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Archbishop Follo: turn to Love by Being Close to Others, as Christ Became Close to Us

With the wish to understand that to love the neighbor implies to convert ourselves to the love of God and to share life with our neighbor

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XV Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – July 14, 2019
Dt 30: 10-14; Ps 69; Col 1:15-20; Lk 10: 25-37
You have words of spirit and life – Parable of the Good Samaritan
Ambrosian Rite
VIII Sunday of Pentecost
1Sam 8, 1-22a; Ps 88; 1Tm 2, 1-8; Mt 22, 15-22
To give to Caesar and to give to God
I think that the parable of the Good Samaritan puts the accent on the verb «to love» more than on the word «neighbor». The Samaritan sees the wounded, has compassion (a human feeling that should dwell in every man, even in a man we believe to be different from us) and his actions are described one by one almost in slow motion. The Samaritan did not ask who the wounded man was. His help is disinterested, generous and concrete. Here’s what it means to love others.
Furthermore, at the end of today’s gospel passage, Jesus asks the scribe this question: «Who of these three (the Levite, the priest, and the Samaritan) has come close to the one who was robbed and wounded by thieves?»
The important point is to go from the neighbor as an object to be loved to the neighbor as a subject that loves. Our needing neighbor cannot be defined, it is the one we come across by chance. The problem is another: it is to ask ourselves if we have within us the closeness to the needs of the others whoever they are. This is the real problem. The scribe who had a theological question to ask, sees himself invited to convert.
Jesus asks him to convert his compassion not only as an expression but as an action, translating compassion into concrete actions.

  • Four characters and a place to be identified

To help our conversion I’d like to propose the following questions:
Who is the priest? I am that priest.
Who is the Levite? I am that Levite.
Who is the wounded man? I am the wounded man.
Who is the Samaritan? Jesus. What does He do? He becomes my neighbor, He takes care of me so that He becomes like me: He is wounded, naked, crucified for me and I’m healed, my dignity is given back to me and I’m brought back to life.
The priest and the Levite had finished their service in the Temple of Jerusalem and were going home. They see the wounded man but don’t stop. Perhaps, they thought that he was already dead and didn’t want to touch him because it was an impure act to touch a dead body (Lev 21:1). Perhaps, they feared to become themselves victim of an assault. These fears were stronger than compassion. As priest and Levite, they represented the wise men that had to incarnate the commandment of God’s love. What about love for the neighbor? Unfortunately cult and compassion were two different things.
And what is the inn? It is the Church.

  • Who is our neighbor? (1)

We are used to the expression” Good Samaritan”; it seems a common saying but it is not so obvious. It is an oxymoron (a contradiction). (2)
For the Jews, the Samaritans were heretic, separatist, more despised than the pagans.  For a Jew it would not have been possible to consider a Samaritan as his neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say that the wounded man must be helped because he is their neighbor but He “dares” to donate to his countrymen a Samaritan as the example of human and divine compassion for a happy and eternal life.
This “gift” has been so well understood by the Church that Jesus has been forever indicated as the “Good Samaritan” and the Church becomes “neighbor” to the suffering humanity. Christ, and the Church with Him, bend over the weak and wounded man to save him because God’s kingdom has this “cost”: compassion.
The son of God, the incarnate Mercy, carries God’s blessing becoming neighbor to men that are by Him pitied, nursed and healed for the Kingdom of God.
To make us understand the greatness and the intensity of this proximity, Jesus uses various parables: the one of the good shepherd that saves the sheep condemned to death ( John 10:10), the one of the son of the  owner of the vineyard that arrives after the messengers that were send in vain ( Jh 10;Lk 20:9-18) and the one of the Samaritan that tells of a traveler that doesn’t avoid a wounded man but with compassion kneels next to him and removes him from the road.
Let’s imagine the scene and let’s become the wounded man that is rescued by the Samaritan who arrives after the priest and the Levite that didn’t want or couldn’t help him, maybe because he was unknown to them or not belonging to their family or their tribe. Here, we can see mirrored the history of salvation in which Jesus is a despised Samaritan, reveals what the other techniques of salvation had forgotten, and builds where these techniques had failed.
In Christ God became near to man with a simple and human figure. The God that we now know is not” too high up nor too far away” from us, and His law is very close to us. It is in our mouth and in our heart so that we put it in practice (first reading of the Roman Rite). Only doing what Christ has done we can truly encounter our Neighbor (God) and our neighbor (men and women). Our heart matures only in welcoming the Other and the other and has only one “nice flaw”, it needs to be loved.
At the end of the parable, Jesus reverses the second question of the doctor of the Law (the first one had been “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”).(3) The doctor had asked: “Who is my neighbor?”
The question seems to have been formulated to convince Jesus that “to love God” is without limits but that “to love the neighbor” has defined limits. I think that the question implies that we can choose the neighbor we must love and that we have the possibility to refuse those not worthy to be loved. Jesus revolves it:” Which of these three, had compassion (4) for him?” It is important not only to know whom we must have compassion for but also to know who has compassion for us. Today, He wants to teach us not so much who is our neighbor as to make us understand Who comes near us lying on the road. In the foreground, there is not the one who organizes his compassion and distributes it to those he thinks that deserve it, but the one who is in need and waits for a sign of compassion by a Traveller approaching, nursing and so becoming his neighbor. 

