The road which leads from Jerusalem to Jericho is a treacherous, dangerous, twisting mountain road which falls 3,300 feet in 17 miles. At the time the Gospel was written, and even today, the road was and is very dangerous. Prison escapees, desert bandits, and hijackers waited behind its rocks and turns to attack travelers as they made their way along the road.
In first-century Palestine, the road was known as the “Blood Highway” because of the number of travelers who were killed or beaten while traveling it. As recently as the nineteenth century, those who traveled this road had to pay sheiks for safe passage.
The Gospel scene today, deals with a lawyer asking Jesus a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life”? The question was a favorite topic of debate among rabbis of first-century Palestine. The lawyer wanted to see how competent Jesus was as a rabbi and teacher. The lawyer was an expert in Old Testament law. He knew that there were 613 Commandments in the Torah. He knew the ins – and – outs of each law and could give textbook answers to legal questions about religious law. For the lawyer, strict and exact observance of the law would assure salvation.
In Palestine, at the time of Jesus, the law excluded foreigners, strangers, and gentiles from the category of neighbor. With his question, the lawyer was asking the exact circumstances under which human beings must be treated with love and compassion. Actually, there are three questions asked in today’s Gospel. Who is our neighbor? Can we exclude anyone from being our neighbor? And how far do we have to go in loving our neighbor?
Jesus gave the answer in a parable. A man was going on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. Foolishly, he was alone – he knew that safety was found in numbers, but he was willing to take the chance of being attacked. His worst fear became a reality: he was attacked, robbed, and left for dead. A priest came on the scene – perhaps he thought the man was dead. He remembered the law in the Torah which stated that whoever touched a dead man was unclean for seven days, or he may have panicked and run fearing that he too might be attacked.
Whatever the reason was, he put the law of the Torah ahead of the law of love. After the priest left the scene, a Levite came along the road. Like the priest, he was a man of religion; but: he feared getting involved in the situation. He was not willing to take a chance. He wanted to play it safe. Perhaps he thought that the man in the gutter was a decoy left by the bandits to lure him to his doom. According to the law of the Torah, he could pass by, so he too let his fears hold him back from loving his neighbor.
A third man came along the road. He was a Samaritan, a semi-pagan, a foreigner. A good Jew had no dealings with a Samaritan. He was, according to the Torah, unclean. This Samaritan, who did not know the Old Testament law, knew the basic law of love and charity. He wasn’t afraid to get involved. He stopped to help the man lying half-dead along the side of the road. He wasn’t afraid to love the dying man. He alone was prepared to help the dying man – there was a need to do something, and he did it.
In the first reading, Moses assured the people of Israel that God’s law was written in their hearts. To respond to that law, we are called upon to break through the barriers which hinder us – as the Samaritan did. In the Gospel today, Jesus calls upon us to examine our attitudes toward others. As he called upon the priest, the lawyer, and the Samaritan to disregard what others may think of our acts of charity; to forget about seeking personal gain by helping or not helping others; to stop judging whether people are worthy of our help; and to think of the needs of others rather than merely our own.
The parable of the good Samaritan today is about us: not about the priest, the lawyer, or even the Samaritan. Because we are the man lying in the ditch by the side of the road. All of us are lying in the ditch – by the side of the road – bruised by our sins and lack of awareness of God’s love for us. We have been robbed of the fullness of our life by the lies and tricks of the evil one.
Jesus put his life on the line – hanging on the cross to pull us from the gutter and give us new life and new purpose. Jesus is the true good Samaritan whose love has no limits. That’s why Jesus never passed – by suffering people; that’s why he doesn’t pass us by. He pours the wine and oil of his healing into the wounds of our body and soul through the sacramental life of his church. In the holy eucharist, he gives himself as the everlasting pledge of his love.
St. Augustine put it this way: “You remember the man who was wounded by robbers and left for dead on the Jericho road. He was strengthened by receiving oil and wine for his wounds. His error was already pardoned, and yet his weakness is in process of healing in the inn. The inn, if you recognize it, is the church.”
At the present time, all of us are staying at the inn, because in life, we are passing by; in the future, we shall all be home, and we shall never leave it – we will have reached the house of our father – in perfect health; meanwhile, we receive our treatment here in the inn.”
My friends, we are all on a journey to the house of our father. Along the road, we get a little beat up, and we need to rest. May we always be healed and rest in the loving, merciful power of Jesus Christ and in his church.