Saint Michan’s Church, 4th October 2004
At the beginning of the Michaelmas Law Term we have come together to reflect on the Word of God and on our own responsibilities not just as technicians but as guardians, each in our own role, of the rule of law in our nation.
The Gospel tells us of a lawyer who, even if apparently only to disconcert Jesus, asks questions about eternal life. It might come as a surprise to some that Jesus, when asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life” should respond to a lawyer “What is written in the law. What do you read there”? And it may surprise even more that Jesus and the lawyer are in complete agreement about the answer, at least as regards the correctness of the text which the lawyer proposes in reply. Attaining eternal life requires that you: “love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength with all your mind and your neighbour as ourselves”.
The lawyer then continues the dialogue asking “who my neighbour is”. Once again the question may have been intended to disconcert Jesus, but the result is quite the opposite. Jesus in reply reveals the complete newness of the Christian message on being neighbour that is presented in the story of the Good Samaritan.
We know the story well. The poor man has fallen into the hands of brigands and lies nearly dead along the road. Priest and Levite see the man, but carry on on the other side. Why? The scholars tell us that most likely it was because they had found themselves trapped in a curious conflict of obligations. On the one hand there was the requirement of the law to assist the man whose life was in danger. On the other hand, had the man been already dead, and had the Priest of the Levite touched him they would have been made unclean and would not have been able to carry out their service in the temple. They opted for ritual purity rather than compassion.
This is an example of precisely that casuistry and legalism which Jesus clearly rejected. On many occasions he had provocatively declared – in his words and in his caring gestures – that the fact it was the Sabbath did not offer an occasion not to assist human need. Similarly in this case, the message is that ritual purity was no excuse for failing to be compassionate towards an injured brother or sister.
Then the third figure arrives. Jesus then makes the story a little more complicated. Many of the hearers would have expected the hero to be an ordinary good living Jew, whose genuine humanity and faithful insight into the law would have shown the hypocritical casuistry for what it was.
Instead comes the great surprise. The hero is not a Jew but a Samaritan, the very last person with whom the casuistic lawyer would wish to enter into contact, much less consider his neighbour, given the hatred and bitterness which existed between Jew and Samaritan at that time. On his part, the Samaritan would have had ample reason to by pass and not get involved in something which might have unwelcome consequences.
But it is the Samaritan, this stranger, who shows compassion. When Saint Luke uses the word “compassion” he is referring to the heart of Jesus himself. It is this outsider who assumes the caring and accepting attitude of Jesus and takes the injured man in his arms, attends to his wounds, brings him to the inn and pays for his keep. Indeed he goes so far as to make the commitment to pay whatever else might be needed on the way back. It is a blank cheque, an unconditional commitment to ensure that his neighbour was fully restored to health and society.
In the Samaritan Jesus illustrates for us something of the nature of his own compassion and love. That compassion does not make any distinction between persons. It is always superabundant. God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ, is gratuitous and always goes beyond even our most generous expectation. In a world in which everything is quantifiable and measurable, in which you pay for what you get and only get what you paid for, this love of Jesus is quite ground-breaking.
In contrast with the cynicism of the lawyer, but also of the casuistry of the professional religious classes, Jesus is telling them and us that our obligations are to treat even our worst traditional enemy as our neighbour.
Every individual person whom we encounter in our professional activity is a person with unique dignity, worth and capacity. Each must come away from the encounter with us, and with the law, always respected in that dignity, and where possible enhanced in that dignity.
The teaching of the Gospel, that we should go out and treat every person of whatever race or background as neighbour, is part of God’s revelation about the unity of the human family and the dignity of every person, revealed in the superabundance of God’s love.
Ireland is today is a multi-tiered society. We have to ensure that we build a society in which all can flourish, each in his or her own identity and capacity. This applies also to access to the law of the land, no matter what the income or social background or what their ethic origin.
The rule of law and the equality of each person before the law will only be realised when economic conditions do not condition the quality of access to or the level of protection they receive from the law.
I am surprised to hear in my work, comments from the priests of some of our parishes about the extent of aggressive behaviour which many of our emigrant community, particular those of different colour, encounter. Priests and community workers tell me stories of violence, of families having to leave areas due to the vandalism they experience. Whereas the theorists of racial discrimination or xenophobia are in Ireland fortunately rare, there are examples of scapegoating and petty, yet nasty, vandalism against the new Irish. The high proportion of non-nationals in custody may to some extent indicate that non-nationals or the new Irish are unable adequately to benefit fully from services of rehabilitation and non-custodial alternatives.
The law is there to protect the fundamental rights of all, citizens or not, and to ensure that all are enabled to realise the rights they are guaranteed on paper. Indeed, one could say more specifically that the law is there in a particular way to protect the weakest and to curb any tendency towards arrogance by the powerful. Every effort should be taken to ensure that the new Irish feel just as protected by Irish law as do we who have been born here.
But law on its own cannot achieve social equity and cohesion. The Old Testament always spoke of the law alongside the prophetic tradition. Change in social behaviour requires good legislation and the equitable application of the law. But it also requires prophets.
Toady we celebrate the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, a man who in his youth was involved in violent encounters with neighbour towns, but who through espousing sister poverty came to a develop a radically new understanding of human relationships which remains attractive right down to our day, among believers of all faiths.
His writings are few and simple. They were never written with a view to setting out systematic treatises. They reflect much more the mark of his personality, his simple life-style and his style of preaching. He takes a few leading thoughts “from the words of the Lord” which he repeats again and again, adapting them to the needs of the different situations. Short, simple, and informal, Francis’s writings breathe what one writer calls “the unstudied love of the Gospel”.
The Samaritan of our readings today responded in a similar way. That “unstudied love of the Gospel” can bring us to the heart of the Gospel more surely than the casuistry of the religious establishment or the distrustful observing of the lawyer. As Christians we are all called to be witnesses to that unsophisticated, direct love which is typical of Jesus himself and of his followers.
The challenge is to make the unsophisticated love the hall mark of our work ensuring that we build a more just society. It requires that we recognise human need in the most unexpected situations and understand the law as being fundamentally at the service of humanity rather than as a mechanical or much less the simple application of rules.
Peace requires the rule of law; it requires the expertise of the trained and competent negotiator. But peace is more likely to come when we all acquire something of that revolutionary simplicity which is found in that ever touching prayer for peace of Saint Francis. That prayer shows us how we should be instruments of peace, wherever we are, whatever are our activities. May we enter our new Law Term inspired by an awareness of our calling to be instruments of peace, of that peace which comes not from men, but, as Saint Paul recalls in the lesson, from “something I learnt only through a revelation of Jesus Christ”.