The Good Pagan and The Good Samaritan

(Homily for Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

Bottom line: A good pagan can - to a certain degree - live God's law, but only the Good Samaritan can bind our wounds.

Sometimes people wonder about the "good pagan." He is the guy who has no outward practice of religion, but who appears to be a better "Christian" than those who call themselves Christians. In spite of not having an apparent belief in God, the good pagan seems more compassionate, fair and loving than those who engage in religious practices.

The good - or righteous - pagan may even be aware of his superiority to religious folk: "I don't need to go to church to do the right thing. Those church goers are a bunch of hypocrites." Perhaps you have heard people say things like that, maybe even someone in your own family. The righteous pagan is a challenge to those who go to church. How should we respond to him?

First of all, we should not consider the good pagan so strange. In the today's Old Testament reading, Moses tells us that the commandments of God are "not too mysterious or remote." They are not somewhere up in the sky nor do we need to cross an ocean to find God's law. It is, says Moses, "very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts." It should not surprise us that a pagan, a non-believer, knows the right thing to do. St. Paul tells us that God's law is "written on our hearts."

To the person who says, "I don't need to go to church to do the right thing," we respond, "neither do we." Like the good pagan, you and I have an innate sense of right and wrong.* We know God's law in our hearts, but we also know something else. We recognize that we have fallen short, that we have often not obeyed God's law. And even though he might be reluctant to admit it, that "good pagan" has similarly fallen short. Like you and me, he has done some things he would rather not talk about.

We come to church not celebrate our own goodness, but because of someone who is truly good. Today we hear about a figure who has fulfilled God's law in a marvelous manner. He is called the "Good Samaritan." But who is he? Early Christian writers identified the Good Samaritan as Jesus himself. He showed perfect compassion.

Here is how St. Augustine and other Church Fathers interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan: The man who journeyed from Jerusalem to Jericho represents humanity, you and me. Jericho beckoned and we left the holy city. But along the way, robbers attacked us and dumped us in a ditch, naked and half-dead. The robbers are the demons and the temptations of this world. Jesus - the Good Samaritan - shows compassion. He bandages our wounds and takes us to an inn, his Church. He gives the innkeeper two coins, the great commandments: to love God and to love ones neighbor.

Many of you bear wounds. You do not come to Church to brag about how good you are, but to have those wounds bandaged. We need to be healed and restored. Then - and only then - can we begin to practice the deepest compassion. Christian compassion springs from gratitude for what Christ has done for us.

Compassion does not have be dramatic. I'd like to give an example from the life of Pier Giorgio Frassati, who Pope John Paul beatified in 1990. As a youth Blessed Pier Giorgio visited Berlin. The temperature had dropped to twelve degrees below zero. Seeing an old man shivering with cold, Pier Giorgio gave him his overcoat. When his father heard about it, he was angry and chided his son. Pier Giorgio replied with humility and simplicity, "But you see, papa, it was cold."

Now, with the heat wave we are experiencing, it might seem easy to give away a coat - and perhaps it was. But that is not the point. Blessed Pier Giorgio was a young man filled with the love of Christ. He spent hours in front of the Jesus, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. Although Pier Giorgio knew that only Jesus can save us, he did his best to apply Christ's teaching to the social order. For example, he joined demonstrations against the fascist movement in Italy. He also spent much time with the city's poor. To show compassion to someone suffering from the cold came natural to Blessed Pier Giorgio. As Jesus tells us, "Go, and do likewise."


*This innate moral sense does not prevent us from having blind spots. Like the priest and Levite, we can take a conveniently selective approach to the commandments. Because of that, the Church has job of teaching the full moral law. For example, at the time Karl Marx was proclaiming the Communist Manifesto, the Church was defending the rights of workers, but also cautioning that respect for private property is an essential component of human dignity and freedom. When communists gained power, they condemned private property as a form of theft - and did horrendous harm to the very workers they set out to help. Something analogous is happening today. People feel compassion for a woman in a difficult pregnancy, but turn a blind eye to the new human life developing within her. Similarly, compassion for the difficulties faced by homosexuals can cause people to blur the meaning of marriage. Responding to this selective compassion, the Church teaches that we must care for the pregnant woman and her child (and the father as well). And while we defend the human dignity of the person with same sex attractions, we also defend the sanctity of marriage. This is not an easy task, but remember that the parable of the Good Samaritan was directed against those who had a restrictive view of who is ones neighbor. Like the Good Samaritan, the Church does not seek simple, quick solutions, but to respond to the concrete, suffering human person.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homilies for Fifteenth Sunday, Year C):

2016: Becoming a Disciple Week 6: Double Compassion
2013: Focus on Mission - Part Two
2010: Go and Do Likewise
2007: The Good Pagan and The Good Samaritan
2004: Oil and Wine Over His Wounds
2001: He Approached the Victim
1998: What Is Compassion?

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