The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most beloved, but also challenging of parables. Jesus offered it in response to a fellow Jew, a scholar of the Law, asking,“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, then eventually, “Who is my neighbor?” . It was test, asking Jesus to clarify who we are obliged to show God’s mercy toward.
Of the three figures who passed by the victim, the first two—a Temple priest and a Jew from the tribe of Levi—while we regard them as uncompassionate, they were in a dilemma. As strict followers of Jewish Law, contact with blood would have rendered them unclean, and so they gave a wide berth in passing the victim.
Jesus’ response calls us to see mercy as an ultimate value: challenging the philosophical and moral framework that ordinarily shapes our responses. And furthermore, because Jesus adds the detail that it’s a foreigner who embodies this radical mercy, it seems to convey that mercy extends beyond those who are my people, my fellow citizens, those of my religion?
Of the many saints and historical figures who have shown us what this mercy looks like, among those is Peter Claver, born in 1581 near Barcelona, Spain. After joining the Jesuits at age 20, he was sent to the new world, to the port-city of Cartagena. Peter went to evangelize, but soon came face to face with a troubling reality, as ships arrived in the port, filled with African slaves—men, women and children.
As ships arrived, he found his way to the cargo area, treating wounds, giving food and drink, quelling their fears. For this, he faced contempt and rejection. After 40 tireless years of merciful love, Peter contracted an illness from a widespread epidemic. The illness left him unable to continue his work. For the remaining 3 years of his life, most of his days were spent in sickness and alone in his private quarters, where he died in the year 1654.
Then there’s Katharine Drexel, born in Philadelphia in 1858. As daughter of a successful investment banker, Katharine and her sisters inherited a fortune. She also inherited her father’s compassion for the poor. While much work was being done to respond to the needs of the population of European immigrants, Katharine recognized that there were two other groups in the U.S. whose needs were being ignored: Indians and blacks.
After establishing a religious community, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she poured every drop of her financial resources, influence and energies into establishing missions and schools to serve these two marginalized groups—traveling from one outpost to another to another. Many denounced her efforts, declaring that she was wasting her time and money on an unworthy population, but she remained undeterred. Mother Drexel died in 1955 at age 97, having lived through eras that included slavery, wars waged against the Native Americans and the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Finally, Joseph de Veuster, born in 1840 in Belgium, entered religious life and took the name Damian. In 1864, he was sent to the distant group of islands known as the Kingdom of Hawaii. Years later, when the local bishop asked his priests to volunteer to serve the needs of the leper population that had been segregated to the island of Molokai, a small group of priests said yes, with the plan that they would serve in rotation. Fr. Damian went first, and began to bring order to the chaos, making furniture, building a school and homes, farming, but also caring for the sick, making coffins and digging graves. As it turned out, he never left the island. After about 11 years, he contracted the illness that would eventually end his life in 1889, declaring, “….I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ”.
The list of such figures goes on: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Mother Teresa, and so on. I can’t imagine that the course of these beautiful lives wasn’t inspired, at least a little, by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. While you and I aren’t likely to live as heroically as these figures—though only God knows—we are challenged to embody God’s mercy in the setting of our ordinary lives. We’re challenged to overcome the myriad of reasons that serve as our excuses and justify our fears.
When Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, God response inferred it so. (Gen 4:9-12). But even more, Jesus makes it clear that in our acts of mercy to those who are suffering, it’s him we encounter: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 5:40).
At the end of our lives, may we not be regarded merely as people of principles—though the principles serve a purpose, and we must not be reckless in discounting or abandoning those. But more than principled, may we be sons and daughters, driven to grind through the hard questions and to find solutions to the dumbfounding complexities and even the legalities, in any way they serve as barriers to justice and human dignity—all that the world may know God’s tender mercy. As we have received mercy, we must reflect it in our lives.
St. Peter Claver….pray for us!
St. Katharine Drexel….pray for us!
St. Damian of Molokai….pray for us!