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To Be Samaritans All
by Michael M. Dorcy. S.J.

We are all occasionally stopped by the embarrassing question put by others or by our deeper selves: "What is this thing called Christianity all about?" One begins pawing through the prolific--perhaps too prolific--thematic variations to discover the underlying theme. Incorporated, often encrusted, as it is in its so many varying articulations, the essential Christian message becomes a forbidding complexity. But at its core the Christian message is disarmingly simple, although the living-out of it may be far from a simple matter. For the early Christians the Christian message was the good news, the best news yet. Paul called for a simple acceptance of Christ dead and resurrected. His epistolary explanation of the Christian vocation addressed to the saints at Ephesus has its beauty in the straightforward way its which Paul says:

In those days there was no Christ for you... . You were strangers to the covenant, with no promise to hope for, with the world about you and no God. But now you are in Jesus Christ; now through the blood of Christ, you have been brought close, you who were once far away... (Eph. 2:12—18).

The Christian today who remains attuned to his call stands out against his non-believing fellows as one who believes that life is neither absurd nor its own explanation, an end in itself. For the Christian, temporal existence has a meaning and a value of its own; but he is at the same time aware that life has another side to it, a side that opens out onto eternity. And he realizes that the temporal ultimately derives its value from the presence of the Eternal within time itself. For the Christian, history is the concrete unfolding of the wisdom and love of God. He believes in a God who is basically a family, who authored life out of love and who labors now in time, trying to end the rift between Himself and man for which man is, and feels himself, responsible. This God, revealing himseif as a God who cares, has in the pivotal event of human history finally, physically entered time in the flesh-taking activity of the Second Person of the divine family, whose life, death, and resurrection evi202dence and effect a plan whereby all men are joined to Him and would live as adopted sons within the family of God.

In short, the Christian’s God has said: "I have loved you, man! I love you now. This only do I ask in return: Love me." And man fumbles for a response: "God, You tell us to love You. But how do we love You?" God answers simply: "If you have seen, really seen, your brother, you have seen God. If you love your brother, you love Me."

The Christian confronted with God’s tale of love tries to answer by carving his own love story in time. But love is not an easy notion either to understand or to live by. In the New Testament which is the text for the school of love one finds passages which are more helpful than others for discerning what is precisely Christian about Christian love. One such place is the parable of the Good Samaritan where one finds in a compactness perhaps nowhere else equalled in all of Sacred Scripture the essentials of the love that was Christ’s.

Here we have the type of the Christian, of the man whose life completely revolves around authentic love. In the person of the Samaritan, Christ draws a portrait of Himseif. Significantly, once when accused by some of the Jews of "being a Samaritan and possessed," Christ answered: "I am not possessed" (Jn. 8:48—9). The Samaritan of the parable is described in terms which elsewhere throughout the Gospels the evangelists have reserved for Christ. The Samaritan is moved to compassion (literally, stirred in his inwards) as was Christ when He saw the multitudes and took pity on them, or when He melted away under the tears of the widow at Naim (Lk. 7:12—3). The story itself is simple, but forever new and rich in meaning:

A man was once traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Bandits attacked him. They stripped and beat him and left him to die. A priest chanced by, going along the same road. He saw the victim but went to the other side and continued on his way. Then a levite came by. He too saw him but went on. A Samaritan was also journeying by. Drawing near, he saw him. And he was touched to the heart at the sight. He went up to him, bandaged his wounds, and applied oil and wine to them. Then he put him on his own mount and brought him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day he gave two silver pieces to the innkeeper. "Take care of him," he said, "and whatever it costs I’ll pay when I return."

"Which of the three, in your opinion, acted as a neighbor to the man who had fallen into the hands of the bandits?" He answered: "The one who showed him mercy." "Go," Jesus told him, "and do the same."

