The Good Samaritan Seeks Justice


Rembrandt Good Samaritan
The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

Today at Holy Mass we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. It turns on one sentence. The Samaritan looked at the robbery victim “with compassion.”

Let’s try to think of that victim with compassion, too. Don’t we have to imagine that, at some point, the poor, wounded man asked, “Did they catch the thieves who did this to me?”

He might add: “If only they had asked me peacefully, I would gladly have helped them with some money. But to beat me and leave me half-dead? For this, they should do time in prison. And restore to me my money. Justice demands it.”

To which we can only imagine the Samaritan—who represents Christ—saying: “Amen, brother.

“I spoke to the centurion in Jericho. I gave him a full account of what I know. He has investigated the case, and his soldiers arrested a group of thieves. When you’re well enough, we’ll take you to see if you can identify them as the group that robbed and beat you.”

In other words: If we claim to have Christian compassion for victims of violence, that means: Doing the painstaking work required to see justice done.

Of course we know that no human effort can attain perfect justice. And we trust that God will make everything right in the end.

But when God helps someone who has been victimized see the wrongness of what has happened; when a victim of violence attains the clarity of mind necessary to describe the crime carefully and thoroughly, and then demand justice—that is a miracle of grace.

If we do not accompany that victim in the quest for justice, then any claims we make to Christian compassion are nothing but empty hypocrisy. A Good Samaritan who loves the suffering neighbor will fight for justice, and will not rest until something gets done. We won’t live in a world in which people can rob and beat innocent travelers and get away with it scot-free.


The News: Divine Mercy

Earlier this week, we kept the anniversary of St. Therese of Lisieux’s death. On the 100th anniversary of her death, twenty-one years ago, Pope St. John Paul II wrote a letter about her. He quoted the opening prayer for today’s Holy Mass, where we acknowledge that God demonstrates His almighty power most clearly by pardoning and showing mercy.

divine-mercyIn the gospel passage today, we hear the Lord Jesus warn His countrymen about missing the big news. The Big News. That God became man in order to make mankind children of God. God came to reconcile us sinners to His perfect self.

How? Mercy.

Infinite, perfect justice and truth, acting with unfathomable love. God doing as a man what we men, left to ourselves, could never do: Make things right. Settle all our debts with our Creator. God, as a man, freed us from the burden of our ungodliness.

The Christ paid our bill in full. He did not turn away from the full extent of human sin. When we look at a crucifix, all prudishness and all saccharine-sweetness melt away. This is what He did, because He had to do it, to save us.

His act of mercy allows us to stare our sins square in the face. We can reckon them fearlessly. Because we know that He has redeemed us from them; all we have to do is admit them.

Twenty-first century man risks missing this news. Like the townspeople of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida, who never recognized the Christ. Twenty-first century man risks having to live in his sins, paralyzed by self-righteous rigidity and hopeless desperation. There’s no one to tell him about Christ. Except us.

Words of St. Francis


St. Francis’ brief Rule of Life contains sage advice:

I admonish and exhort the brothers that, in their preaching, their words be well chosen and chaste…speaking to the people of vices and virtues, punishment and glory in a discourse that is brief, because it was in a few words that the Lord preached when on earth.

Speaking of the Lord’s words: He sent out his 72 missionaries. The Rule of St. Francis quotes liberally from Christ’s missionary instructions. Since the Way of St. Francis consists simply in following them. Sell what you have, give it to the poor. And come follow Me.

“Carry no money bag.” “Wherever they welcome you, say ‘Peace to this household,’ and eat what is set before you.” Have nothing, except the Gospel. Live as heirs to the Kingdom of heaven.

St. Francis died 794 years ago yesterday. Among his dying words:

Above everything else, I want the most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated.

Needing a Good Samaritan

Jundland_Wastes R2D2

Sometimes we think we are cruising invincibly down the highway of life.  Hundreds of facebook friends, constantly liking our exciting snapshots.  A good job, with stellar performance evaluations.  Maybe even an attractive spouse, plus kids with high g.p.a.’s and plenty of soccer trophies.  [Click para leer en español.]

