We can't help everyone, but Jesus does call us to be a Good Samaritan for someone
Jul 11, 2019
I was sitting in the rectory of a parish here in the Archdiocese of Detroit one Sunday afternoon — whether I was pondering life’s deep questions or just watching TV, I don’t remember — but in the middle of whatever I was doing, the phone rang. I picked it up, and there was a woman on the other line.
I could tell by the woman’s voice that she was young and rather timid. When I said who I was, she began to tell me that she was in trouble. She gave me her name — for the sake of her anonymity I’ll say her name was “Sarah” — and told me that she was pregnant, homeless, alone and had nowhere to stay that night. Because she told me she had previously spoken with a staff member at this parish, I decided to call him, and after getting his assessment of the situation, called Sarah back and told her that I would like to meet her.
Knowing that I would need to meet her in a public place, we decided to meet at a local restaurant. As I arrived, Sarah — who was clearly young and visibly pregnant — was just being served a complimentary dinner from the take-out window. Because the restaurant only had a few seats inside, Sarah and I decided to go outside to talk. There wasn’t really anywhere good to sit outside, either, and so we sat down on a curb of the parking lot behind the restaurant, and Sarah began to eat her dinner and to tell me her story.
The long and short of it was that Sarah had experienced a lot of trouble in her short life, and the end of her troubles did not seem to be in sight. As I listened to her story and tried my best to be sympathetic and to offer some support and advice, two thoughts occurred to me about my own experience with Sarah. One of them was rather noble, I suppose, and one of them was not so noble.
Here I had only that morning been celebrating Mass and greeting hundreds of people at a rather prominent parish, most of the parishioners of which are among the more stable members of society. And here I was now, I thought to myself, sitting on a curb behind a little restaurant hearing a troubling story about a young woman and her baby, who are just clinging to the fringes of society.
The more noble thought was that I marveled at the variety of experiences a priest can have even in the course of one day. Here I had only that morning been celebrating Mass and greeting hundreds of people at a rather prominent parish, most of the parishioners of which are among the more stable members of society. And here I was now, I thought to myself, sitting on a curb behind a little restaurant hearing a troubling story about a young woman and her baby, who are just clinging to the fringes of society. Having such different experiences in one day seemed an amazing thing to me.
The second, less noble, thought that competed for my mind’s attention as I felt myself more and more drawn into Sarah’s story was: “How in the world did I end up here?”
This question highlights a struggle rooted in our fallen human nature: the struggle to break out of my own “world” and to enter the “world” of another person. This is a challenge we face even though we so easily speak about a developing global village, when technology has made certain kinds of communication so easy, and when collectively we seem to talk without stopping. Despite all of these developments, we live in a society in which we hear about “my world” or “your world” as if they were private possessions. Just as an example, a prominent marketing campaign a few years ago featured the slogan, “Your world, delivered.”
But the world is not the private possession of yours or of mine. The world belongs to God, and together with the rest of humanity we are made stewards of the world. That is why we need to break out of any private world we’ve constructed and into the worlds of others, especially those who need our help.
That is in large part the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Where a priest and a Levite had been afraid or unwilling to break out of their own worlds in order to help a stranger in need, we read in today’s Gospel that the Samaritan who passed by was “moved with compassion.” He “approached” the man and came to his aid. Unwilling to let excuses convince him to keep walking, the Good Samaritan broke into the world of the man attacked by robbers and rescued him.
Acting in this way is not easy by any means, and it almost always requires self-sacrifice. But we have two very compelling reasons to do it anyway.
The first reason is that Jesus Christ first did this for us, and we need to follow His example. St. Augustine refers to Jesus as “our Samaritan.” That is because the Son of God, Who was doing perfectly well up in heaven, was nevertheless willing to break into our world, to share the experience of our human nature, in order to save us from sin and death. He could have let us go, but He saved us out of perfect and self-sacrificial love.
The second reason is that Jesus commands us to exercise this kind of love. We see in this Sunday’s Gospel that one of the two “great Commandments” is love of neighbor. We also know that Jesus gives a “new Commandment” of love at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. And Jesus makes it clear that our eternal destiny depends to a great extent on how well we love others, among other places in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel and in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which — remember — is part of Jesus’ answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Practically speaking, it is not always easy to identify which situations call for our direct aid and which don’t. ... We need to pray about these things, to be ready to respond when needed, and to exercise the virtue of prudence or good judgment — a gift of the Holy Spirit — in deciding when and how to help.
Practically speaking, it is not always easy to identify which situations call for our direct aid and which don’t. For example, it is not always safe or necessary for us to help people pulled over on the side of the road; also, we might not always be able to give to every charity that sends us a request; and the time or circumstances might not always be right to offer guidance to the relative or friend who has made bad choices in life, or to volunteer a certain number of hours in the soup kitchen, or to do any number of other good things.
We need to pray about these things, to be ready to respond when needed, and to exercise the virtue of prudence or good judgment — a gift of the Holy Spirit — in deciding when and how to help.
But we can’t let the difficulty of this discernment or the difficulty of breaking out of the world we’ve built around ourselves and into the worlds of others keep us from following the clear command of Jesus, whose “takeaway” point regarding the example of the Good Samaritan challenges each of us: “Go and do likewise.”
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.