The Cast of Characters: The Man Without Qualities

One can derive much from looking in turn at the characters who make up the story. We know next to 203 nothing (and everything) about the man who was done in by the robbers. He is Oudeis--No-Name, the man without qualities (or rather, a man deprived of all but the most insignificant of qualities, that of situs: he was "journeying from Jerusalemn to Jericho"). Without name, or race, or nationality, or status in society, qualitatively denuded of all, he is left physically naked, almost lifeless by the wayside. He is man in the raw, any one of us, a pilgrim, homo viator, man-on-the-make, man-on-the-move, a fellow traveller on the road of life. To give him any qualities, to endow him with some determinations, as we instinctively try to do, is to limit the extensiveness and inclusiveness of the notion of love that is being presented.

The Priest and the Levite: The Fatality of Consciousness

The priest and the levite are the type of those who fail in the school of love. Representative, first of all, of the twofold division of the tribe of Levi, they are the embodiment of the hierarchy of the old dispensation, a dispensation devoid of real freedom. They are actually men enslaved, clutching their alien gods which go by a thousand different names. They are enslaved to the various tyrannies of categorical and legalistic thinking, to idealisms which overlook the here-and-now individual in the name of futurity or collectivity. Here are the Pharisees who rejected Christ because He eluded those preconceived, static, and depersonalized archetypes which they had of the Messiah. Here, too, is the misguided spectator-priest of today who passes by life in the names of celibacy, intellectual pursuits, prayer, and a host of other things. Here is the religious man who has offered himself to God, so wrapped up and tightly closed that God Himself, as Claudel says somewhere, would break His fingernails trying to pry him open. Here is the religious who has detached himself from everything except his detachment. Here is that devastating brood, the impersonal apostles of personalism, and those in love with "love" and nothing more. Here are those who are caught In what Pope John called "the fallacy of overlooking the little good at our disposal in the name of the unrealizable ‘better’. Here are men dedicated to "tomorrow" and who use and abuse today for their own ends; men who labor tirelessly for a vague, amorphous, impersonal "Society" and who step all over the people who live next door. Here are the men who will be charitable when things are set, conditions right--men who will dictate their own circumstances, name their own times. Here are men whose effectiveness is dissolved into nothingness cause in the name of religion they flee the "world," 204 forgetting that the spiritual exists for the world and that the function of the Church is to embrace the world much as a lifeguard does a drowning man or much as the Samaritan did the wounded wayfarer. These are men, in short, who have never really learned to say "we." They are those who would leap from the temporal, blind to the fact that God works immanently under their very noses, in the very next face that they meet.

It is significant that the priest and the levite are representative of a class which today we would label "intellectuals." Here is the type of man minutely portrayed by such contemporary thinkers amid writers as Thomas Mann and Andre Malraux. These are men who are unable to bridge through action that gulf of detachment which necessarily follows upon consciousness. In a sense it is man’s fate, but paramountly it is the intellectual’s scourge. For unlike the animals whose response is quick and instinctual, man with his withinness can, even in the thick of the most violent physical activity, reflect and debate and prolong to eternity that increment between impulse and act. The man who is unable to bridge the gap, who becomes isolated on his "magic mountain," ultimately becomes a man who is untrue, since he neglects the truth of his convictions and commitments which can come only in the completion afforded by the act itself.

The Samaritan: Spontaneity and Commitment

The actions of the Samaritan have much to tell us about true love. The love that was his, that was Christ’s, and that Christ would have our own, is a love marked by compassion, spontaneity, personal and lasting commitment.

The Samaritan was a man who traditionally had inherited and experienced apartheid--of locale, of creed, of social and political relationships. It should be remembered what sentiments the mention of a Samaritan would have evoked on the part of a first-century Jew. The Samaritan was the archetype of the alien, the Stranger, the heretic, the lost-one: in just the preceding chapter (9:52) Luke relates how the Sons of Thunder wanted to call down fire upon a Samaritan village; Christ’s dealings with the woman at the well (Jn. 4:5) were viewed askance by the disciples. But the appearance in the Gospels of the Samaritans as real individuals encountered by Christ defies any categorical imposition of traits. A Samaritan was the only one of the ten lepers who returned to thank our Lord (Lk. 17:17). He was a man committed, and a man who remained lastingly committed as did the Samaritan of the parable. The Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:5) was a woman 205 immediately attractive to us because of her honesty, simplicity, openness, and spontaneity. She wanted to share the goodness that had come her way. She brought others to Christ, and "they heard and believed for themselves."

