It is sobering how easily we can corrupt any good thing, including faith in Jesus Christ, into just another form of self-serving idolatry. Some people fall into the delusion of thinking that they love God and neighbor, when in reality they use religion to serve only themselves and the false gods of this world. One symptom of doing so is to narrow down the list of people who count as our neighbors so that we excuse ourselves from serving Christ in all who bear His image and likeness. When we do so, we disregard not only them, but our Lord Himself, the God-Man born for the salvation of all. Our actions then reveal that we do not truly have faith in Him because we seek to justify ourselves by serving nothing but our own vain imaginations.
That is precisely the attitude that the Savior warns against in today’s gospel reading. After describing how the Old Testament law required loving God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself,” the lawyer wanted to justify himself by limiting the people he had to love. That is why he asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He wanted to limit what God required of him in a way that served his preconceived notions. That way, he could assume that he was a righteous man as he went through life serving only himself and the few he thought worthy of his concern.
The Lord’s parable does not allow us, however, to place any limits on what it means to love our neighbors. He tells us about a man who was robbed, severely beaten, and then left on the side of the road to die. Surely, anyone who saw him in that condition would have an obligation to help him. All the more is that the case for the religious leaders who were going down that same road. They knew that the Old Testament law required them to care for a fellow Jew in a life-threatening situation. Like the lawyer, however, they must have come up with some excuse not to treat him with even an ounce of compassion. We do not know exactly what they were thinking, but they somehow rationalized passing by on the other side without helping him at all.
Ironically, a Samaritan—a hated foreigner, a despised heretic– is the one who treated the unfortunate man as a neighbor. The Samaritan did not limit his concern to his own people. He did not restrict the demands of love at all. Even though he knew that the Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans, he responded with boundless compassion to this fellow’s plight. He did not figure out how little he could do and still think of himself as a decent person. Instead, he spontaneously offered his time, energy, and resources to bring a stranger back to health. Even the lawyer got the point of the story, for he saw that the one who treated the man as a neighbor was “The one who showed mercy to him.”
The Lord used the story of the Good Samaritan to show us who we must become if we are truly uniting ourselves to Him in faith. Purely out of compassionate, boundless love, Christ came to heal us all from the self-imposed pain and misery that our sins have worked on our souls. He came to liberate everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, from slavery to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin. Like the Samaritan, He was despised and rejected as a blasphemer. In the parable, the religious leaders were of no help to the man who was robbed, beaten, and left to die. They passed by and left him in the condition in which they found him. Likewise, the legalistic, hypocritical religious leaders who rejected the Messiah were of no benefit to those who needed healing from the ravages of sin. They interpreted and applied the law in order to gain power in this world and were powerless to heal anyone. They were all too similar to those who distort the Christian faith in our day in a vain effort to acquire earthly glory, irrespective of how religious or moral they make themselves out to be.
Christ has brought salvation to the world, not by giving us merely a religious or moral code of conduct, but by making us participants in His divine life by grace. By becoming fully human even as He remains fully divine, He has restored and fulfilled the basic human vocation to become like God in holiness. Only the God-Man could do that. If we are truly united with Him in faith, then His boundless love must become characteristic of our lives. Among other things, that means gaining the spiritual health to show our neighbors the same mercy we dare to hope for from the Savior. Doing that even for those we love most in life is difficult because our self-centeredness makes it hard to give anyone the same consideration we want for ourselves. The challenge of conveying Christ’s love to people we do not like for personal reasons or as members of groups we are inclined to hate or fear accordingly to conventional worldly standards may seem impossibly hard.
Remember, however, what the Samaritan in the parable did for the robbed and beaten man. He administered first aid, took him to an inn, paid the innkeeper to care for him, and promised to pay for any additional expenses when he returned. Christ does the same for us in baptism, the Eucharist, and the full sacramental life of the Church, which is a hospital for our recovery from the ravages of sin. He also calls us to spiritual disciplines—such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—through which we will prepare to welcome Him during the Nativity Fast as we open ourselves to receive the healing necessary to convey His mercy to our neighbors. He enables us to pursue a life of faith and faithfulness through the ministries of His Body, the Church, as a sign of the salvation of the world.
As many of us know from personal experience, those who are recovering from injuries must cooperate with their physicians and therapists in order to become well. They have to take their medicine, exercise, and accept other inconvenient and sometimes painful disciplines in order to regain health and function. In order to grow in our ability to receive the Savior at His birth and to manifest His compassionate love to our neighbors, we must embrace the practices of the Christian life with even greater dedication.
This is not an exercise in self-righteous legalism, as though we somehow worked the healing of our souls merely by following a set of rules as individuals or members of a society. The point is not to attempt to satisfy a legal requirement or to try to earn something for ourselves from God. It is, instead, to be so fully united with Christ that His merciful love becomes characteristic of us in the greatest test of all: how we treat the people we are inclined to disregard. If we receive Communion, we must live in communion with the Lord by becoming more like Him in holiness. All the holy mysteries of the Church strengthen us to become better living icons of the Savior. He has conquered death for the salvation of all in a way not limited by our assumptions about who is worthy or deserving according to the worldly distinctions of any time or place.
The more we conform our character to that of the Savior Who was born for the salvation of the world, the less we will have the attitude of the lawyer who tried to narrow down his list of neighbors. The more we share in His life, the more we will overcome the spiritual blindness that so easily tempts us to justify ourselves in thinking that any person or group is somehow not worthy of our care and compassion. Our calling is to entrust ourselves to Christ such that His divine glory shines through us as a sign of His gracious intentions for all who bear His image and likeness. It is to become people of such faith and faithfulness that the way of Christ becomes characteristic of every dimension of our lives. That is what it means to prepare our hearts to welcome the Savior at His birth. That is what it means to “’Go and do likewise.’”