But the highway of life can take a sudden turn, and I can find myself staring at a lonely and dangerous stretch of road.

I daresay that the scholar of the law who took part in the conversation we hear at Holy Mass fancied himself as cruising invincibly down the highway of a good and righteous life.  He likely found the parable of the Good Samaritan to be rather jarring.

The Law of Moses orders us servants of God to love our neighbors.  So the scholar had asked Christ, “Who is my neighbor?”  After all, the world teems with countless “neighbors.”  God cannot possibly expect me to love them all!

So I must make some selections, thought the scholar to himself.  I must have some criterion by which to distinguish the ‘in’ from the ‘out’ crowd.  ‘In’ people talk like I do, apply good standards of personal hygiene, watch the same cable-news network as I watch, and have high-functioning kids like mine.

But the Lord turned the tables on him.

Anyone ever taken the road from Jerusalem to Jericho?  How about this:  Anyone ever see the original Star Wars movie?  Near the beginning, R2D2 went looking for Obi Wan Kenobi.  The little droid escaped from the Skywalker farm on Tatooine and wandered into the dusty hills, where the Sand People could ambush you.  That is what the road between Jerusalem and Jericho is like.  Seriously.  Winding, lonesome, dusty.  Creepy.

Martin Luther King, Jr., described the road, when he preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan:

The Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing.

Anyway, by throwing the parable of the Good Samaritan at him, Jesus seems to have been saying to the scholar:  You want to find a way to choose your neighbors. You think you have a lot to offer, and everybody wants a piece.  So you have to keep yourself from getting spread too thin.  But:  you could wind up needing a neighbor.  Then the question you will have is:  Who will have the kindness to help me?  Who will think of me as their neighbor then?

Dr. Martin Luther KingAnd the answer of course is:  The one who doesn’t fuss and get choosy about who his neighbors are.  He will help.  The one who doesn’t have too much pride, too much self-importance, to notice the woebegone people around him.  The one who keeps his humble eyes open, and who simply cannot stand to see a fellow human being suffering.

For us, the most important spiritual lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is:  identifying myself with the man who got robbed and left half-dead.  If all we do is try to copy the Good Samaritan, we could wind up right where the scholar of the law started, when he initially posed his question.  He was thinking:  I’m fine.  I can offer so much as a neighbor, I need to start vetting the applicants.

No.  I could be the poor soul by the side of the road.  Actually, I am the poor soul, wounded and nearly lost.  Desperation stares me in the face.  I could get gravely ill tomorrow.  My home and possessions could float away in a flood.  Some hoodlum could steal my car.  My friends could say, “You know, you’re annoying.  We don’t like you anymore.”

And then there’s this:  Even if my car is currently purring its way down the highway of life at an impressive little clip, I have to recognize that this road will end.

Eventually the doorbell will ring, and it won’t be opportunity knocking.  It will be Mr. Grim M. Reaper.

We will all need a good neighbor then.  A Good Samaritan.  A divine Good Samaritan.

I quoted a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King earlier.  Anyone know when he gave that one, the one I quoted?  The evening of April 3, 1968.  In Memphis.  (Fue asesinado la mañana siguiente.)

So let’s identify with the Good Samaritan in this way:  It’s not for me to apply a selection process to qualify my neighbors.  My job is to love everyone in front of me, especially the ones who suffer.  And let me pray that, when I need a Good Samaritan, he or she will come along to love me like I need to be loved.

Independence-Day-Weekend Homily

Juan Epstein

Two hundred forty years.  Twelve score years.  Since…?

Yes, the Declaration of Independence.  But also, the same summer of 1776: St. Junipero Serra founded the California missions of San Francisco of Assisi and San Juan Capistrano, just south of Santa Maria de Los Angeles.

As we read at Sunday Mass, the Lord Jesus said, ‘The harvest is abundant. But it requires a lot of labor.’  We have worked at this USA thing for 240 years, expending countless, noble labors.  Working hard to communicate with each other, to cultivate a harmonious life together, to find and elect the right leaders, to educate our children, to step together into a hopeful future.

