What is the greatest commandment? Jesus’ response is one we all know well: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
We can be fairly certain that most of the people listening to Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan assisting the wounded Jew (Lk 10:25ff) were not pleased with his message. Jesus had just answered an important question put to him by a scholar of the Law: What is the greatest commandment? Jesus responds with the commandment we all know so well: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” The scholar then asks for clarification concerning whom he should consider his neighbor.
And so we have the story of a Samaritan coming upon a Jew, who has been attacked and wounded by robbers. Both priest and Levite come upon the man and back away. He may or may not be dead, but to touch a dead body would make them religiously and ritually unclean. This is unacceptable to them since their duties include service in the Temple.
Jesus then introduces the Samaritan’s shocking act of charity. Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies. Jews considered Samaritans to be apostate Jews who did not observe the whole Law. Samaritans hated Jews for worshiping God only in Jerusalem, instead of on Mt. Gerizim, where the Samaritans believed God wanted a temple built.
Jews would find it hard to imagine that the Samaritan would stop to help a Jew on the side of the road. The detail that he put the man on his donkey and paid for his stay at an inn would have made Jesus’ listeners speechless. When Jesus asked who really fulfilled the Law, the legal scholar had to respond, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
The story ends with the people realizing that an enemy had been merciful to their fellow Jew, and the priest and the Levite, who knew the law, had not.
But one point makes this story even more shocking: Jesus says the Samaritan was moved with compassion at the sight of the wounded Jew. When the Samaritan came upon this wounded man, he most likely first saw a Jew: an enemy, part of a group who hated his own people. Maybe the Samaritan was torn between helping the man and walking away—letting his enemy suffer from whatever harm he had received.
His feelings may have drawn him away from this enemy. Why should he do anything about it? But something—the grace of God?—touched him, and he was able to act against his initial feelings and emotions.
Compassionate When it Counts
When Jesus speaks of compassion, he is not necessarily referring to feelings and emotions. Compassion can also be the result of an act of our will to do something because it is the right thing to do. We can do something compassionate even when it is difficult, even when we have no tender feelings.
We are not naturally drawn to help those we dislike or fear. We must push ourselves to help. We may think that pushing ourselves is not as good as being moved by good feelings. The truth is that our greatest acts of charity and service come from our determination to do what the Lord would want us to do. Loving someone who does not love us requires more from us than loving someone who loves us back. It is the same with forgiveness.
Can you remember a time when you had to battle feelings and emotions which were pulling you away from doing a good act and you went ahead and did it anyway? I suspect there have been more than a few such occasions. That, dear friends, is why God gives us grace to do the things that we could not do with our own strength.