We have St Luke's Gospel to thank for those extraordinary details of Mary’s life, and the wonderful tenderness of the Nativity. St Luke is also known for his parables, of which at least fifteen are unique to his gospel. These parables are part of the reason Luke’s gospel is often referred to as the ‘Gospel of mercy’ or that in the collect for the Mass on his feast day, the Church refers to him as the saint who reveals “by his preaching and writings the mystery of [God’s] love for the poor”.
The parable of The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) belongs to that Lucan tradition and it is proclaimed on the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C of the liturgical calender. It expresses a deeply Christian truth, but has a universal human appeal. The person who is a ‘neighbour’ cannot indifferently pass by the suffering of another and the association of this vivid parable with basic human solidarity has meant that it has even been adopted by name into civil laws designed to ‘oblige’ Samaritan-like behaviour in countries that are not of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
The Good Samaritan has been a constant in the minds of Christians throughout Church history. It is represented in the illuminations of the 6th century Rossano Gospels and was one of the four most popular subjects depicted in 13th century French cathedrals. Used by St Pope Paul VI to sum up the pastoral attitude of the Second Vatican Council Fathers, the parable has figured prominently in the writings of each post-Conciliar Pope not least in its application to ‘health care’ for which it has a particular relevance. Pope St John Paul II declared it to be the parable that “best articulates the heart of the health care mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.” Most recently, it has been applied to “the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life” in the document Samaritanus Bonus (SB, 2020), published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This document responds of course to arguments raised in support of euthanasia, but invites us also to consider the Gospel account more deeply.
In Luke’s text, we hear that the Samaritan is “moved with compassion” when he “sees” the man who has fallen prey to the brigands. The Greek verb used by Luke ἐσπλαγχνίσθη implies a very visceral or deep seated reaction. The corresponding noun σπλάγχνα can refer to the gut, the intestines or even the womb. His pity is instantaneous and his ‘seeing’ produces a very different response to that of the first two passers-by.
Up to this point in his Gospel, Luke has only used this word to describe Jesus’ reaction to the widow of Nain who has lost her son (7:13) and this is just one of three action verbs linking the parable to that one. Both Jesus at Nain and the Samaritan in the parable “see” the problem, “are moved with compassion” and “approach” the dead or half-dead individual. Thus, the model behaviour of the Samaritan has, for Luke, already and only ever been demonstrated by Jesus himself. Luke uses the verb once more in the parable of The Prodigal Son to describe the father’s compassionate response (15:20).
The Samaritan’s compassion is manifested in the series of actions by which he cares for the man. He uses the resources he has available (oil and wine and his own animal), including his own money (two silver coins – i.e., two days’ wages). He gives of his own time (the next day). He gets other people to help (the innkeeper). He promises to follow up (on my way back). It is interesting that we never hear the outcome—did the man survive or did he eventually succumb to his injuries? This is not considered by Luke to be a necessary detail.
Remarking the contrasting attitudes of the Priest, Levite and Samaritan when they “see” the man in need of help, Benedict XVI characterises the program of the Good Samaritan as “a heart that sees” (Deus Caritas Est, DCE 31b), a theme taken up in SB and by Pope Francis in Fratelli tutti.
SB views this quality as “central to the program of the Good Samaritan” and linked to a compassionate heart which is touched and then engaged. The Samaritan stops to show care. He sees where love is needed and acts accordingly (DCE 31). He recognises in weakness God’s call to appreciate the place of human life as the primary common good of society. It is a sacred and inviolable gift and is the basis for the enjoyment of all other goods, including man’s transcendent vocation to a unique relationship with the Giver of life (Evangelium Vitae, EV 49).
In Part III which is dedicated to the ‘seeing heart’, SB indicates the source of man’s original dignity as that which comes from being created in the image of God with the calling to exist in “the image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7; 2 Cor 3:18). Often a ‘loss of dignity’ is cited as a justification for euthanasia, but this could perhaps be better expressed as loss of a ‘sense of dignity’ or ‘self-worth’, which is not the same.
Both John Paul II (Veritatis Splendor, VS 14) and Benedict XVI make the link between the Lucan parable and the Last Judgement (Mt 25: 31-46), which demonstrates that love becomes “the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth”. Jesus identifies himself with those in need (Mt 25:40) whereby “love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God” (DCE 14).
The “wine of hope” which was spoken of by St Augustine in his commentary on the parable is deemed by Benedict XVI to be the specific contribution of the Christian faith in the care of the sick and refers to the way in which God overcomes evil in the world. Pope Benedict XVI comments that “a society unable to accept the suffering of its members and incapable of helping to share their suffering, and to bear it inwardly through ‘compassion’ is a cruel and inhumane society” (Spe Salvi, SS 38).
SB states that one of the greatest miseries and most profound sufferings in terminal illness consists in the loss of hope in the face of death. This hope is a fruit of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, who conquers sin and death and is proclaimed by the Christian witness. The Good Samaritan puts the face of his brother in difficulty at the centre of his heart, and sees his need, offers him whatever is required to repair his wound of desolation and to open his heart to the luminous beams of hope (SB).
SB concludes that the mystery of the Redemption of the human person is in an astonishing way rooted in the loving involvement of God with human suffering, which is what the parable of The Good Samaritan communicates to us. Even within a “throwaway culture” Christian witness demonstrates that hope is always possible.