How can we not take pride in our USA?  By God’s grace, we share a genuinely sublime identity.  The eternal Son of God became man to reveal the love with which our heavenly Father made us.  Christ came to shine the divine light on: the sacred dignity of the human being.

This idea–the beautiful truth that our Creator has willed us all to exist and to thrive–that is the central, unifying idea of our nation.  That idea unites a huge, motley collection of pale- and swarthy-skinned people, in the common enterprise of the United States of America.

We read:  The Lord commanded His evangelists to say “Peace.” Peace to you.  Peace to your family, to your household, to your town.

The idea of human dignity offers us the one, true pathway to lasting peace. ‘Justice’–what does it mean?  Doesn’t it mean:  Respecting the true dignity of my neighbor?  Doesn’t it mean always remembering:  ‘This is God’s child, too.’ When we treat each other justly, what breaks out?

american-flagPeace.  Peaceful things, like cookouts, games of horseshoes, flowers growing in peoples’ gardens, young men and women falling in love and getting married, babies getting born, then growing up and going to school and learning things like Shakespeare and astronomy.

Christ came to teach us:  the heavenly Father never willed you to suffer though a wretched, hopeless, slavish life.  He wills that you live in full–occasionally enjoying things like fried chicken and ice cream, avoiding sin, and getting to heaven in the end.

By God’s grace, and the labor of the patient generations that have come before us, America has offered us a home where we can occasionally enjoy fried chicken and ice cream, avoid sin, and make our pilgrim way to heaven.

Am I right that the Christian concept of human dignity really is the crucial idea? Government by consent of the governed.  Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Habeas corpus and trial by jury.  Freedom from unlawful search and seizure.  Free thinking, free assembling.  Praying and serving God according to my own well-educated conscience.

Human dignity.  The Creator endows every Tom, Dick, and Harry; every Beckah, Susan, and Sherri; every black, white, mestizo, olive-skinned, or chorizo-eating Puerto-rican Jew with the same dignity.  Child of God.  Our Founding Fathers declared this to be “self-evident.”  Sure.  It’s perfectly self-evident.  Provided you assume that Jesus Christ lives and breathes and teaches pure truth.

Now, we also read at Mass about how the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem nurse at the abundant breasts of truth, justice, and peace.  Prosperity flows over the heavenly city like a river:  the prosperity of genuine brotherly love. The kind of genuine brotherly love that fits with a modest lifestyle and a small carbon footprint.

If we get a tiny, little share of that heavenly peace at a happy, multi-generational, American-family Fourth-of-July barbecue–how do we maintain such a peace?

It takes work.  Patient, humble labor.  The harvest is abundant–when the laborers labor.

As our Holy Father put it in his encyclical on Mother Earth, we must labor to find a new, 21st-century way of interacting with the land, the rivers, and the seas.  The 19th- and 20th-century ways have brought us to the brink of ecological disaster.

And we must labor for the rights of our neighbors to whom the promise of human dignity does not currently apply.  That, too, is the story of our nation: fighting for those to whom the American promise has not been kept.  From where I’m standing, right now that includes two large classes of people: innocent and defenseless unborn children and law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

May the Lord bless and protect our country.  We Americans have always hoped for a good future, first and foremost because the Lord has given us such a wonderful land to live in.  Why would we stop hoping now?

Yes, in this world, we will have troubles.  But Jesus has overcome the evil of the world.  So Christian hope does not disappoint.  Because God is real; His Christ is real; His Kingdom is real.  He says to His children:  Take pride in who you are; rejoice that your names are written in heaven!

Prophets and the Environment

Holy Father's shoes participated in the canceled march in Paris
Holy Father’s shoes participated in the canceled march in Paris

Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Luke 10:24)

According to St. John Chrysostom, the prophets knew that Christ would come, but they longed to see what the Apostles actually saw—as in, Christ walking the earth, healing people, etc. The prophets knew that the Christ would reveal the truth about God, but they longed to hear the words which the Apostles actually heard, and which the Apostles and their successors have transmitted down the ages to us. In other words, the prophets received an interior vision of the coming Messiah, but that vision did not have the full clarity and beauty of Christ’s actual words and deeds, when He finally did come to the earth.

