Good Samaritan

By The Rev Mark Michael, Interim Rector

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” St. Luke 10:36-37

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The book was called “The Casuist: Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology,” and because it was published in 1906, I was able to download it onto my Kindle for free. In the little town where I last served as rector, they gave free gym memberships to the local clergy, so I took my exercise on the elliptical machine, and for about six months, “The Casuist” kept my mind occupied as my arms and legs ran through the machine’s monotonous courses.

I don’t know if any of you read in the gym or not, but I’ve found that books with short chapters and relatively punchy content works best. And “The Casuist” filled the bill in spades. Over several volumes, it collected hundreds of “hard cases,” moral quandaries that had been sent to the author, a certain Stanislaus Woywod, OFM, by puzzled priests who ran across them while hearing confessions and giving spiritual advice.

Fr. Woywod’s cases tend toward the curious and the colorful. There’s Mary, who lays dying and would like to make her confession to the priest over the telephone because her antireligious husband forbids him from entering the house.[1] John, who becomes engaged to a (presumably different) Mary, and then breaks it off without any good reason and marries Martha in a civil ceremony needs to sort out what he owes to his jilted.[2]  And there’s a certain Father X, who because of his scandalous conduct, has been forbidden by his bishop to enter a saloon for a full year except to administer the last rites. If he is vacationing in another diocese, the good father wonders, does the prohibition still apply?[3]

Many of the book’s cases involve two laws or moral principles that seem to contradict each other, like the principle that one should avoid occasions of sin and the fact that a bishop’s jurisdiction necessarily has certain limits. Some involve moral problems created by new technology and social situations, where new principles need to be generated by looking back to similar situations in earlier times.

The book is fascinating for anyone interested in social history because it shows all the challenges present for Catholics leaving the monoreligious farming villages of the old world for a new land. America is full of new moral quandaries: insurance companies who one’s employer orders one to defraud;[4] morphine, which might be taken in some situations but not in others;[5] and legendary religious diversity. One can be sure that back in Sicilian villages, priests didn’t encounter many people like Titus, who “without the least scruple of conscience, has changed his religion a number of times, for the sake of worldly gain.”[6]

I did enjoy a chuckle or two as I read the book, but in many ways it was very helpful for me in my current work as a priest. Because people do ask priests hard questions. They find themselves in situations at work or in their relationships where two obligations seem to be in tension with each other. People wonder when they should insist on a higher standard and when it’s right to go along with the crowd. They worry about balancing different commitments they have made, and how they should think about the new moral and social situations that spring up around us every day. As an Episcopal priest in 2016 I don’t always agree with Fr. Woywod in 1906, but the manner in which he reasons his way to a conclusion can often be very valuable.

Casuistry is an ancient practice, and it arises from the best of intentions. People who love God and want to do His will inevitably find themselves in situations that are morally perplexing. The Law God gave to Israel clearly envisions unusual cases that may arise. Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is pretty much one long exercise in casuistry, as the apostle works through a set of questions raised by the congregation there. Rabbis in Jesus’ time were principally casuists, responsible for helping people reason their way through how to apply the principles of the God’s law to particular situations. And Jesus shows himself a master of the art, and in some ways a critic of it, in today’s Gospel, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus tells his famous story, which is really a moral case study, in an exchange with a teacher of the law. The exchange begins with consensus—Jesus and the teacher both agree that the best summary of God’s law comes from the combination of two Old Testament passages. To enter into eternal life, one must love God with one’s heart, mind and strength and one’s neighbor as one’s self. But then the lawyer asks a question: “and who is my neighbor?”

It’s possible that the man was trying to trap Jesus with the question, but it was also a perfectly reasonable thing to ask a rabbi. We know from Jewish texts of the time that different scholars gave different answers to the question. Because society was changing, and there were many more neighbors around than there used to be. Back when God gave the law to Moses, Jewish people were a monoreligious, family-linked, insular society. In Jesus’ time, they were spread around the known world, living alongside people who practiced diverse religions, spoke different languages, and kept unusual social practices. What if my neighbor is one of the despised Samaritan heretics? What if he’s a Roman legionary or a swindling Greek trader? I know God would want me to love as myself the person who sits beside me in synagogue, but surely there must be limits. The lawyer wants to know the boundaries Jesus puts around this term “your neighbor.”

