Updated: Aug 15
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Our gospel passage today can be quite challenging—and controversial—when we greater appreciate its implications. Today, we hear one of the most famous parables of Jesus, second only, perhaps, to the parable of the Prodigal Son. The parable we hear is that of the Good Samaritan. There's a reason why I deliberately emphasized that word, Samaritan, which we'll get to later.
Many of us are already familiar with this story. The parable is an allegory in which the good Samaritan is Jesus. Jesus is the one who finds us wounded along our way. The road from Jerusalem, the Holy City, to Jericho (away from Jerusalem) can be seen as a representation of man's descent into sin. The oil and wine poured over the victim signify healing and sanctification received through the sacraments. The drawn out description of the Samaritan's assistance to the victim signify the length to which Christ goes in our behalf. And the Samaritan’s payment to the innkeeper is Christ’s payment for our sins by his death on the Cross. That’s the general summary of the parable. So far, so good. No controversy as of yet.
But there is more to the allegory, which can be easily overlooked due to lack of familiarity with the characters involved: the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. Who were these classes of people, and how were they viewed at the time of Christ?
Priests offered sacrifice to God at the Temple, which was the heart of Jewish religion, politics, and culture. And so, they represent the societal elite of the day. Imagine if today, Hollywood, the media, politicians, and the Church all celebrated a certain class of people. That would be an equivalent.
Levites performed subordinate services that also involved the Temple. They were Temple officials, judges, craftsmen, liturgists, gatekeepers, musicians, and so on. In short, they were like the bureaucrats of the day. They were like a government.
Inevitably, priests and Levites were generally well-regarded by the Jewish people and looked upon with respect.
But in our parable, neither the priest nor the Levite are celebrated as heroes. This is where controversy enters into our parable. Both the priest and the Levite are painted as dismissive of the victim, as they go out of their way to avoid the robbers' victim; they pass by on the opposite road when they encounter him.
You may have heard accounts that if each believed that the body was dead, then touching that body would result in one being made unclean. There is some truth to that. It’s mentioned in Numbers, Chapter 19, verse 11. Whatever duties they had that day, those duties would have been compromised by touching a corpse. They would have had to be purified before resuming official Temple duties, which would have been postponed for seven days or so.
But the Mishnah—which is a major written collection of Jewish oral traditions, including some traditions that date back to 200 B.C.—made an exception for the care of neglected corpses. And so, the priest and Levite could have justified either touching the corpse or ignoring it altogether.
In the end, they reveal a heartbreaking lack in human decency when they both actively avoid checking to see whether or not the victim was even alive. Whether alive or dead, neither the priest nor the Levite would allow themself to be inconvenienced by the victim. They couldn’t stomach their own plans being disrupted that day.
Along comes the Samaritan... And this is where controversy heightens. If Jesus simply aimed at encouraging people to care for those in need, he wouldn’t have mentioned a Samaritan. Far from it. But by making a Samaritan the protagonist of the tale, he introduces a great difficulty to the listening Jew.
You see, for the Jews in those days, Samaritans were a bastardized race, the result of intermarriage between the extinct northern Israelites and other peoples, during the Assyrian conquest. Samaritans were hated outsiders who worshipped falsely and desecrated Israel’s religion by intermingling elements of the Mosaic Law with practices of other religious practices. And yet, Jesus—himself a faithful Jew—elevated the Samaritan’s example, while throwing shade on the priest and Levite.
That’s a controversial message. But it would later be fulfilled, as Jesus would come to be hated by many, no less than any Samaritan, and be condemned to death. But through his death, he would pay for our sins and purchase our redemption.
This parable should still retain its force and still challenge us. The figure of a Samaritan may no longer have the same cultural charge as it once did, but we can still apply the allegory today. The allegory goes like this:
The man who had fallen victim to robbers was treated like an inconvenience, whether alive or dead. Today, which class of people is too often tragically considered an inconvenience? As the robbers’ victim lay silent on the road to Jericho, who are the voiceless in the world today, whose cries can at times go unheard? The priest and the Levite dismissed the robber’s victim as no more than a lifeless heap of flesh. Who, in our day, do even some so-called “Catholics” disdain as no more than a lifeless clump of cells? Now, do you sense a controversy?
Today, the pre-born are too often regarded as an inconvenience or as a threat to one’s own life or ambitions. Like the priest and the Levite who may have had other legitimate claims to their attention, we too can have many responsibilities that demand our time and attention. In the same way that the priest and Levite go out of their way to avoid the victim, even some Christians can intellectually go out of their way to ignore the human dignity of other human beings.
Despite the fact that human life begins at conception, which has been settled science for ages, the darkened heart has its own ambitions and is intolerant toward any challenge to its sovereignty. We truly live in the darkest of days when an entire class of human beings can be written off. I feel that nothing short of a great conversion of the world can resolve this.
Who is the Samaritan? The Samaritan is the hated outsider whose words bring insult and whose very presence is an offense. He triggers many merely by the mention of his existence. Nevertheless, the Samaritan is the one who came to the aid of the robbers’ victim.
In our day, who is the hated outsider? Who is the most offensive person you can think of? That’s the Samaritan. And now, ask yourself, who is the one who has done the most to save and safeguard the innocent pre-born human life? Was it you or me? Was it the modern day priest or Levite—today's celebrated societal elite? Or was it the Samaritan?
I suspect the scholar of the Law and other listenings Jews took great offense at the parable of the Good Samaritan. I suspect that we too would be just as challenged if we truly dared to discern the identity of the Samaritan of our day.
But in the end, though he never referred to him by name, the scholar did acknowledge that the Samaritan had treated the robbers’ victim with mercy. To him, Jesus said, “Go, and do likewise.” On the pro-life issue, let’s go out there, and be like the Samaritan.
 Cf. Num. 19:11-13
Rembrandt's The Good Samaritan. c. 1633. Oil on panel. [public domain]