They were a beaten army in April, 1865. Waiting while the commanders negotiated surrender, they didn’t know what their future was going to be. The army that surrounded them had hunted them for days, even years; who knows what mercies this group of adversaries would show them? These were men ready to die, they were starving quite literally, and one reason they ended up trapped was they hadn’t had enough food, they’d had to scrounge for something to eat while they retreated and that cost them vital time. Now the Damned Yankees had them.
When the surrender was announced, there were nice surprises. They weren’t going into a prison camp, once they laid down their weapons they were free to go home if they promised to keep the peace. Perhaps the most surprising thing was their victors were going to give them something to eat. Their victors were going to treat them with dignity. Wars end when armies surrender, but perhaps peace began that day by sharing food and drink.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is probably the most amazing in the New Testament, once the layers of it get unpacked. To start off, the setting: the road between Jerusalem and Jericho is still a very dangerous place for a solo traveler, I’ve been up it. It goes down over 15,000 feet over the course of 35 miles, with lots of curves and switchbacks that are prime places for ambushes. Robberies and beatings happened regularly there.
There were strict regulations about what Jewish priests could do, and one thing they couldn’t touch was a dead body. In a doubtful case, we shouldn’t be surprised he kept his distance. Levites were a similar case, but there’s nothing against either of these guys sending back help when they could. Jesus’ audience wouldn’t have been surprised they passed by. They would have been shocked to their core for a helpful Samaritan to happen by.
The Jews hated the Samaritans worse than the Southerners hated the Damn Yankees, worse than any two groups in history. There was no interaction between them, and one reason the road between Jerusalem and Jericho got a lot of traffic is that Jews going back to Galilee would do down through Jericho and up the Jordan valley so they wouldn’t have to go home through Samaria. If the injured man had any consciousness left, he may have mumbled: “Let me die,” when he saw a Samaritan helping him.
The Samaritan’s generosity is overwhelming as well as unexpected. When the man recovered, he probably wouldn’t be able to thank his benefactor, couldn’t bring the words to his lips. The scholar who starts the conversation with Jesus can only mention the man by what he did, “the one who showed him mercy,” and not his race. It’s finding human dignity in unexpected places that God’s mercy shows strongly.
As followers of Christ, we are called to be people who show unexpected mercy and dignity. The core of our faith is pretty simple and it’s at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading: love the Lord with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything about the Catholic Church starts there: Ethics, Social Teaching, Biblical interpretation, even Canon Law. If it doesn’t fit the Great Commandment, it doesn’t belong in our Church. Jesus calls us to expand our definition of what our neighbor is beyond our comfort zone. It doesn’t matter who we think deserves it, everyone deserves it. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone who doesn’t give us any respect, they still deserve it. Seeing others as God sees them, being willing to treat others as Christ would have us treat them, depends first on our recognition of their human dignity, which is something that can’t be given up or given away. The place where we’re called to being is here, in the Eucharist. Peace starts in sharing food and drink, the Body and Blood of Christ, here.