anglican, Eastern or Roman, is the dignity of the human person. Human Dignity arises from God’s creation of us in God’s image and the incarnation of God in human form in the person of Jesus. The dignity of humanity sets humanity apart from animals. Unlike animals, to reproduce or not is a choice. Not so with animals. They operate on instinct. Animals engage in sex driven by instinct for the purpose of reproduction, while for human persons, sex and reproduction are conscious choices. The ability to choose to reproduce is what sets humans apart from animals. That ability to choose is fundamental to what makes us human and therefore, fundamental to human dignity.
Using the force of law to impose one’s religious views on the entire population is anything but merciful. It is arrogant and cruel. Applied to the events in today’s Gospel, the priest, and the Levite who ignored the injured man probably paid more attention to their ritual purity than showing mercy and were thus imposing their religious opinions on him without regard to his welfare.
Or perhaps the priest and Levite were of the philosophical view that, “If you have a misfortune, that’s your problem.” That is precisely what those who use the legal system are doing to force women to remain pregnant. They are acting without mercy. That is not what Jesus taught. Jesus commands mercy.
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is a pro-choice church that respects everyone’s reproductive rights. We will be equally supportive of those who choose to be parents and those who do not. In so doing, we are showing mercy by respecting the human freedom with which God endowed every person regardless of what any Court or legislature has to say.
A Court that issues decisions lacking in mercy is not a Court of Justice. Justice without mercy is not Justice. It is unbridled cruelty from a godless institution. As Pope Francis tells us, the name of God is mercy. El nombre de dios es piedad! God’s mercy is what demonstrates God’s omnipotence. As Saint Thomas Aquinas points out, God’s mercy brought the entirety of creation into existence. God’s mercy created humanity in God’s image.
Throughout history, God used God’s power to show mercy. God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God demonstrated mercy when He told Moses that he had heard his enslaved people’s cries and that he would deliver them to freedom in the Promised Land. God also showed mercy by forgiving the infidelity of his people. Even though God sent his people into exile, he did not make an end of them or forsake them.
God is described throughout the Old Testament as, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving the iniquity and transgression and sin,” to quote the Book of Exodus.
God manifested the ultimate in mercy when God sent Jesus to save us. The New Testament accentuates God’s mercy exemplified through Jesus, who, in his mercy, came come to call sinners. Those who desire to be healed cry out to Jesus to have mercy on them. Jesus, in his mercy, attends to their need. Through the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus illustrates the utter loving mercy of God the Father. As God forgives us, Christians are called to love and forgive their enemies.
To approach perfection in God’s sight consists of showing mercy to others as God is merciful to us. That is what the Good Samaritan did in today’s Gospel, which is what all humanity is called to do continually. Unfortunately, the United States is becoming less and less a place where mercy reigns. Allowing air pollution to protect corporate profits, enabling criminals to buy guns used in mass shootings, and denying healthcare to women to keep them pregnant against their will is anything but merciful.
Unfortunately, Christians have given Jesus a bad name by supporting the above-mentioned despicable developments. Not surprisingly, the general public is turning away in droves from organized religion. According to the Pew Research Center, sixty-three percent of people in the United States identify as Christian. Thirty percent profess no religion whatsoever. Only a third of the entire population attends church regularly. Nearly one-in-five adults under age thirty were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.
These numbers are a wake-up call for the church to reassess its operations and business model, or it will eventually die. What must come first is for Christians to recover their credibility by proclaiming that God is love and love is from God as demonstrated by tangible mercy in all it does and says.
Christians must exalt mercy over material success.
Christians must exalt mercy over legal doctrines, statutes, and constitutions.
And Christians must exalt mercy over political ideologies and getting elected to public office.
Unfortunately, I don’t see any of that happening any time soon absent a serious effort by the Greater Church Catholic and its members to incorporate the lessons taught by today’s Gospel into life at large into the outside world.
Knowing and preaching doctrines and principles is not enough to make a difference. The Church can only change human behavior if the church effectuates a personal change in individuals from deep inside each person rooted in convictions held within our minds and hearts. The Church’s job is to provide the spiritual nourishment to make that happen. Most churches, however, don’t do that because they’re scared to make waves. Jesus was a big-time wave-maker, and we should be as well. You can be sure that I will never be afraid to make waves.
Where there is the true love of God, there will be a true love of neighbor. Our love for God can, and should, find a way into the hearts of our neighbors. Resolve, today, to be a Good Samaritan, not only to those in physical distress but especially towards those who have been injured spiritually by the church.
That’s what we do here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. By offering all sacraments to everyone, we are a gateway to God’s love for humanity. And when you reach out to help others, never forget that the Jesus you receive in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar does ninety-nine percent of the work whenever you strive to help a neighbor spiritually or physically. AMEN.