Peace of Christ.
Our sages have opined that God created the human family because He loves stories. Of course, that observation is both consoling and disconcerting. In any case, let’s accept the judgment of our wise forebears.
Imagine what that means. God created us because He loves stories. Or putting it another way, God so loves us that He takes an active interest in us and in our stories. Stories that catch His attention and touch His heart. Our stories. Our colorful and richly diverse stories. How could He not love them? We can easily understand why He would be fascinated with the stories of our achievements. The stories of our successful struggles. But what of those other stories? You know the ones I mean. The stories in which we don’t exactly shine. Stories that we wouldn’t want our mothers to know about. (Ouch.) Stories of us failing (sometimes spectacularly), falling down, making bad choices, missing opportunities. Yep. He follows those stories as well.
You may want to correct me and tell me that God could never be drawn to those stories. Well, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. Speaking of wrong, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God’s chest puffs out with pride when we screw things up. No. No. I am not saying that. Not at all. What I am saying is that God is drawn even to those stories because they, too, are (sadly) part of our lives. And God watches our lives unfold in their chaotic fullness (with their uneven progression of star turns and pratfalls) with the heart and eyes of a parent. You know what that means. Yeah. You do. You really do. Now, when we speak of how a parent sees and loves, we find ourselves confronting a truth that is both unsettling and comforting (and I really hate to bring this up, but I have to). And what would that truth be? Simply this: All parents have favorites. I know that may rankle you, but the wonderful truth of the matter is that every parent has a favorite. Now, please notice that I didn’t say that every parent always favors the same child. Not even I am stupid enough to say that. Absolutely not. A parent’s favorite is always the kid who needs her or his love most at any given moment. (Therefore, the favorite will not always be the same kid. Rather, the favorite, the one to whom a parent’s heart is infallibly drawn, will change –and sometimes in the blink of an eye—a parent’s eye. If you doubt me, just ask your mother. She will confirm the truth of what I just told you. How can I be so sure? Because that is what my mother told me—when I was 40.) Well, God is like that. He is irresistibly drawn to the one the world would label a ne’er-do-well, the one who wanders away from the straight and narrow from time to time. He can’t help Himself. And thank God for that. He winces when we fall down. He rolls His eyes when we stray. But He never gives up on us. Even when we are at our worst, he continues to love us and to hope that we will come to our senses.
But don’t take my word for it. (And I can more than understand if you would prefer not to rely on me. After all, I have just made a pretty bold statement about how God feels about us when we are not exactly at our best. As I said, I understand. I get it.) Take God’s word on it instead. (Another bold statement, eh?) Once again, you may be skeptical. Therefore, can we all agree that the God who loves stories also loves to tell stories? Still skeptical? Well, Jesus was clearly a compelling storyteller, and in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, He gives us some glimpses into the parental heart of God. Ah, the Prodigal Son. As my Irish mother would say, “There’s a piece of work.” The Prodigal Son. A dopey, entitled, and impulsive young man filled with the bravado and stupidity with which kids are frequently infected. A kid who takes his father’s money and runs off with dreams of living a life filled with adventure and pleasure. And falls flat on his face. (We can barely resist the temptation to laugh at him and condemn him out of hand.) But what does his father do? Good Lord, he’s a parent. He does what any good parent would do. He spends his days scanning the horizon hoping to see the little miscreant coming home. In the parable, Jesus blows His Father’s cover, and shows us His Father’s parental cards and creds. That is to say, Jesus shows us who His Father really is: a parent who never gives up on His sons and daughters. A Father who always waits patiently for us to come to our senses. To come home. And, of course, to learn our lessons. But what can and should we learn from the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Just this: that God is more merciful than He is just. (I don’t know about you, but the thought that God is more merciful than just is what this sinner pins all his hopes on. Therefore, I rejoice every time I hear these words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”) While we are on the subject of mercy, let me set the record straight. Being judgmental is easy (and more immediately satisfying). And condemnation, its censorious sibling, leaves us feeling superior and smug. Being merciful is hard. Very hard. In our lives, the ability to be merciful is born of the experience of being loved. Mercy is, then, the virtue of the mature heart; the experienced heart; the heart that has seen it all, heard it all, and prays earnestly that love will triumph and redeem and transform even the most lost soul. And fill that soul with hope and courage. The courage to love and to show mercy to others.