And so to answer the question, Jesus sets out a case. It’s a case about “some guy”—the term is deliberately anonymous.[7] Even at the end of the story we don’t know anything about this opening figure. Is he a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, pious or scoundrel? All we know him is that he is beset by bandits, robbed, stripped naked and left unconscious along the side of the road. He can’t speak. He’s not wearing the distinctive dress of any social group. He could be anybody. That’s exactly the point.

The first man to happen upon him is a priest, who is certainly socially prominent, probably wealthy, and hopefully pious.   Because he’s a priest, he’s also bound by a series of laws about ritual purity. If he touches a dead man, or steps in blood, maybe even if he touches an unbeliever, he will have violated his vows and until he has offered a sacrifice of atonement, he won’t be able to minister in the temple. Of course, he’s also obliged to help a man in trouble. But maybe he wanted to take the safest path, or maybe he was in a hurry, or maybe he couldn’t be bothered. But he rides on by, leaving the man half-dead in the ditch.

A Levite rides by next, and he gets a little closer to the man in the ditch. The purity laws are a little laxer in his case, but maybe he’s seen the priest ride by, and he thinks it would be disrespectful to question the holy man’s judgment. So the Levite rides on as well, and the man remains half-dead in the ditch.

But then a Samaritan comes, a trader in a foreign land. He, above all, was a man who could be excused for keeping his distance. The man in the ditch is almost certainly not one of his kind. He’s a stranger in a hostile land, where people recoil from his touch and avert their eyes in his presence.

But the Samaritan goes to “some guy,” the man in the ditch. He binds up his wounds, like God who binds up his broken people. He pours in oil and wine—antiseptic and balm, yes, but also the holy foods of the temple. He carries the man back to an inn, where he could well be suspected for the crime. One commentator I read compared it to an Indian riding into Dodge City with a scalped cowboy in the saddle.[8] The Samaritan probably doesn’t just put the man on his own horse, he also leads it like a servant. When he leaves the inn, he pays for two weeks’ lodging, and promises to make good on the rest when he comes back again.

Which of the three, Jesus asks, was neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves? He’s shifted the question, you see. He’s not asking about who discharged his carefully delimited duty properly. When “some guy” was nearly dead, Jesus means, who became God’s true child by extending the mercy that saved his life. The teacher of the law gives the proper answer. “The one who showed mercy,” he says. The true neighbor was the one who drew so near out of love, and risked his own life to save a man he never knew.

But Jesus has also problematized the teacher’s original question. As the great New Testament scholar T. W. Manson summarized, Jesus is suggesting that “love does not begin by defining its objects; it discovers them.”[9]

On the one hand, Jesus does give us a straightforward moral case with a number of clear conclusions. It’s more important to show mercy than to keep the laws for ritual purity. Helping a neighbor is more important than maintaining one’s social position. My neighbor is any person I discover who needs what I can give. Go and do likewise, Jesus says, and in these days of such great social division and violence, we need not look far to see many neighbors crying out for our attention and help.

But as so often in these parables, Jesus also gestures towards something even more beautiful and profound. This is casuistry, but it is also prophecy. In this unlikely figure, the Samaritan, Jesus points toward a God who loves all whom He has made, who is merciful and life-giving. He helps us imagine that all social barriers might one day fall, that when we looked at one another, we might see only “some guy”—or better, this person who God has made in His own image, this person who too is my brother or my sister. And Jesus suggests that this healing and reconciling work might come from a most unsuitable hero. The true Good Samaritan, He would be One who came as a servant and was despised and rejected. He would be One who drew near to a broken and dying human race. He would be One who risked His own life in a single gesture of costly love.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] Woywod, Stanislaus. The Casuist: A Collection of Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology. New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1906, I.100ff.

[2] Ibid., I.128ff.

[3] Ibid., I.44ff.

[4] Ibid., I.261ff.

[5] Ibid., I.255ff.

[6] Ibid., I.79ff.

[7] Hoezee, Scott. Luke 10:25-37. Center for Excellence in Preaching. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-10c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel 8 Jul. 2016.

[8] Bailey, Kenneth. Through Peasant Eyes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, 52.

[9] Qtd in Ibid., 41.