Only by Mercy

Only by Mercy

On Saturday, I was at Immaculate Conception Church in Green River for married couples celebrating their anniversaries, and on Sunday I celebrated the De Smet Mass near Daniel, WY.  Below is the homily from Sunday.

Everyone knows the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37), even those who are not Christian.  But how many of us live it?  As I reflected on it this week, I found myself wanting.  As I measured my life against the Good Samaritan, I felt terribly inadequate. 

This parable challenges us.  Jesus is constantly pushing us to go deeper, to do more.  As he began his public ministry, he said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Mt. 5:20)  The scribes and Pharisees were very careful about obeying the commandments.  Jesus wanted something more.  This is obvious in parables like the Good Samaritan. In this gospel, he was pushing the scholar of the law to do so much more than just obey the commandments. 

What MORE does he want of you and me?  As we listen to the parable of the Good Samaritan, what more does he want in how we treat family and friends, the broken and abused in society, or foreigners and migrants?

Let’s reflect on this parable to see how Jesus describes the righteousness which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus reveals his own code of ethics which far surpasses the law.  He reveals his own merciful heart.  He is the Good Samaritan.  Remember, as Jesus describes the Good Samaritan, he is describing what drives him. 

He said, “Now a Samaritan traveler came upon the man beaten and half-dead, and he was moved with compassion at the sight” (Lk. 10:33).  The word for compassion is splanknizomai (σπλαγχνίζομαι).  In Greek, ‘splankna’ is the innards or guts, so splanknizomai means “his innards moved” or “his guts ached.”  In the gospels, this is the main word to describe Jesus’ mercy. Normally, it is translated as “his heart was moved with pity.”  But it could be loosely translated, “He was sick to his stomach with compassion.”  Think of what a parent feels when their little child has been seriously injured or diagnosed with cancer.

Therefore, the first lesson in the parable is – “Listen to your guts.”

My family lived in the middle of two Indian reservations.  Our ranch was on the northern edge of the Cheyenne River Reservation and just south of the Standing Rock Reservation.  At times, my dad picked up hitch hikers who were Native American.  As a young child, I often heard him say that he gave someone a ride, even though he knew that it was dangerous.  But his explanation was clear.  It was such a cold day, or they were out in the middle of nowhere.  He had a tenderness for them.  His guts ached for them.

Dad never read the Bible, but he listened to his guts.  He grew up on a reservation where people were prejudiced against Indians, and he wasn’t immune to that prejudice.  Yet, he listened to his guts when he saw one walking along the road. 

Jesus said to the scholar of the law, “When I see someone hurting, I hurt with that person.  I look at a man beaten and stripped, and my guts ache for him.  I don’t see him, and ask, ‘I wonder if he is my neighbor according to the Law.’”  That was a question debated in Jesus’ day.  The rabbis taught that in the Law, a‘neighbor’ included all Jews (Lev. 19:17-18) and foreigners who were living according to the Jewish Law (Lev. 19:34).  But all other foreigners were not seen as neighbors.  Gentiles were not considered neighbors.  Enemies were not neighbors.

We can be like those rabbis who quibbled over the definition of neighbor.  Sometimes we become desensitized by our culture.  We don’t see the person in dire straits with compassion because our culture says they don’t’ deserve it.  They’re bad people or dishonest.  They don’t belong here. 

If you have become desensitized by the culture, then learn from Jesus’ gut reaction.  So often Jesus felt splanknizomai.  His guts ached for people.  The same word is used for how Jesus reacted to the widow of Nain (Lk. 7:13) whose only son had died, and to a leper (Mk. 1:41) and the blind men (Mt. 20:34) who begged for healing.  Whenever he looked on people in dire straits, his guts ached for them. 

Jesus looked on all people with mercy, especially outsiders.  The man stripped and left for dead had no ethnicity.  In that culture, there were two ways that you knew someone’s ethnicity – by the way they dressed and the way they talked.  This naked man unable to speak is simply a human being.  Jesus commands us to look on all human beings with mercy.

In this gospel, Jesus challenges us to evaluate whether we are treating people like the Good Samaritan.  That begins at home.  How do you treat your spouse, or children, or elderly parents?  Next, how do you look at people in your school or place of work?  Finally, as our nation discusses the plight of refugees and immigrants, what cultural norms blind us or make us look the other way?  Are we influenced more by cultural norms, or by Jesus’ mercy?

The second lesson in the parable is – “Learn from outsiders.”  Sometimes, they model compassion better than scholars of the Law.  Maybe that is because they have been beaten up themselves.  I noticed that while serving as a priest on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  Many of the Lakota people are models of compassion.  In some ways, they taught me more about Jesus’ compassion than I learned from studying the gospels.

The Samaritan was traveling outside of his country, while the priest and the Levite were in the heart of their homeland.  So it is more likely that they were neighbors to the dying man, than the Samaritan.  Yet, the priest and Levite reacted with cold insensitivity, while the Samaritan responded with heartfelt compassion,

Samaritans were considered heretics, people who had abandoned the faith.  In the Jewish mindset, ‘Good’ and ‘Samaritan’ did not go together.  In 721 B.C. when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the Samaritans intermarried with the enemy and compromised true Jewish religion.  They were considered traitors and heretics.  When Jesus told this parable, Jews had hated Samaritans for 750 years because they betrayed the faith!

Yet, Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of the parable.  When the scholar of the Law asked, “And who is my neighbor?”,  Jesus resplied, “He is the enemy whom you have hated for 750 years.  You see him as a heretic. But the goodness of God works in his heart better than it does in the priests and experts of the law.”

Every single one of us fails to live the parable of the Good Samaritan.  As we listen to this parable, we stand convicted.  When we compare our lives to the example of the Good Samaritan, we are terribly inadequate.  Here’s the good news – Jesus continues to be the Good Samaritan, for all humanity.  He is so merciful to us in our brokenness.  Think of how often the Lord has forgiven you.  Think of how often your spouse or parent or child has forgiven you because he or she was inspired by God’s mercy. 

The kingdom of heaven is first of all an experience of mercy.  A disciple lives only by mercy.  As disciples, we are graciously forgiven by the merciful Lord.  Yet, Jesus also challenges us to be merciful like the Father is merciful.  He wants us to do more than just obey the commandments. 

Today, remember with gratitude the mercy you’ve been granted, over and over and over again.  Second, ask God to make your heart overflow with generous Love for family and friends, the broken and abused, foreigners and migrants.  Ask for the grace to be just like Jesus, the Good Samaritan. 

The disciple lives only by mercy – filled with God’s gracious Love and driven by the Lord’s gut-wrenching compassion. That is what a Good Samaritan looks like.

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