Luke 10:25-37, Monday of Week 27 in Ordinary Time
Once upon a time there was a king who received a gift of two peregrine falcons. They were the most magnificent birds he had ever seen. He entrusted them to his falconer who promptly trained them to hunt. After several months, king and falconer noticed that only one bird would fly and hunt. Strangely, the other bird would only fly to a tree then sit on a branch all day. This bothered the king, so, he sought advice from his consultors. Upon their counsel, the king summoned sorcerers, shamans, priests, animal whisperers, soothsayers, fortune-tellers, diviners. All tried to urge the branch-bound bird to fly. But nothing worked. Close to giving up, the king thought of one last recourse. “Maybe someone more familiar with nature might know how to solve the problem,” he said to himself. So, he called for a farmer. And he came.
Well, the very next day, the king went out and to his marvel, not one but two falcons were soaring in the sunlight. So, he summoned for the farmer again, who came and stood before the king. “How did you make this stupid falcon fly?” With head bowed, the farmer said, “It was very easy, your majesty. I didn’t know if it would work but it did. I just cut the branch the bird sat on.”
The priest and the Levite in today’s parable couldn’t and wouldn’t do the first thing to help an obviously injured man. Do we take it against them? Temple laws were explicit. They prohibited any priests and their assistants, the Levites, to touch anything or anyone bloody or dead or both. They weren’t even supposed to hold a hand over it. Otherwise, they’d be rendered impure. Nobody impure must never go anywhere near the Temple, under pain of sin, no, not even priests or Levites. But the Temple was their life! It was their vocation to receive and burn sacrificial animals that people brought in to pay for their sins against God.
I hope we get the whiff of the irony Jesus tells in the parable of the Good Samaritan, sisters and brothers. Very, very religious people serving no less at the Temple of God, God’s dwelling place in Israel—but they did absolutely nothing for an obviously injured man. For what reason? To protect their purity before God!
Sisters and brothers, Jesus was a devout Jew. He knew the rules even as a child and kept them. He attended synagogue services, showed up at religious festivals, prayed. So, Jesus showed people that religious rules had a very important place in a Jew’s life. But… if ever it came to a toss-up between keeping a religious rule versus helping someone in need, even at the risk of breaking that very rule—Jesus showed that the person in dire need should win the toss-up; hands down, no questions asked, no hemming and hawing, ifs, buts, or excuses. Again and again, Jesus witnessed to this priority: the letter of the law must defer to a work of mercy, especially to a neighbor in need, even if the merciful act violated the letter of the law. In other words, religion can wait if a person in dire need cannot.
In my own life lately, dear sisters and brothers, various protocols have become a safe branch I sit upon; a sturdy branch, old, reliable, and lofty. Perched nice and high on it, like the Holy Trinity watching the world, as Ignatius says, I see the world happening below me, especially in these past six months. On the roads of the world lay many, many injured people: the sick, the hungry, the jobless, the exhausted. From up the branch, I’ve seen many of our sisters and brothers down there with the injured, ministering to them. Oh, they know the protocols: face mask, shield, distancing, sanitizing, all that. But these Good Samaritans, they’ve risked living out the critical tension between loving God, loving neighbor, and protecting self. In that three-way toss-up, the neighbor is clearly the winner; hands down, no questions asked, no hemming and hawing, ifs or buts, or excuses.
And I ask myself almost every day: what have I done these past six months of my life as a Jesuit priest in a pandemic? How much have I done after the image and likeness of the Good Samaritan? Or how little, like the priest and the Levite? As a teacher of Theology, have I sufficiently lived out what I teach in this crunch time?
My dear sisters and brothers, it’s good to be saying mass in a church again, and with you. I take this opportunity to ask for your prayers. Please pray for us, your priests. That God may cut any branch that many of us might’ve chosen to perch on, so that we can fly to people who need us the most.