21st Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Merciful Samaritan

The Nativity Fast begins this Friday, a time of preparation to ready ourselves for the Feast of Christ’s holy Incarnation and Nativity, an opportunity to grow in faith and be made ready to welcome the new-born King of Kings.  As we begin that journey just a few days from now, we’re presented today with the parable of the Good Samaritan to renew and deepen our life in Christ, to grow in our love of God and neighbor—to “go and do likewise.”  

The parable of the Good, or “Merciful” Samaritan, as the parable is known in the Orthodox Church, is given in response to a question put to Christ as a test: A lawyer asks the Lord, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Putting Christ to the test is nothing new.  People put Him to the test all the time even in our own day, asking questions like, “Why do I pray once or twice and (so it seems, they think to themselves) nothing happens?  Why do I even need to pray at all?  Why go to church? Why do I not get what I want, what I asked for? 

All such questions and doubts however, also represent an ‘opportunity’: we can turn those questions of wrestling with faith and doubt into an opportunity for growth. If we recognize what’s behind such questions and doubts, we can make them into cries for help from God. An admittance of lack of faith can be a cry for more faith; a recognition of pride, lack of trust, ego-centrism on our part, doubt, can become a prayer for increased focus on Christ and humility; we can pray more for others and take our focus off ourselves to focus instead on Christ.

In the case of the lawyer challenging Christ, Jesus aids him in seeing his own pridefulness and doubt, his greatest impediment to faith in God; He helps him gain illumination through humility by asking him a question in return, namely, “what’s written in the Law?” The lawyer answers with Leviticus 19:18, that is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms his answer, but the prideful lawyer is still not satisfied.  Still hoping to stump Jesus, he asks Him yet another question: “And whois my neighbor?”  

The parable of the Good Samaritan is Christ’s response.  But Jesus turns the lawyer’s question on its head: instead of answering the question, “whois my neighbor?” Jesus demonstrates tothe lawyer what it means to bea godly neighbor, and so, He calls on all of us to do likewise.

Jesus teaches us throughout the Gospels to prioritize those people we meet, especially those in need, both physically and spiritually.  In fact, the two are inseparable in the Gospels.  This is why when we ask for physicalhealing, spiritualhealing is prayed for as well.  The priority with Christ is always on a person’s immortal soul, on their finding life in Him, repentance from sins, which, if left unrepented of, would keep them from Christ’s holy presence in His Heavenly Kingdom.  This prioritizing of the soul is clearly seen in the many cases where people sought physical healing from Christ only to find that Christ firstaddresses their need for forgiveness.  

An African proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  This is instructive, but we can put an Orthodox twist on it which strengthens it further: feed a man for a day and you feed his temporal body; bring a man to Christ and His holy Church and you feed his soul for eternity. In other words, bring a person to Christ and the Church and you give him the tools he needs to address his greatest of needs, first, that of his thirsting soul, by giving Him communion with Him who is Life itself, and second, his physical needs.  Bring such a one to the Church and Christ feeds his soul while also providing him with a family to love and help care for him, challenge him, encourage him, and love him.

The fact is though that someone lying on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, cannot escape our notice, but the spiritual needs of those ‘storm-tossed’ by our culture, ravaged by the ‘thieves’ of the truth and all godlessness, is something so ubiquitous but subtle that we can easily find ourselves numb to their need, their suffering, and pass them by as if they didn’t even exist.  In other words, we can easily find ourselves just like that priest and Levite, who pass by indifferent to the needs of the one dying on the side of the road.  The hopelessness of a soul lost, without God, should stir our hearts as did the Samaritan’s heart for the man who fell among the thieves.  

The goodness of the Samaritan can be summed up in one word, “mercy”—hence his name in the Orthodox languages as “the merciful Samaritan.”  He showed great mercyon the man who fell among robbers. Mercy and love are related. When they’ve taken root in us through Christ, they produce compassion and overcome indifference and all callousness.  Many first-time visitors to an Orthodox church, particularly Protestants, wonder why we repeatedly pray, “Lord, have mercy.”  The answer is, of course, that God’s love is manifested so often in His mercy on us sin-sick but loved children of God.  The very words, “kyrie eleison,” would originally have meant, “the Lord pours oil on us,” just like the Samaritan does to the wounded man who fell among the thieves. Just so, God has compassion on us, He is mercifulto us.

Fittingly then, some of the Church Fathers interpret the Good Samaritan to be a figure of Christ Himself: the bandages; oil and wine being sacramental images for the clothing of the neophyte at Baptism, signifying new birth, which heals us of the wounds of sin; the oil is that of Chrismation, which gives us ongoing new life in the Holy Spirit by whom we are sealed; the wine is the communion of Christ’s precious blood, which deifies us and unites us with Christ, Eternal Life.  St. John Chrysostom says of this Parable, “Let us make our mercifulness abundant, let us give proof of much love to man, both by the use of our money, and by our actions.”  

During the Nativity Fast, we focus more on giving alms, giving to the Church, serving with our gifts, ministering to those in need.  The Fast is an opportunity to grow in mercy and compassion, and, thereby, to grow in communion with God the Holy Trinity even as we gain increased Christ-likeness by coming out of our own self-focus.  St. John urges us to go beyond what is easy—beyond material giving, calling on us to address the spiritual needs of those around us, saying, “Go then, and put a stop to the evil; pull out those who are drowning, though you descend into the very depth of the surge…” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily XV on Matthew 5:14).  

Now here’s a challenge for us this Fast: Let us love with the love and truth of Christ the evil we see harming ourselves and those around us?  Are we willing to stand for the truth of Christ in this age, where many are silent in the face of godlessness out of a fear of appearing “intolerant”? Are we willing to go that extra mile to address the core issues in our ownlives, so we too can be witnesses by which God mercifully works in the lives of those around us?  

We don’t have to be already healedto minister healing to others; we do need, however, to be healing, that is, repenting. In other words, we need to take ourown spiritual medicine to have credibility with others whom we urge to do the same.  When we come outside our self-focus, our own struggles to love and serve those around us, authentically speaking and livingthe Truth to those who need to hear it, then we’re assured that God will supply in us what is lacking; He’ll work in us and through us to His glory, furthering us in faith and helping others to come to the Faith and fullness of life in Him 

Having concluded His parable then, Jesus asks the lawyer, “which of these was a neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”  The lawyer responds, “he who showed mercy.”  Christ says, “Go and do the same.” This is the challenge before us this Nativity Fast.   So, brothers and sisters, let’s pray that God will give us such opportunities to pour oil on the souls of those around us even as we repent of our own sins and partake of the sacramental life, uniting ourselves further with Christ.  Do as St. John says: Pull out those spiritually and physically drowning around you, “though you descend into the very depth of the surge….,” as he says.  Christ God who is Himself the Merciful Samaritan calls on us to be the same, He will give us all we need to love, to serve, to give, and will in turn, bless and grow us in Him who is Life itself!   This is the promise of the Fast and the lesson of the Merciful Samaritan. Glory to Jesus Christ! 

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

10 November 2019

Epistle:            Eph. 2:4-10                        Parable of the Good Samaritan 8

Gospel:            Luke 10:25-37