Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Good Samaritan and Works of Mercy

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child
in Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 11 July, 2010 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Luke 10:25-37)

Our parable from the Gospel of St. Luke this weekend is one of the best known parables Christ ever told: the Good Samaritan. Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with that parable. Often it is the person who will stop to assist a stranded motorist on the side of the road or the volunteer at a hospital or nursing home who is referred to as a “Good Samaritan.” In fact, that is one of the points of the Gospel. It does not matter where one is from—either Israel or some rival nation—or what our faith background may be. We are all called to show mercy and compassion to others; everyone is a neighbor, especially the person in need.

Nonetheless, St. Augustine offers a classic interpretation of this parable in which he says that Christ Himself is literally the Good Samaritan. Augustine says that the man who has been robbed, stripped of all that he has, and left for dead on the side of the road is Adam, all humanity; you and I are the ones who, through Original Sin and our own consequent sins, have been stripped of immortality and are helpless to change the course of our lives.

Suddenly we discover that Christ, the Divine Outsider, has come upon us to provide for our deepest needs. He does not come from the next country over but from the next world over! He comes from eternity into time and from heaven to this earth and takes on our human nature to save us and set us free. Christ does not pour oil and wine over our wounds and then provide money for us to recover in some wayside inn. No, He pours out His own body and blood for us on the cross and gives everything so that we can be healed, recover and discover a new life in God. Now that’s a Good Samaritan!

Our response to so great a gift should be twofold. Firstly, if it is true that Christ has done so much to seek us out and provide the healing that only God can give, then we need to make sure we get ourselves “in the way” to encounter the source of that healing.

St. Augustine says that Christ continues to provide the healing and restoration we read about this weekend through the sacramental grace of the Church. It is in Baptism that we are washed clean and set free from Original Sin; in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we are freed from mortal sins which have the power to keep us separated from God for all eternity; in the Eucharist we are sanctified and renewed, given God’s own Divine life and the strength to continue on the journey through this life to eternal life with God.

How eager we should be to become immersed in such grace! In the words of C.S. Lewis: “If you want to get warm then you have to stand near the fire; if you want to get wet, then you have to get into the water.” Our first response is to encounter this Good Samaritan every single chance we get.

The second response we should have is to follow the words of Christ at the end of that parable. When he finally gets the Scholar to understand that it was the Good Samaritan who showed mercy and compassion, Christ turns to him and says: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). You, also, treat those around you with mercy and compassion and help them when they are waylaid and helpless on the side of the road.

Where is that need most urgent today, though? In Belgium in 2010, where is the Good Samaritan most needed and how can we discover our role in responding to the greatest challenges of our time?

I would suggest that the answer to that question is embedded in the architecture and the spiritual legacy provided for us by countless faithful men and women down through the centuries. When you walk down the street here in Leuven, or in Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and many other cities in Belgium, undoubtedly you discover small statues and images on buildings and in doorways of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding Christ out to the passersby on the street. Our Lady is always ready to offer them her Son, who alone can meet the deepest longing of the human heart. We do well to offer the same Christ to a world of suffering when we follow Him faithfully each day.

Just a few days ago we were in the City of Bruges with the participants of our Summer Institute and a local guide was giving us a tour of that beautiful and enchanting place. Of course, we are all familiar with the painful events of the Church in Bruges and throughout Belgium which have been publicized everywhere in these recent weeks. Our guide, thankfully, did nothing to disguise that pain and sorrow. What he did do, however, was point out these many statues and images found throughout the city, reminding us of a faith that dates back centuries and of the presence of Christ who alone can save and heal us.

At one point our guide showed us an old brick building fa├žade—not a church or a chapel, but just a regular building—that displayed sculptures of the Severn Corporal Works of Mercy. You may remember these from your catechism classes:

1. To feed the hungry
2. To give drink to the thirsty
3. To clothe the naked
4. To shelter the homeless
5. To visit the sick
6. To visit the imprisoned
7. To bury the dead

To perform the corporal works of mercy is to provide for and assist those who find themselves physically desperate and alone, very much like the man in Jesus’ parable this weekend. The great American advocate for the poor and foundress of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, said that the life of every baptized Christian should reveal—either directly or indirectly—the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. To reach out and assist those in need is intrinsic to the Christian life. That is what we do as Christians.

And while there is constantly a need to provide for the physical needs of those around us and that is something we all need to continually strive for, is it not also the case that in the culture we live in the spiritual needs of so very many people go uncared for? There are not many social programs seeking to care for people’s souls today. So if Christians will not care for the spiritual lives of those in need of healing and help, who will?

I would suggest that we take this week to reflect, above all, on the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy and ask God how He can help us to perform these works for our own benefit and most especially for the sake of those around us.

The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are:

1. To counsel the doubtful
Are there any people in our lives who right now doubt their faith in God or their ability and desire to live out that faith in the Church? Are there people in our lives that are no longer convinced that God is close to them and really wants to lead them to joy and peace? We should never underestimate what a word of encouragement or counsel can do for them.

2. To instruct the ignorant
Are there people today who are ignorant of the greatest truths that God has revealed to us through Christ, truths that have been passed down to us through the apostles and have the power to lead us to eternal life? By all means, yes. Is there some small way that God is challenging us to share that faith and those truths with those who do not know them?

3. To admonish sinners
I think most people recoil at this one. We care more about how others perceive us than we do about our neighbor’s spiritual well-being and salvation. To admonish one who is in sin means firstly to pray hard for them, and then with great charity and humility to take a chance and share with them an aspect of their lives that-if unchecked-will not only bring them unhappiness and sorrow but may even cause them great spiritual harm. To admonish is an act of love, not of judgment.

4. To comfort the afflicted
Aren’t there countless people in our lives who are afflicted emotionally? Physically? Psychologically? How are we called, in some small way, to comfort them this week?

5. To forgive offenses
There are often times that we feel offended by the words and actions of others. Doing everything we can to forgive them is a spiritual work of mercy.

6. To bear wrongs patiently
Who among us doesn’t need to be more patient with the faults and weaknesses of those around us? When we are able to bear those everyday slights and quirks of others, and perhaps even some of the more serious grievances of our neighbor with patience, we perform a service that may go unnoticed by many but not by God.

7. To pray for the living and the dead
Finally, when we continue our daily conversation with God, are we attentive to bringing before Him the persons who are a part of our daily lives and intentions? Do we remember always those who have “gone before us marked with the sign of faith,” knowing that our prayers can do so much for the ones we love?

How is God challenging us to perform the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy this week, and to discover how His grace and the power of His love can work through us to bring healing and consolation to so many who are broken and in need.