  • The price of the Kingdom of God: compassion

        If on the above lines I suggested to identify ourselves with the wounded man so that we can understand that our neighbor is Christ, now I suggest identifying oneself with the Samaritan to be near to the wounded humanity that desires to rise up but cannot do it alone. The priest and the Levite didn’t stop as the Samaritan did because their eyes were not those of the Lord. On the contrary, the Samaritan has God’s eyes and looks at humanity as Jesus does: “Christ, the Son of God, looks at the human pain and uses this pain to reveal his love and to incarnate his mercy. How much “descending” must be done in me if only the pain can reveal God’s love to me! How much charity must be done by God if He had to go with us to our Calvary so that we can believe in Love!”(Father Primo Mazzolari, Time to believe, Brescia 1964, page 103)
This love is moved and has compassion, a word that, even if it less strong than the Greek word that indicate a” moved womb”, indicates not the giving of the wealthy person to the poor or the rescue by a healthy person of the ill one, but it means living together the passion for the life of the brother whose humanity has been wounded.
The etymology of the word compassion pushes us to live it feeling the pain of the other as if it were ours. The doctor of the Law has understood it very well. Jesus then reaffirms his answer and invites him to do the same. Charity is mission in compassion; it is to follow Christ in our daily life. To do so Jesus asks for complete availability and pushes us to work for a common cause, and to enter a history and stability of life. This is the way to eternal life: to go the same way that Jesus has described and done coming to live in the place of our illness.
We should ask Christ to give us a look and a heart like his. While reason wants to measure the gift of God based on what she can understand, Christ reveals to us His unimaginable tender Heart. Many people in the Church have understood and welcomed this heart and his tenderness.
I’d like to cite the example of a Missionary of Charity that I met in Rome. She was an Italian nun who at 60 had left the Congregation where she was General Counselor to become a nun in the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Theresa of Calcutta welcomed her and with maternal concern advised her to go to Calcutta when the weather would have been less harsh. After a month of getting accustomed to the new life, she sent the “new” sister to work (or as Mother Theresa used to say, “To do apostolate”) in the House of the dying. In this House of mercy, there are many small rooms where the dying is assisted with love. On the walls of every room, there is written a phrase from the Gospel. The Italian nun started to wash the wounds of an ill person while looking at the wall where it was written: “This is my body”. At the end of her “apostolate”, the nun returned to the convent for dinner. Mother Theresa asked her: ”What did you do this afternoon?” The nun answered: ”I’ve been with Jesus for three hours’”. Like a merciful woman following the steps of the Samaritan, she had bent over the man with whom Jesus identifies himself: “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a prisoner, I was ill, and I was naked. I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’(Mt 25:35).
Let us live in mercy and let us practice compassion kneeling in front of our neighbor as Jesus did washing the feet and on the Cross, and as many men and women do when they wash the material and spiritual wounds of their brothers and sisters.
Looking at us in this communion of reciprocal mercy the others will be able to “read” the Gospel and to “see” it in action. Through our life in Christ truth is given to the men of wisdom and love is given to the hearts.
God puts himself in our hands of mercy. We are the only ones responsible for this mercy; let’s not delegate this responsibility to others. Every one of us had the duty to carry in his heart the Living God who never imposes but proposes calling us to live his pilgrimage and to open the door He is knocking at: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock:” If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
What I’ve said is valid for all Christians, religious and lay people. To what do the consecrated people consecrate themselves and how the vocation to be Samaritans is specified? They must show with their life that cult and compassion are not in contrast. To a nun who was asking to Saint Vincent de Paolis:” If I’m doing the adoration to the Blessed Sacrament and a poor knocks at the door what should I do? Should I continue my adoration or go to the poor?” The Saint founder of the Daughters of Mercy answered: “You don’t abandon God if you abandon God for God”. That not only means that God is in the poor but that consequently, we can stop praying to help the needy. It means also that in a virginal consecration to God, one has eyes so pure that he or she sees God in the poor and serves Him in mercy and in praise.

