How many times have you heard the two great commandments — “You shall love the Lord your God with your mind, soul, heart and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The first commandment is challenging in itself. Committing every part of ourselves to love God means that we must make secondary all the other loves of our life. The second commandment, explained in the context of the story of the Good Samaritan, also demands our entire selves. But being taught that they are intricately connected and both necessary makes the challenge even more difficult.
How can we begin to believe what the book of Deuteronomy tells us in the readings for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time? These commands given to us by God are already a part of us. The Scripture says that they are already in our hearts and mouths. We have to carry out these commands. It seems to be implied that the act of the Good Samaritan is built into us, it is a part of who we are. When we listen to the voice of God within, we hear that we are one with each other and that there is no room for enemies and unforgiveness. When we exercise our own inherent goodness, created in the image and likeness of God, we will tend naturally toward love and service of one another. How, then, have we gotten so far away from this voice that resides in each of us? How have we become deaf to the voice of God within us?
Imagine yourself faced with the same situation as the Samaritan. You come across a person who is in need. Somehow you become aware that that person is part of a group that you were separated from. That separation might have resulted from some attitude or judgment against a certain group of people. It might have to do with the appearance of the person. Sometimes people in need scare us because we know that responding will cost us time or money or challenge our attitudes. When faced with a person in need, we would hope that we would have an awareness of their intrinsic value and dignity but sometimes we don’t. We pass by on the other side of the road, failing to acknowledge the need and respond to it.
After Jesus tells the story, He asks the important Gospel question: “Who in your opinion was the neighbor?” Being a true neighbor has something to do with mercy. In the same way that God shows mercy to us over and over again, without prejudice or holding a grudge, we are asked to show mercy in the same way. Jesus’ story makes it seem clear who the neighbor really is, but is real life that clear? Does what worked in Jesus’ time work now? Did the Samaritan experience the same fear of being harmed as we might if we stopped and tried to help somebody in need? Might the Samaritan have been tempted to withhold mercy like we do when we think someone isn’t deserving of it?
We have plenty of opportunities to act as Good Samaritans every day. What will it take for us to prepare to act that way the next time we are given the opportunity? We might want to begin to build a habit of acting with mercy first, changing our habit of acting first with judgment or out of fear. We might want to become familiar with ways that our communities respond to those in need and place ourselves in a situation where we can be a part of that response.
Loving only those who love us back or being merciful only toward those who agree with us is not Christian living. Jesus says there’s nothing grace-filled about that. We should commit ourselves to become more merciful and more generous, no matter who is in need.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.