Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Good Samaritan or Clint Eastwood?

Clint Eastwood once appeared in a movie entitled, "Unforgiven."  I vaguely recall that some men had attacked a woman and the rest of the movie is about Clint Eastwood tracking those men down and killing them one by one.  

This past weekend, the students at the BU Catholic Center were on retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine and as part of the retreat, we reflected on the Gospel of the Good Samaritan.  As we were led through a meditation on the Gospel, something struck me about it.  No matter what nice thing the Good Samaritan did for the man who was robbed, he didn't undo the robbery.  The man was beaten, robbed, and left for dead.  If I were writing the screenplay for the Good Samaritan, I think I'd be taking things in a different direction.  Namely, after the Good Samaritan cared for the wounded man and brought him to safety, I'd have the Good Samaritan going on the hunt for the robbers.  If I were writing this story, there would be a little more Clint Eastwood in the Good Samaritan.

Is what the Good Samaritan does for the victim in this story sufficient?  He lost his money, lost his sense of security, and was beaten to an ounce of his life.  It's all well and good that the Good Samaritan comes along and helps him out, but it seems as though justice has not been done.  And, what about that priest and the Levite who passed by and didn't even help the man who was robbed?  Imagine laying in a ditch close to death and seeing a priest and a Levite coming down the road.  It must have been a great relief.  "Surely, this guy will help me," the man must have thought to himself.  Seeing two men who were his countrymen and who shared in his religious faith walking down the road must have been like a man on a life raft seeing the rescue plane appear over head.  But, this man's relief would turn to a deeper sense of hopelessness as he watched his brothers pass by on the other side.  I think I would have the Clint Eastwood Good Samaritan paying those two a visit too.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  That's a tall order.  While most of us may struggle from time to time with living out various moral teachings of the Gospel, we kind of know that--while difficult--they make sense.  "Worship God, Do not steal, Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Honor your Father and Mother etc," while not always easy, make sense.  But, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?  That does not come naturally.  At least for me, and I suspect for a lot of others, by nature we are more inclined to go the Clint Eastwood path.

So, why in the world should we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?  In the Gospel of the Good Samaritan, the man who fell victim was attacked, robbed, and left for dead by the robbers. Additionally, he was ignored and left for dead by his countrymen.  So, while it is all well and good that the Good Samaritan comes along and helps him out, isn't that what we'd expect somebody to do?  It seems like the Good Samaritan only does what we'd expect a halfway decent human being to act in a similar situation.  So, we have one good guy and a lot of bad guys in this story.  

Ah, but that one "good guy" was a Samaritan.  He and the man by the side of the road were enemies.  And this is what makes all of the difference.  The victim had no expectation that the Samaritan would stop to help him.  Similarly, as St. Paul reminds us, "For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6).  While we were laying at the side of the road--helpless--Christ came to our rescue.  "But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).  We were God's enemies, but he loved us and came to our rescue.

Why should we love our enemies?  Why should we pray for those who persecute us?  Is it because they deserve our prayers and forgiveness?  Not really.  We should do these things because this is what God does.  This is how God has dealt with us.  We rightfully expect certain things in justice from some individuals.  And, when they rob us or pass us by and leave us for dead, we are wounded by the injustice.  But, we can make no such claim upon God.  He owes us--who have been enemies to Him--nothing.  And yet, this is where his love for us is proven.  He loved us and came to our rescue while we were his enemies.

To love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us is to be caught up in something far greater than what our unaided human nature is capable.  To love enemies and to pray for persecutors is to be caught up in supernatural charity.  The Clint Eastwood model is a natural response.  The Good Samaritan model is the supernatural response.  Do our enemies deserve our love?  Do our persecutors deserve our prayers?  No, they really don't.  They deserve a visit from Clint Eastwood!  But, Jesus doesn't treat us as we deserve.  Instead, he comes to the rescue of those who were his enemies.  The call to love our enemies is a true challenge.  It is a call to the Cross.  In the Blood that was poured out upon the Cross, our wounds were healed and we were undeservedly reconciled to God.  We who have been bathed in the Blood of Christ are really asked to trust Him and to pour ourselves out in mercy towards others.  This is an act of total trust.  When we forgive our enemies, we set aside our way and trust that God will bring all things to a good end.  We have good reason to make this act of trust.  St. Paul reminds us, "He who did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all, how will he not give us everything else along with him" (Romans 8:32)?


  1. Father,

    Thank you for this wonderful meditation...

    I've been pondering what you've written, and it occurs to me that perhaps another point of the parable is just how different our natural sense of justice is compared to God's justice. We, in our sinful state, have such a shaky appreciation of true justice that the story of the Good Samaritan (and the Prodigal Son as well) come to us as a shock.

    With such a shaky grasp on justice, isn't it an act of pride and arrogance to mete out justice vigilante-style, acting as our own judge, jury and executioner? How can we be so sure we will not compound injustice - especially as the very act of arrogating to ourselves the right to execute justice shows just how sinful we already are?

    One of Clint Eastwood's early movies was Hang 'Em High, in which he plays a cowboy wrongly accused of murder and cattle rustling and nearly dies from a lynching. The lynch mob is a posse of otherwise normal men who were out looking for the man who had killed their friend and stolen his cattle. Coming upon Clint with the cattle, they assumed he was the criminal and lynched him. Lucky for Clint, another man comes by and cuts him down before he dies. It turns out that Clint had arrived at the ranch shortly after the murder and bought the cattle off the killer, thinking he was the true owner. This all comes out at Clint's trial (the man who cut him down turned him into the sherriff). Clint is deputized by the judge and goes after the men who hanged him one by one. It's a key point in the film that Clint does this as a duly appointed officer of the law, not a vigilante.

    We allow the secular authority to execute justice because life here on Earth requires law and order; but we are under no illusions that it is true justice that is being established. At best it is an approximation that often goes very wrong. In Hang 'Em High, Clint brings in several fugitives who are hanged despite his protests (including two teenage boys).

    In the story of the Good Samaritan, we don't know all that is going on with the Priest and the Levite who pass on by. Perhaps the priest was hurrying with medicine to a sick child who desperately needed it, and was agonized over the decision of whether to stay and help the victim. And maybe one or more of the members of the gang of thugs was in it not as a matter of choice but was coerced. Clint might gun all these people down and be perfectly satisfied with himself, but that satisfaction would show him to be in an an even worse state than the thugs (who, presumably, at least knew they were sinners and didn't fool themselves into thinking they were acting on behalf of justice).

    Interestlingly, in his Dirty Harry movies Clint goes after criminals as a police officer and pushes the boundaries of the law, but things turn out well in the end. In Unforgiven, he goes after them as a vigilante and he ends up getting his old friend killed as well as a lot of other people, and returning to the bottle.

    We miss you in Beverly...
    David Tye

    1. David, some great thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to share them. I hope all is well in Beverly. I'm coming there in a couple of weeks for the Legacy Dinner.

      The young people whom I serve now at BU are really impressive and are a sign of hope for the Church. God Bless, and thanks again for your comment.