  • The Inn of “ All are welcomed”

In today’s parable, Jesus tells also that the Samaritan took the wounded man in the house of “All are welcomed” translated as an inn. (5) .
This “All are welcomed” is a fragile house suspended between Jericho and Jerusalem that is built wherever a person is willing to welcome everybody.
God welcomes everybody into a profound sign of love.
The Church welcomes all in a maternal way. In this “public lodging” the suffering person is nursed in the same way a mother bends over her child to take care of him. This taking care (6)  (that in the Greek word indicates how a mother bends over her child) means that it is a concern that becomes action. The Consecrated Virgins are called in a particular way to this service of maternal care. The Rite of Consecration invites them to dedicate themselves to nurse the physical and moral sores of every brother and sister wounded in the body and in the soul because, thanks to a pure heart, they see in the face of suffering the Face of the faces: the one of Christ. 

  • Neighbor, in Greek “pleison” and in Hebrew “re’a”, indicates “one who is near, who lives nearby and with whom we share something. For the Jew, it was his countryman because he was a member of the chosen people. At maximum, they could include the ones who had converted to Judaism.
  • An oxymoron (it is a Greek word from oxus= pointed and moros=blunt) is a rhetorical figure that is made by the union of two opposite contradictory terms or any way in strong antithesis. The result is that of an apparent paradox. For example lucid madness, silent tumult, deafening silence, parallel convergences, senseless sense and disgusting pleasure.  If some oxymoron has been devised to capture the reader’s attention, others are born to indicate a reality that doesn’t have a name. This can happen because a word was never created or because the code of the language, for its formal limits, must contradict itself to indicate some deep concepts. This is the case of the expression “good Samaritan”.
  • The Jew doctors of the Law counted 613 precepts, 365 negatives (one for each day of the year) and 248 positives like the numbers of the bones. It indicated that every day the law enters in a negative way inside a man to purify him, to remove the negativity of evil and to penetrate in a positive way into the bones, the structure of the body, to structure man into right.
  • The Greek text says splancnizomai “to be moved, to be caught in the deep of the womb” and in the deep of the soul, the maternal, loving womb typical of God whose look toward us becomes compassion. Today we translate it with “to have compassion” weakening the original vividness of the text. Because of the lightning of mercy that strikes the soul of the Samaritan, he becomes a neighbor going beyond every question and every danger. The question has changed, it is not anymore a matter to establish who our neighbor is or who is not. It concerns me. I must become neighbor to the other so that he or she is important for me like “myself”.
  • In the Greek writing, it is uses the word pandocheion that means “to welcome all” and it is a house between Jerusalem, the celestial Jerusalem, and Jericho. This house that welcomes all is the symbol of the Church that welcomes everybody.
  • In Greek the word epemelethe means to take care, to worry, to vigil, go out of one’s way.

Concerning Repentance.
Book 1
Chapter 6
The Novatians, by excluding such from the banquet of Christ, imitate not indeed the good Samaritan, but the proud lawyer, the priest, and the Levite who are blamed in the Gospel, and are indeed worse than these.

