The Face of God is Mercy

In Scripture scholarship, there are four “senses” of Scriptural interpretation that we can recognize in evaluating a text that we read. These “senses” are the

  1. literal sense – what does the text actually say, literally?

  2. allegorical sense – what is the deeper meaning behind the words?

  3. moral sense – how is this showing me to live?

  4. anagogical sense – how does this passage lead me to heaven? (we could also call this the “salvific sense”)

The famous parable of the Good Samaritan presents us with a rich teaching from Jesus about how we are to live out our faith in reference to our neighbor. We can see in this parable a deep lesson on how we are to interact with one another. I’d like to break it down as Jesus presents it to us.

A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Jericho is a town located about fifteen miles northeast of Jerusalem. We will remember it from the Old Testament as the city whose walls fell when Israel was entering into the Holy Land. The journey from Jerusalem to Jericho is pretty much downhill, as the latter town is located near the Jordan Valley, while Jerusalem is located in the Judean highlands. In Jesus’ day, that road was notorious for its dangers. It was certainly conceivable that robbers would attack a man as he travelled.

The “man” is travelling down – from the center of worship, Jerusalem – a symbol of our heavenly home and the place of salvation. As he “goes down” he experiences the ravages of the fallen human condition – whether his own fault or not – and ends up “half-dead” – his fate could go either way: life or death. Literally, this is a journey downhill; allegorically, it is a descent from grace into sinfulness. The robbers’ victim is a symbol of our fallen humanity, experiencing the effects of sin.

What happens next as two people, who should know better, come by? The priest and the Levite would have been as versed in the Law as the scholar to whom Jesus is speaking. They know what the Law says about “inheriting eternal life.” However, knowing that, they avoid this “half-dead” man, trading mercy for their own ritual cleanliness. Both of them were also “going down” that road – descending from grace.

Finally, the Good Samaritan comes along. Notice how he treats the “half-dead” man: he “approaches him,” binds his wounds, and cares for him. He pours “oil and wine” on his wounds. Literally, these would have cleansed, been antiseptic, and soothed him. However, when we Catholics hear these things, we should be thinking of our sacramental experience. Oil is a rich symbol of healing, strengthening, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with oil at Baptism, when we are confirmed, in the Sacrament of the Sick, when priests and bishops are ordained, and when altars and churches are dedicated. This is a sign of being incorporated into the life of the Samaritan, who was richly stocked and who didn’t spare his oil.

When we hear about the wine we should remember what Jesus would do with wine later in His ministry. He will change it to His own Blood. This is a clear Eucharistic echo, and we should see the connection between the care and strength given by the Good Samaritan and the sustenance we receive in Holy Communion.

Finally, the Samaritan takes the man to an inn where he cares for him. Then, he leaves the man in the care of the innkeeper with two silver coins. The coins are a symbol of the redemption we have received in Jesus. You see, the Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ. He has redeemed humanity; He has redeemed us!

So, who is the innkeeper in this story? He is you. He is me. Jesus, the Good Samaritan, gives us one another as fallen and redeemed humanity to care for one another – especially the wounded, the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the lost, the “half-dead.” This is also the moral and the salvific sense here. If we wish to enjoy the repayment that Jesus promises, we should be willing to spend ourselves on one another.

The moral sense of our readings this weekend is heard echoed in Moses’ speech in the First Reading. We know what we are supposed to do; just do it! No need to form committees or make studies – just help others! Jesus shows us the way. He who is the image of the invisible God shows us the face of God, and that face is mercy. This parable calls us to imitate Jesus, the Good Samaritan, so that we too can show the world the face of God, who loves us, redeems us, and leads us to life.

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