When it comes to predicting the future, we might reasonably trust the prophets a lot more than we trust the weatherman. When environmentalists trot out dire predictions, with precise water levels and temperatures in fifty years, or when they say that we had Hurricane Sandy and Winter-storm Pax because too many cars in Phoenix and Shanghai get less than 25 mpg—well, we might reasonably have our doubts about the precision of the calculations.

Cover of English edition of Pope Francis' encyclical on environmentBut that should not distract us from praying like mad for the complete success of the environmental talks underway in Paris during these first two weeks of Advent. Just because climate alarmists sometimes overstate their case doesn’t mean they are not on to something. You don’t have to be a scientist to recognize that we have a serious problem, we 21st-century citizens of the global industrialized technocracy.

A climate conference can’t make lions eat hay, or make it so that the babe can put his hand in the adder’s lair. We will have to wait for the second coming of Christ to fulfill those prophecies.

But we could take a huge step as a human family toward harmony with the laws of nature. The leaders of the world could recognize our common home for what it is: a gift from God. He has appointed us stewards, not masters, and the meeting in Paris could be a moment for the human race to acknowledge that truth.

Let’s pray that the conference will find a path to a better future, a future which our children and grandchildren will rejoice to see.

Serene Mountaintop Point-of-View

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. (Luke 10:41)

Anybody ever hiked up to the top of a mountain? Mill Mountain? McAfee Knob? Sharp Top? Dragon’s Tooth? Mount Rogers? Pike’s Peak? Mount Everest?

From the top of a mountain, everything down here looks small. Up on McAfee Knob, you can see down to here, where we are.* You can see the Wells Fargo Tower, and it looks like a little Lego. You can see planes taking off from the airport, and they look like model airplanes.

mcafee knob signNow: Who lived His life–from beginning to end–Who lived His life with the point-of-view of God?

He walked the earth, stood very close to us, as one of us human beings, but He saw everything just as God sees everything?

And, because He could see everything, as if from a mountaintop, He had perfect peace. He could see how everything fits together. He knew exactly what He needed to do, and He did it. Everthing else, He entrusted to His heavenly Father.

Who am I talking about?

He said to Martha: ‘Calm yourself, my child. Don’t fuss. Mary has chosen the better part. She has focused her gaze on Me. Her eyes are fixed on the one thing necessary, on the answer, on the key that unlocks the great mystery of life. Rest your soul in Me, and you will know what to do. And you will have the strength to do it.’

Anybody ever heard of the Serenity Prayer? What does ‘serenity’ mean? Right: interior peace, calm under pressure. The prayer says, ‘Lord, give me the courage to change the things I can for the better, the serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

There is one man Who can actually teach us to live this prayer out every day. And He will give us the graces to fulfill it. The King of true serenity, the man with God’s point-of-view: Jesus Christ.

* Roanoke Catholic School!

Abundant Harvest and Lumen Fidei

The harvest is abundant. (Luke 10:2)

One of the themes Pope Francis highlights in his encyclical on faith is this: Faith involves hearing a promise made by God, remembering it constantly, and looking forward to its fulfillment.

The promise of an abundant harvest goes all the way back to our father Abraham. God, the true God, the personal God—the God who makes a beautiful promise to us, speaking to us in our words—He established an alliance with Abraham. He made Abraham His partner in the unfolding of His Providence.

Pope-Francis-Lumen-FideiYou! Old man, aging shepherd: Do as I tell you. Wander into a new land. You will have many, many, many descendants. You consider yourself half-dead with old age. But your and Sarah’s fruitfulness will surpass even your wildest imaginings. Just do as I say, my friend. I’m not forcing you. You are free. But just do as I say, and the harvest will be wonderfully abundant.

A promise. Abraham believed it. Abraham’s life became a friendship with the Almighty One Who can and does fulfill such incomprehensible promises. Abraham never grasped what it was all about. Abraham waited to his dying day for it all to make sense. Then he waited almost two thousand years in the limbo of the fathers, until he saw the Christ of God in the womb of the Virgin. He believed all along: The harvest is abundant.

