"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The real Samaritan

I've stumbled on a passage from the homilies of Severus of Antioch, an important theologian of the sixth century, that serves as an illuminating commentary on a famous parable contained in today's Gospel in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite: that of the Good Samaritan.

“A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho." Christ did not say, "somebody went down" but " a man went down", because this passage concerns all humanity. For humanity, as a result of Adam's sin, left Paradise, our tranquil home on high, where there was no suffering and which was filled with wonders; this place was rightly called Jerusalem, a name which means "God's Peace ". And all mankind fell towards Jericho, a hollow and low country, where the heat is stifling. Jericho is the feverish life of this world, a life that separates us from God... And once humanity had thus turned away from the right road towards this life, a troop of wild demons came to attack us like a band of robbers. They stripped us of the clothing of perfection, and left us no trace of the strength of mind, purity, justice, or prudence, or anything else which characterizes the divine image (Gn 1:26); but striking us repeatedly by the blows of various sins, they knocked us down and finally left us half dead...

The Law given by Moses passed by, but it lacked strength; it did not lead humanity to a complete cure; it did not raise us up from where we lay… For the Law offered sacrifices and offerings "which could not make perfect those who practised this worship" for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins" (He 10:1.4)...

Finally a Samaritan came to pass. Christ deliberately gives himself the name Samaritan… For he himself came to us, carrying out the intention of the Law and showing by his acts "who is our neighbor" and what it is "to love others as oneself".

The key point in this rather typical example of patristic-era exegesis is that the Good Samaritan is to the wounded man what Christ is to us. I can attest to that by my personal experience.

About fifteen years ago, I chose what I now realize was the wrong spiritual path. The roots of that choice had taken hold years before, manifesting themselves fully only at a time of crisis in 1992. Thereafter, I lived in rebellion against God despite telling myself that I was doing his will. That situation was untenable. By 2000, and thanks also to my genetic predispositions, I had what used to be called a nervous breakdown. Spiritually, I had been stripped of "strength of mind, purity, justice, or prudence, or anything else which characterizes the divine image"; realizing that I had abandoned God along with my professional vocation, I fell into profound depression requiring months of intensive mental-health treatment. Then and thereafter, I encountered many good Samaritans who helped to sustain me amid a ghastly array of temporal challenges; ever since, I have been eking out a marginal existence as one of "the poor," working essentially menial jobs so as to keep up with child support. I see that existence as one of recovering by penance what I had lost by sin. I had to be stripped of everything, left half-dead by the side of the road, in order to be set again on the right path after being succored by Jesus Christ, both through the confirmed members of his Body and through "the Samaritans": those who, to human eyes, seem to be anything but members of the Body. I don't think I'm kidding myself any longer about being on that path; while it has yet to yield temporal fruit, I know now where I'm walking to.

Of course it's not enough to individualize the insights afforded by the parable of the Good Samaritan. If and when we truly do let ourselves be succored and transformed by Jesus Christ, we must do and be that for others. The two are of a piece. Just as "God is love," so too we must love our "neighbors" as he does, even and especially when it hurts. That is what I now see as my vocation. I am called to use my gifts, whatever is special and unique to me, to love those who have been put on my path to love. I know I do some of that in this setting, but it's not enough: the thing is too much at a distance, too gratifying to the ego. My prayer is that I be eagerly disposed to receive more of what's already on offer: the fidelity and courage to love in the flesh all those whom it has been given me especially to love, in the ways I have hitherto failed to do, thus failing them.

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