A few chapters away from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus presents us with a story that shows us the kind of son or daughter that makes God’s heart sing: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Because the parable is so widely known and the figure of the Good Samaritan has rightly achieved iconic status as an example of compassion in action, the challenging nature of the parable is sometimes lost. In order to get a handle on just how challenging the parable is, we have to remember that the Samaritans were a despised group in the eyes of the lawyer who posed the seemingly simple question that triggered Jesus’ telling of the parable: “And who is my neighbor?” Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus’ audience saw the Samaritans as both ethnic outsiders and heretics (and hence incapable of doing anything virtuous). Therefore, the smug, upright lawyer who posed the question to Jesus must have been taken aback by the very positive way in which Jesus portrayed the figure we have come to know as the Good Samaritan, and by the short shrift he gave to the two supposedly righteous figures in the story. In his reflections on the parable, Pope Francis zeroes in on the rather stunning lesson of the parable: “Let us come to the core of the parable: the Samaritan, namely the despised man, the one whom no one would have bet on, ‘had compassion.’ … the Samaritan was in synchrony with the very heart of God. In the gestures and deeds of the Good Samaritan we recognize the same compassion with which the Lord comes to meet each one of us: He does not ignore us, he knows our pain, he knows how much we need help and comfort. He comes close and never abandons us. The Samaritan acts with true mercy: he binds up that man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, takes care of him personally, and provides for his care. All this teaches us that compassion, love, is not a vague sentiment, but means taking care of the other, even paying for him.”
At the end of the parable, Jesus turns the tables and asks the lawyer a simple (blockbuster) question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Although the lawyer’s prejudices would not permit him to utter the word “Samaritan,” he managed to blurt out: “The one who showed mercy on him.” Jesus looked him in the eye and said, “Go and do likewise.” Here, here, my sisters and brothers, is God’s dream: a world that is filled with Good Samaritans, women and men who see with God’s eyes and feel with God’s heart. Men and women who spend their lives in service. Men and women of mercy. Who love boldly. Who recognize no boundaries to love and no restrictions on love’s desire to help anyone in distress. Who seek to bind up a wounded world, one soul at a time.
Sounds like a pretty far-fetched dream, doesn’t it? Not if you live in New York these days. The Good Samaritans are on the loose. Everywhere. God bless them. Men and women who have taken to heart Jesus’ challenge to the smug lawyer: “Go and do likewise.” And they have. Like the Good Samaritan, they see with the eyes of God. Like the Good Samaritan, they feel with God’s heart. They see suffering and respond. They see despair and bring hope. They see fear and bring comfort. They have made this the moment of the Good Samaritan.
They are on the loose. And they fill us with awe-struck wonder and deep gratitude every day. They redefine heroism and holiness with their every action. Therefore, when we see images of them in action, we feel a catch in our throats. We feel the tears welling up in our eyes. Sometimes we have to turn away for fear that we will lose it entirely and break down, sobbing. But our sobs are not sobs of grief. Far from it. They are the tribute that we feel whenever we are in the presence of pure goodness and unfathomable kindness. We are ennobled by them. And how could we not be? How could we not be moved beyond words? Every day we see these Samaritans on the loose holding the hands of frightened patients. Soothing away pain with the gift of their presence. Consoling families. Dancing in conga lines when a patient is discharged after staring down death—as a result of their care. Surrogate family members, they bring flowers to lay on the bodies of those who have died. Exhausted doctors emerging from a hospital to steal a few hours of sleep before their next shifts begin. An EMT team cradling a fragile patient and keeping fear at bay with exquisite gentleness. Heroism is business as usual for them. Weary. Noble. Gentle. Spending themselves in service. Inspiring all of us. God bless them. And He surely will, for they fulfill the dream He has always nurtured in His heart for us, His family.
God created the human family because He loves stories. Our stories tug at His heart and fill Him with pride—and great delight. The Good Samaritans are on the loose! (But you already knew that.) And I am sure that God hopes that our own experience of mercy will transform all of the Prodigal Sons and Daughters among us (which is all of us from time to time) into Good Samaritans. On the loose.
Be assured of my prayers every day. Every waking hour of every day.
Prayers and blessings,
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
A Prayer in the Midst of the Present Crisis
God of all mercies, grant:
To the Fordham family, safety and good health:
To those afflicted with COVID-19, swift healing;
To the frightened, courage;
To the dying, comfort;
To the dead, eternal life;
To health-care providers, strength and stamina;
To our leaders, wisdom and compassion;
To our nation, unity of purpose;
To the Church, the grace to serve the suffering selflessly;
To all believers, strong faith in Your presence;
To the whole human family, unity of heart; and
To us, Your servants, the reward of knowing that we are doing Your will when we spend
ourselves in loving service of others.