The Samaritan of the parable is a man marked by the spontaneity of his reaction. Both his emotional response and its resultant action are quick and full. Unlike the priest or the levite who stand for intellectual detachment, the Samaritan is instinctive, but in a thoroughly human way. He is a man who has cultivated receptivity. He is attuned to his entire surroundings. He does not channel or restrict the arena of his purview or of his action. He is open to all. He takes in all he passes by, ready and alert to act. He realizes that his first responsibility is always to that which is at hand. He is completely arrested by the sight of affliction in another human being.

"He took pity on him": the Greek word (splagthIdsomai) suggests a very human, a very physical emotion. Literally, he was stirred in his bowels (splagthnos). It is a strong emotion, a pure emotion. And it is a loadstone to action. At times it must override the strict logic of justice or the dictatorship of a false prudence. Another name it has is mercy. What we see is a physical, particular, definitely directed reaction to a particular and concrete instance of human affliction.

The result of this spontaneous compassion is a spontaneous recourse to action. The action is immediate and adjusted to the circumstances; it is the "little good at one’s immediate disposal." Perhaps the Samaritan was later moved to take positive action towards effecting legislation for better and safer road travel. But this vision of the "better," of the long-range good, did not obliterate the definite and immediate need of the robber victim. And primarily interested in conveying the distinctive, primary, and essential note of Christian charity, Christ did not think it important to incorporate the long-range notion within the parable at all. That is not where the difficulty lies.

The visionary can, as the priest and the levite had, blind himself to the live-a-day world in terms of which he is summoned to live out his vocation. The larger view, the looking-toward-tomorrow, are noble and necessary operations. Yet, they are never to be assummed as surrogates for the immediate needs of today.

The prompt and immediate action of the Samaritan protects him from the self-deceit endemic to the visionary. A man can easily deceive himself as regards his relationship to God, but he cannot as easily do so about his treatment of his neighbor. The truth of love lies in 206 its "deed!" (1 Jn. 3:18). And St. John further warns us about self-deceit in this matter: "if any man boasts of loving God while he hates his own brother, he is a liar. He has seen his brother and has no love for him; what love can he have for the God he has never seen?" (1 Jn. 4:20). These are harsh words in all but the ears of the Samaritan.

The Samaritan is remarkable for the sense of commitment he shows as he accepts the challenge and responsibility which the priest and levite had passed by in the name of other so-called commitments. The Samaritan, too, undoubtedly, had other plans, other places to go and things to do. Yet he was fully aware of the contingemicy of all in the face of the summuons of love which alone endures and stands outside contingency. He did not altogether abandon his original pursuits; the next day he went on with his former business. But he does show himself ready to make allowances, ready to change his plans and to alter his self-maed timetable.

The Samaritan, like the Christian, is in the world and committed to that world. He must avoid the temptation of the false detachments made in the name of intellect or in the name of religion. For nowhere but in a human face can one come face to face with the reality of God’s love in all its infinite patience for misunderstandings and infidelities as well as in all its mysteriousness and magnificence. True enough, in the Christian perspective what seems catastrophic is not necessarily tragic, and what there is of joy and happiness is open to a greater joy and happiness which stands outside of time. But this view which scans a horizon further than the here-and-now does not depreciate the values lying within the immediacies of this life. On the contrary, the authentic Christian is in love with life and committed to this world and its open values. For he is also aware that the other side of life which opens out onto eternity cannot be reached except through the seemingly inadequate medium of the world itself. Man the builder is limited to the tools of time amid to time’s stuff. To span the rift between himself and his Maker, man the bridgebuilder must use the thrusts supplied by grace; but he must plank them as he goes with the planks of finitude. God work from the inside out--for only He knows things inside out—and only there will He be found. He and His grace, as Father Hopkins writes, "ride time like riding a river (and here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss)."

