Each time the parable of the Good Samaritan rolls around in the lectionary, as it does today in the Sunday cycle, I think of one of those teachers, the professor I had for Moral Theology 101. One of his things, which he returned to a couple of times during the semester, was that the tradition had always seen the Good Samaritan as more of a Christological allegory than a moral example, and perhaps we would do well to preach it that way. I took the advice and have always done so, more or less, up to and including today. Trying to give homilies with my little bit of Italian, I have stuck close to some of my familiar approaches, at least so far.
Nevertheless, though I had my little homily prepared in this way a week ahead of time, my personal reflections went in a different direction. As I practiced the gospel before Mass, the reflexive motive in 10:29 just stayed with me; in Italian, volendo giustificarsi, 'he wished to justify himself.'
This scholar of the law had one of the great privileges of all of human history, to have the Lord himself say to him, 'You have answered correctly.' And yet, in that little shift into the self in his final question, he made a spiritual wrong turn. Everything he had said before that turned him outwards, loving God with all his heart, being, strength, and mind, and his neighbor as himself. But wishing to justify himself, it got turned around, twisted back, and he became the homo incurvatus, the human being bent over into himself.
It's tempting to take the easy way out of this ever-present danger of religion and say 'God is other people,' forgetting the simultaneous truth of 'God is other, people,' as teaches the oft-repeated anecdote about Avery Dulles, may he rest in peace. The transcendence of God pushes us inside, to the mind, the soul, the spiritual parts of our created being that resemble most the being of God. In this sense a spiritual life can't be lived without some reflection on one's own self, examination of conscience, discernments and resolutions aimed, on the one hand, at living better the obligations of the state of life to which we are called, and on the other, staying out of sin, especially mortal sin. But this sometimes slips from its rightful context of the love of God such that our religion turns into a sort of lease between ourselves and the Landlord, who is happy to let us live comfortably (and in bad cases, in presumption) in a 'state of grace' as long as we pay the rent of our good behavior. Our 'spirituality,' which is supposed to inspire us to abandon and lose ourselves in God and his designs, goes into a sort of reverse, becoming a project of managing the interior safety and security of ourselves as pious persons. As if our salvation were something God offered with indifference, a 'take it or leave it,' instead of something he wills for us, and is just dying--literally--to give us!
Also in the spiritual order people sometimes try to trade freedom for security, but these securities turn out to be illusory and ordered to misery. And the last miserable result is a soul ready for and resigned to hell because it's easier than surrender.
The cure, as Jesus points out to the scholar and to any of us who have fallen into similar distortions at one time or another, is mercy. To become the merciful neighbor by allowing our hearts to break open at the sight of our suffering sister or brother, and to accept the freedom to let their suffering intrude upon our time and resources. This is the path to the re-forming of ourselves in God as persons salvaged and saved, re-ordered according to God's vision for the blessedness of creation, as St. Francis himself discovered:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin to do penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter was changed into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I lingered a little and left the world. (St. Francis, Testament, 1-3)