Legend has Alexander the Great giving a beggar command of five cities in response to his plea for five coins: “You ask as a beggar. I give as a king.” A scribe asked Christ the King for the key to eternal life, but he did so with the spiritual coquetry of the religious dilettante. He wanted a delectable hors d’oeuvre from the smorgasbord of religions. Had he been truly pious, he would not have asked so mean a question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with royal largesse. It is possible that this turned the scribe into a great man, but it is also unlikely, because having been bested by Jesus in the first round of questioning, he asked again “to justify himself.” That is no way to ask the right question or to learn from the right answer.
There is a numbing tendency to trivialize things beloved, and this parable (Luke 10:25-37) is among the most beloved of them all. The mental mills that print Leonardo’s Last Supper on tea towels and sculpt the mystically stigmatized St. Francis of Assisi into a garden ornament are quite capable of making this parable a dithyramb to the Red Cross. The story must move the heart to good works, but it is not understood if that is all it does.
The Jericho road was called “the bloody road,” and it is the trail of human complaint and woe everywhere and at all times. The characters are not precise analogues like the kinds of soil in the parable of the sower. The beaten traveler is every man “born in sorrow,” so lying there in a heap of bloodied clothes is the whole human race mugged by the evil one. That victim is a devil’s sacrament of the fall of man. The other figures are shades and turns of every soul.
A priest “comes down” from Jerusalem, vested in homespun accoutrements of heaven. Prohibitions against touching an “unclean” man no longer obtain since he has already offered the ritual sacrifice, but he whose job is to sacrifice blood does not want to touch blood. He walks away in a denial of his own dignity. The High Priest of the everlasting covenant is telling this, hymning the glory of priestliness as he disdains meager clerisy.
Today, much of the corruption in the Church stems from clerical self-regard. Case in point: A year or so ago a bishop in a South African province petitioned Rome for permission to incorporate animal sacrifice into the Eucharist, to make the rite more culturally indigenous. Even more astonishing was an American prelate who recently wore a wedge of cheese on his head during Mass to ingratiate the local people. Heresy is more easily staunched than vulgarity. If one has to explain to a priest why he should not wear cheese on his head at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, one has already lost the argument.
Buffoonery in the sacred liturgy is a gauche form of clerical triumphalism. The failure of the current liturgy to instill holy fear engenders a clericalism so self-conscious that it forgets how Christ the King and High Priest once was dressed as a clown by the prince of banality. Strained bonhomie is not the way to restore the dignity of the priesthood. That can only happen when the priest kneels down to nurse beaten humanity in the gutter of history. But the priest on the Jericho road just walked by.
The Levite, careful for the details of the Law, also passed by, though the Law commanded that a man even rescue his enemy’s donkey (Leviticus 23:4-5). In defining the neighbor, Christ fulfills and does not destroy the law and the prophets (2 Chronicles 28:5-15; Micah 6:6-8; Hosea 6:9), but the Levite destroys them daily when he cuts a swath around the battered man, too distracted with a head full of annulment cases and chancery meetings.
The Samaritan does not come to the rescue like some deus ex machina. He is anything but a god. The outcast Samaritans were pitiless engines of prejudice as much as victims of it, and to hear a Gerizim Samaritan speak of Jerusalem Jews was like hearing a Muslim extremist talk about Jerusalem Jews today, or about Christians anywhere. The Samaritans were wrong and stubborn, but the Good Samaritan was good for being a man who saw man in another man. His practical response to help the poor soul and pay for his care was not the issue of an organized philanthropic system. In him was the vital good of the human race in its generational struggle with defacements of the image of God in man, waged since our first ancestors were charmed by a hiss that told them they could be gods.