  1. Do you then, O Novatians, shut out these? For what is it when you refuse the hope of forgiveness but to shut out? But the Samaritan did not pass by the man who had been left half dead by the robbers; he dressed his wounds with oil and wine, first pouring in oil in order to comfort them; he set the wounded man on his own beast, on which he bore all his sins; nor did the Shepherd despise His wandering sheep.
  2. But you say: “Touch me not.” You who wish to justify yourselves say, “He is not our neighbor,” being more proud than that lawyer who wished to tempt Christ, for he said, “Who is my neighbor?” He asked, you deny, going on like that priest, like that Levite passing by him whom you ought to have taken and tended, and not receiving them into the inn for whom Christ paid the two pence, whose neighbor Christ bids you to become that you might show mercy to him. For he is our neighbor whom not only a similar condition has joined, but whom mercy has bound to us. You make yourself strange to him through pride, in vain puffing up yourself in your carnal mind, and not holding the Head.2947 For if you held the Head you would consider that you must not forsake him for whom Christ died. If you held the Head you would consider that the whole body, by joining together rather than by separating, grows unto the increase of God2948 by the bond of charity and the rescue of a sinner.
  3. When, then, you take away all the fruits of repentance, what do you say but this: Let no one who is wounded enter our inn, let no one be healed in our Church? With us the sick are not cared for, we are whole, we have no need of a physician, for He Himself says: “They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”

Chapter 6
         The passage quoted from St. John’s Epistle is confirmed by another in which salvation is promised to those who believe in Christ, which refutes the Novatians who try to induce the lapsed to believe, although denying them pardon. Furthermore, many who had lapsed have received the grace of martyrdom, whilst the example of the good Samaritan shows that we must not abandon those in whom even the faintest amount of faith is still alive.

  1. Since, then, we have spoken of the general Epistle of St. John, let us enquire whether the writings of John in the Gospel agree with your interpretation. For he writes that the Lord said: “God so loved this world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that every one that believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”2985 If, then, you wish to reclaim any one of the lapsed, do you exhort him to believe, or not to believe? Undoubtedly you exhort him to believe. But, according to the Lord’s words, he who believes shall have everlasting life. How, then, will you forbid to pray for him, who has a claim to everlasting life? since faith is of divine grace, as the Apostle teaches where he speaks of the differences of gifts, for “to another is given faith by the same Spirit.”2986 And the disciples say to the Lord: “Increase our faith.”2987 He then who has faith has life, and he who has life is certainly not shut out from pardon; “that everyone,” it is said, “that believeth on Him should not perish.” Since it is said, Everyone, no one is shut out, no one is excepted, for He does not except him who has lapsed, if only afterward he believes effectually.
  2. We find that many have at length recovered themselves after a fall, and have suffered for the Name of God. Can we deny fellowship with the martyrs to these to whom the Lord Jesus has not denied it? Do we dare to say that life is not restored to those to whom Christ has given a crown? As, then, a crown is given to many after they have lapsed, so, too, if they believe, their faith is restored, which faith is the gift of God, as you read: “Because unto you it hath been granted by God not only to believe in Him but also to suffer in His behalf.”2988 Is it possible that he who has the gift of God should not have His forgiveness?
  3. Now it is not a single but a twofold grace that everyone who believes should also suffer for the Lord Jesus. He, then, who believes receives his grace, but he receives a second if his faith be crowned by suffering. For neither was Peter without grace before he suffered, but when he suffered he received a second gift. And many who have not had the grace to suffer for Christ have nevertheless had the grace of believing on Him.
  4. Therefore it is said: “That everyone that believeth in Him should not perish.” Let no one, that is, of whatever condition, after whatever fall, fear that he will perish. For it may come to pass that the good Samaritan of the Gospel may find someone going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, that is, falling back from the martyr’s conflict to the pleasures of this life and the comforts of the world; wounded by robbers, that is, by persecutors, and left half dead; that good Samaritan, Who is the Guardian of our souls (for the word Samaritan means Guardian),2989 may, I say, not pass by him but tend and heal him.2990
  5. Perchance He, therefore, passes him not by, because He sees in him some signs of life so that there is hope that he may recover. Does it not seem to you that he who has fallen is half alive if faith sustains any breath of life? For he is dead who wholly casts God out of his heart. He, then, who does not wholly cast Him out, but under pressure of torments has denied Him for a time, is half dead. Or if he be dead, why do you bid him repent, seeing he cannot now be healed? If he be half dead, pour in oil and wine, not wine without oil, that may be the comfort and the smart. Place him upon thy beast, give him over to the host, lay out two pence for his cure, be to him a neighbor. But you cannot be a neighbor unless you have compassion on him; for no one can be called a neighbor unless he have healed, not killed, another. But if you wish to be called a neighbor, Christ says to you: “Go and do likewise.”
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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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