But: The laborers are few. Because the first and decisive task is to believe. When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?

We human beings like to know stuff. No harm there; we were made to know stuff.

But isn’t this the first thing we know, namely that the God Who made us and governs all things—that He is immeasurably greater than anything we can know? We know for sure that we do not know Him.

The only way to enter into this great alliance with the Master of the abundant harvest is to believe. Not blindly, like an ignorant person, but wisely, like a sage: I have studied this. I know that I cannot know the power, the mind, the love of the Creator. So I simply take Him at His word.

The wise man acknowledges to himself: My own lights do not always serve me so well. I’m full of changeable moods. I get tired. I make mistakes. Often, I can’t think straight.

But the Lord says that the harvest is abundant. It’s not just a bargaining stratagem; it’s not just a partisan perspective; it’s not just a story. It’s the Word of God Himself. The harvest is abundant. The poor and meek and merciful will be blessed. The kingdom of heaven is coming.

Ok. I believe. I believe the Word of God. We believe. To believe is our first labor.

The rest of the job gets easy–once we let go of knowing the big picture and simply believe that God does. Let me just do my little job, right here and now. The harvest will be abundant.

Laboring in the Darkness


The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few. (Luke 10:2)

Probably all of us have noticed that the Lord uses this metaphor over and over again. The metaphor of farming.

The reign of God starts with seeds being sewn. The farmer has laid out and fenced-off an organized plantation, providing all the necessary implements and irrigation. The seeds grow by a mysterious power of their own, by day and by night, over a long period of time. Weeds grow among them, but pulling all the weeds up might harm the good plants. The master hires workers to work the fields. The tenants try to deceive and cheat him; the supervisors deal dishonestly with him, and don’t meet their commitments. So he gives the work over to others. At the proper time, the master orders the harvest and looks for the produce of the land. He is perfectly happy to hire people at the last minute, all the way up until the final reaping. Then he separates wheat from chaff. He gathers the fruit of the earth into his barns.

Life, the world, the course of history, our own decisions, deeds, and habits, the endeavors we undertake and the struggles we endure, the eternal destiny of our immortal souls—all of this falls within the grasp of the Lord’s great metaphor of farming.

Continue reading “Laboring in the Darkness”

Whither Capernaum and Camden Yards?

Synagogue in Capernaum

And as for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld.’ (Luke 10:15)

“The world as we see it is passing away.” Thus wrote the Apostle Paul to the Christians who lived in one of the bigger, bustling port cities of the Roman Empire, Corinth, in Greece.

The Capernaum we read so much about in the gospels has been excavated by archaeologists. A visit to the site offers an impressive evocation of the ancient town. But the impression the dig gives that Capernaum was very small: this is misleading. It was no sleepy fishing village. Capernaum was a bustling little hub of commerce.

It will all pass away. The skyscrapers of Charlotte, of Atlanta, of Manhattan—they will pass away. They will burn or fall or something, someday.

I am as big a Baltimore Orioles fan as anyone. But I will never forget the Saturday morning a couple years ago when I took a run down 33rd Street for the first time in about a decade. I had to stop dead in my tracks and gape in stunned silence. I found myself staring at a huge grassy field that badly needed mowing.

Memorial Stadium had ceased to exist. The huge coliseum where I had cheered for Eddie Murray and Brooks Robinson when I was in the fourth grade, and the seemingly endless parking lot where my aunt parked the Dodge Dart in a sea of cars: Bees were buzzing, flies flying. Not a sound. The center of everything, where the guys from Barry Levinson’s Diner would have gone to see Johnny Unitas play (if they had been real people): reduced to nothingness.

“Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?”

Will Camden Yards be preserved for all eternity in heaven? I think it’s pretty likely that someday Camden Yards, and M&T Stadium, and every boutique ballpark in North America—they will all be in ruins, underwater, forgotten.

And in heaven all the saints who prayed, who repented of their sins, who loved and feared God: they will be watching something infinitely more interesting than even the playoffs.