July 2007

The Charter of Christianity ©

To fully understand what it means to be a Christian, it’s helpful to focus on a few key principles. As one might expect, Jesus himself did a very good job of highlighting what’s most essential.

The clarity of his message is perhaps most vivid in Chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel. It begins with the mission to which all Christians are called: discipleship (v.2). Many misunderstand this statement as being limited to clergy or “missionaries.” Though of course not all are called to preach the Gospel, we are certainly all urged to witness to the good news by their very lives.

Then Jesus stresses the risks and urgency of the mission, the need for single-mindedness (v.3-4), and the necessity of building on a foundation of peace (v.5-6).

Further on, he reveals the purpose of the mission—to create a kingdom of love: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”

The most striking element here is the inseparability of filial and fraternal love (v.27) Elsewhere we read that one who claims to love God and hates his neighbour is a liar. (Cf. 1 John 4:19-21) To close the chapter, two stories are told. The first story illustrates the nature of fraternal love (v.25-37 – the Good Samaritan). The second one reminds us of the primacy of filial love and the value of attentiveness in ministry (v.38-41- the story of Mary and Martha).

The story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one. At the same time, this timeless parable never ceases to reveal fresh insights into the nature of love as Christ taught by words and example. The purpose of Jesus’ mission was to show us the
heart of God. In a way, that’s our job too. That’s the job of a missionary disciple, which we are all called to be. By his action, that’s what the Good Samaritan was.

The Good Samaritan in the story is also a symbol. First, he reminds us of our good God who tended our wounds and brought us to a place of safety when we were lost and assailed by evil. Second, he represents the good disciple whose love of neighbour is in perfect harmony with love of God. The sequence is important: because of God loved us first that we can love him and one another.

That’s why the Samaritan story is so very important. It is emblematic of Christian behaviour that mirrors God’s relationship to us. So we begin by reflecting on how God has ministered to us.

The significant and often overlooked quality of God’s ministry to us is the direction from which he offers the support. One would rationally expect God to simply pull us up out of the morass of the human experience. In a way, that’s the image that probably caused the priest to ignore the man lying “half-dead” by the side of the road: “A priest was going down that road; but, when he saw the man, he walked on by, on the other side.”

In fact, God left his domain to enter ours. Again, that’s what the Levite failed to do, even though he made an initial approach: “A Levite also came along, went over and looked at the man, and then walked on by, on the other side.”

God, moved by pity for the plight of humanity that he loved dearly as sons and daughters of his own creation, descended to deliver us from darkness and death.

When we struggled with the most basic questions about the purpose of our lives and the relationships that we are meant to build with God and with one another, God descended to Moses and gave him an instruct manual that we call the Ten Commandments. When we strayed from these, at our own peril, God descended again, thought the prophets, who would instruct us—sometimes in forceful language—about the risks of not following his previous guidance. When, we ignored even these warnings—again the cost of our own peace and joy—God played his trump card; he so loved the world that He sent His only son so that those who would heed His counsel would live in the fullness of our creation. (Cf.Jn3:16)

When it came time for Jesus to be God-among-us, he descended from his throne of glory in order to be borne in the humblest of circumstances. Then, he continued to descend as he ministered to us with “no place to lay his head.” (Mt8: 20) But he didn’t stop there. He continued to descend as he stooped to wash the feet of his disciples, one of the last and possible most revealing gestures of his earthly life.

The descent of God reached surprising depths in his suffering betrayal and the most humiliating of deaths, and continued in his “descent to the dead.” (Nicene Creed)

Against human logic, we observe the outcome of this voluntary descending is to be raised in glory. We saw that in Jesus’ Resurrection. We see it too when we speak of the joy to be found in right relationship with our neighbour.

When asked who our neighbour is, Jesus answers with a parable: the story of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbour—who we are to love as ourselves—is the stranger as well as the countryman, the outcast as well as the kinsman. In a very real way, our neighbour is ourself, frail and vulnerable.

Just as Christ himself stooped to embrace the human condition and dress our deepest wounds, even as we were strangers, he calls us to do the same for others: “Go and do likewise.” This recalls the words to the apostles at the last supper” “Do this in memory of me.” We may ask, what is “this” that we are to do likewise? I think we must conclude that it is to emulate all of his life, his teachings and his actions, and not just the parts that are comfortable, convenient or even safe.

Jesus calls us, as he often does, out of our zone of comfort because it knows that it is also a zone of darkness and fear. He calls us in freedom to follow in his footsteps by being the good disciple modeled in this parable. He calls us to the joy of sharing in his ministry, his passion and his resurrection in glory and joy.

What he’s proposing is far more than pity. But it’s interesting that the gospel uses the word pity. In essence, Jesus may have been suggesting that even by the most basic of human instincts, it is not natural to ignore someone else’s suffering. The priest and the Levite were so preoccupied with rigid norms and categories that they failed to even respond to the most human of feelings.

Natural pity, however, is limited to what feels right, to an inner feeling of satisfaction rather than the external value of human good. By this parable, Jesus identifies pity as the minimum standard for Christians. Elsewhere, he calls us to a higher standard: compassion. That is what our good Lord has for us, compassion. More than feel for us—as in pity—he felt with us. He suffers with us and dies with us.

Charity is a mark of maturity. Ignoring the plight of the less fortunate is not only selfish; it is a mark of fear and evidence of a dwarfed worldview. On the other hand, aiding a stranded stranger brings a joy that comes with feeling fully alive and free. That compassion in action reflects an advanced capacity to engage in meaningful relationships by constructing authentic ones in the crucible of anonymity and adversity.

Occasions to do as Jesus did are moments of grace, precious opportunities to grow in faith, hope and love. Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, remarked that the parable of the Good Samaritan moves us so profoundly because “it speaks of the power of love that transcends all creeds and cultures and ‘creates’ a neighbour out of a complete stranger. It is a parable that is personal, for it describes with profound simplicity the blossoming of a human relationship that has a personal touch…It is a parable that is pastoral, for it is replete with the mystery of care and concern that is at the heart of the best in human culture…It is primarily practical, for it poses a challenge urging us to cross all barriers of culture and community and to go and do likewise.”