Homily for 15th Sunday of the Year

You may think that a priest breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the Sunday reading is something so well known as the Good Samaritan. In fact, this is not always the case, as such readings that have so penetrated our minds and even language, are so deep and rich that one always feel like one has left something out or not done it justice! You simply must focus on one particular aspect and limit the reflection.

Today I would like to focus that attention on the lawyer who questions Jesus, his question, and Jesus’ final words after he has spoken the parable. The question posed to Jesus appears in all the Synoptic Gospels, but the extrapolation and unpacking in the parable only appears in the Gospel of Luke following the lawyer’s need to nail down exactly whom he should consider to be a neighbour. Jesus, in fact, does not answer this question. Rather, he tells this evocative story and then invites the lawyer to recognise not who is neighbour should be, but who acted like a neighbour to the one who was suffering. It is less about knowing whom to love, and more about becoming a loving person ourselves.

There is a quick recognition in us as to who the person worthy of imitation in the story is. The answer seems perfectly obvious – we have an instinct to recognise goodness, sanctity, kindness, compassion, and to value it, even if we do not have an immediate impulse to act in this way. The first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us that God has come near to us and written his law in our hearts. We do not have to look very far to know what is right. His word is in our hearts, as we are made in his image and likeness, created good, and with the desire to know him and to recognise what is good, true and beautiful. Our conscience speaks loudly to us; the voice of the Holy Spirit is audible in this most beautiful faculty of our conscience.

And yet, we seem to have another impulse, manifest in the words of lawyer, that prevents us from acting in this way much of the time. This lawyer is an image of each of us when we, like him, seek to justify our actions or inaction. We want to nail down exactly where the limits are; we want to know when we have done “enough” (and not risk doing too much, being too generous, kind, merciful). This parable challenges our human tendency to justify, explain away, look for excuses in the face of the tremendous call to conversion and discipleship that exists in the person of Jesus. The space we give to this justification creeps into that other faculty given to us by God, namely our faculty of reason. It is wonderful gift, but it can be employed, with our free will, to excuse ourselves from the invitation to holiness and goodness and to embrace, rather, self-will – this self-will finding comfort in the deadly sins, whichever our particular weakness may be (pride, sloth, lust, gluttony, envy, anger, greed).

And this rationalisation of the embracing of sin is manifest in the excuses and justifications we offer ourselves why we can do this bad thing (sin of commission) or do not need to do this good thing (sin of omission). For example:

“God will understand that it is too cold and rainy to go to Mass today, especially when it’s the Wimbledon final”.

“I don’t need to go to confession this month… my sins haven’t been too bad… I’ll wait until I’ve done something a bit more serious and go to confession at Easter or Christmas”.

“I don’t have time to say my prayers this morning… I’ll do them later” (and of course, we don’t).

“I don’t have to forgive that person who has hurt me just yet: they haven’t apologised yet; they haven’t owned up to what they’ve done yet; they haven’t suffered enough yet”

“I don’t need to take the Church’s moral teaching seriously – it’s all made up by old men in the Vatican who know nothing about life”

“I don’t need to be compassionate to that poor person because he takes drugs, or he steals copper cables”.

The particular challenge of today’s parable, of course, is that of showing love even when it is uncomfortable.

Of course, we know that the moment we feel the need to create a reason to justify our action or inaction, we are doing something that is less than perfect. The very need to make an excuse is an indication that we are working against our conscience which is, hopefully, well-informed.

I had the privilege this weekend of attending a funeral of a woman whose life is, I think, worthy of reflection and imitation. I only knew her as a pensioner – she lived on not much more than a SASSA pension. Every pension pay day, she would go to the shopping centre, draw her pension, pay her municipal account, have her monthly haircut (just a buzz cut), and then come down to the parish office where she would give her monthly planned giving to the parish secretary and then walk into my office and say “I have given unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s. Now I can relax for the month!” And of course she didn’t – every Wednesday she worked in the soup kitchen, cooking the soup and delivering it to the poor; every Saturday she served tea at funerals; and the rest of the week she visited the sick in her ward, and helped in other lay apostolates. She was the person we would leave the room when gossip or complaining started and wouldn’t hear a bad word said about anyone. When I asked her how she was she would reply “God is good, I have no reason to complain”. She was someone who knew what it was to be a Christian and chose to live in that way, intently, consistently, and without excuse. And it brought her a real peace – a peace that the world cannot give. And her joy in living in this way, knowing that she was doing what the Lord asked of her, was evident on her face.

I did once comment to her how much I admired the way she lived and her humble response was “well Father, I was a young woman once!” (whatever that means…). I suppose it means that she lived a life of conversion as well – at some point it was a choice she made to live in this way, to listen to her conscience, to her Lord’s words in the Gospel, rather than the voice of the world and self-will. She chose (consciously, I suspect) to begin to do good, to trust that the way her Creator asks her to live is what will bring true joy and peace, and not to make excuses why she wasn’t ready to do so.

St Philip Neri presented this very question to those in his ambit saying often, “well, when shall we have a mind to begin to do good?” Not when I’m older, or retired, or when the children leave home, or when I’m on leave, but today, now, in this moment and always, the Lord instructs us to recognise that which is good and “go and do likewise”.

This week, perhaps the challenge is for us to pause and catch ourselves when we begin to make excuses or justify engaging in sin (perhaps an habitual sin, such as gossip or lying) and avoiding doing what is good (such as saying our prayers, being generous and kind to someone in need). When we are conscious about these moments of justification in our daily lives, let us become uncomfortable with them and choose immediately the better part. To say our prayers rather than checking social media, to be gentle and compassionate rather than abrupt and dismissive, to speak well of others rather than engaging in gossip and complaint, to go to confession rather than continuing in habitual sin. To recognise that we are Christ’s Body, united to our Jesus our head, and as such, strive to be worthy images of our unseen God in the world.