The Christian realizes that he can never really properly detach himself from anything unless he at some time first attains to the reality of the thing. Only then can there be a proper relegation within an ordered hierarchy, dctermined by the pursuit of a higher spiritual value, 207 The wise man is the man who orders, not the man who reduces. He who is wise in love is not the man who vitiates his immediate loves under the guise of a total commitment to a false transcendence but rather the man whso hierarchically brings God into the picture. God should be a third iii all our loves. As the late C. S. Lewis once remarked: "We can never love another too much, we can only love God too little."

The commitment of the Samaritan was a personal commitment. It was also a lasting commitment. This is another essential aspect of Christian love manifested in the parable. The Samaritan took a personal interest in a particular man, beaten and left to die along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. But his was no butterfly-like, momentary. humanitarian-only gesture of simple fellow-feeling. Too often and too easily overlooked is the fact of the Samaritan’s return. True commitment is lasting. Called on to his previous summons, the Samaritan has now incorporated this new incident into his life. He will stop in to check up on his new-found brother on the way home (and from time to time as he continues on the journey of life).

A Certain Expert in the Ways of the Law

Lastly, we might take a look at the man whose questioning provoked this compact paradigm of Christian living. He was a lawyer, interested primarily, it seems, in how a man might acquit himself before the divine law. His habitual modes of thinking would tend to coincide with those of the priest and the levite in the parable.

One wonders how the lawyer interpreted Christ’s message: perhaps mistakenly as many Christians do today, sharing a misunderstanding which arises from taking the parable as an answer to the lawyer’s original question--not "Who is my neighbor?"--but rather, "What must I do to obtain eternal life?" Thus the Christian must face squarely the terrible indictment of his fellow travelers that the one doing "charitable work" is looking primarily to the spiritual benefits which accrue to himself rather than to the benefits he confers on the other. Too often, as the lawyer’s question indicates, the end of man, formulated as the salvation of one’s soul, is taken erroneously. Fellow humans become mere things, means to one’s own end. Even the praise and service of God are relegated to the status of means for the same end. It becomes more and more apparent, however, as the God who is still the God of history continumes to make His presence known in time, of what an incompleteness, indeed even salvific incompleteness, it is to be concerned only with that enigmatic entity, one’s own soul.

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But perhaps the most striking point of time whole dialogue between Christ and the lawyer is the way our Lord subtly evades the lawyer’s second question and in doing so both explicates the deeper meaning of Christian love and comments on the entire approach of the questioner. The lawyer asked, "Who is my neighbor?" that is, "Where am I to find an object upon which to exercise my charity?" In a sense our Lord is saying that this type of approach contradicts the real meaning of love. This "disinterested" quest for an object--"Who is neighbor to me?"--is met by the parable which describes a neighbor not as object but as subject: the Samaritan was a neighbor; the priest and the levite were non-neighbors. When Christ then asks, "Which of these proved himself a neighbor?" and the lawyer answers, "He that showed mercy on him," there has been a complete and essential shift of focus. The "neighbor-to-me" question is not one that can be asked within true love.

True love operates from this "subjective" point of view. Flesh-bound and elbow to elbow with our fellows in the family of man, our task is to love one another, to incorporate ourselves within the family of God. My day labor, then, consists in wishing my neighbor, and helping him, to be completely what he embryonically already is, yet another Samaritan, called, like myself, to love. This is what Christianity is all about.


Michael M. Dorcy. S.J., is a faculty member of Marquette University High School; 3401 West Wisconsin Avenue; Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53208.

Originally published in the Review for Religious, Volume 24 (1965), pp. 201-208. Republished by permission.


Revised April 1, 2005.

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