A SERMON FOR THE 12th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
If our Lord were to appear before us today, and each of us were given just one question to ask him, I wonder what that question would be. It’s something we might want to reflect on later when we have a bit of time—I think the answers we come up with would tell us a lot about ourselves. But for now, let’s stick to the events of today’s Gospel. In it, a man does get to ask his one burning question to our Lord. This man is a lawyer, and so feels he has a reputation to uphold; the question he asks is not so much to find out the answer, as to show the bystanders what a clever chap he is. It’s not a bad question, mind you, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” But he already knows the answer—when our Lord replies by asking him what the law says, he comes right out and recites it. He knows it by heart. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.”
Now that he’s answered his own question, he’s not feeling quite so smug and conceited any more. And so as not to lose face with the people he’s trying to impress, he shoots a follow-up question at our Lord: “And who exactlyis my neighbor?”
The answer is not what anyone expects. The Jews have always been a very tight-knit community. They think of themselves as the chosen people, and non-Jews are referred to politely as Gentiles, and less politely as goyim, which means “cattle”. So when the hero of our Lord’s parable is revealed as a Samaritan, his listeners must have been astonished, if not actually horrified. The Samaritans were the inhabitants of Samaria, a breakaway nation from the Jewish homeland, situated between Judea and Galilee. They were considered heretics, and were therefore shunned by the Jews, who normally would not even talk to them, let alone help them if they were in trouble. And yet it was a Samaritan, not a Jewish priest, nor one of the holy tribe of Levites, who helps the Jew who gets mugged. Our Lord’s parable does not fit in with the agenda of these holier-than-thou hypocrites who were listening to him.
In 1983 a movie was made for TV, which, probably unintentionally, retells our Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s based on a true story, and stars Gregory Peck as an Irish monsignor, Hugh O’Flaherty, who lived in the Vatican at the time of the German occupation of Rome in the last couple of years of World War II. I stress that he was Irish—Ireland was still fresh from its long fight for independence from the United Kingdom, and Monsignor O’Flaherty had no love for the British. And yet, like the Good Samaritan, he did everything he could to help his one-time adversaries, by helping escaped English POWs and providing safe haven in the neutral Vatican, and safe routes of escape out of German-occupied territory.
Nor did his “Good Samaritan” work end there. The SS Chief of Police for Rome, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, played by Christopher Plummer, is meanwhile intent on rounding up all of the city’s Jews for deportation to the death camps. Monsignor O’Flaherty extends his compassion now to these hunted people, hiding them not only in the Vatican, but all over Rome, in churches, convents, and even the private homes of some of the devout local people. His rescue organization succeeds in saving an estimated 6,500 lives by the end of the war. We should note that, whether it be Englishmen or Jews, the people Monsignor O’Flaherty saves from death and imprisonment are not those of his own choosing, but rather those whom God provides.
But the real test of the monsignor’s faith comes at the end of the movie. The Allies have by now succeeded in landing in Italy and are overcoming German resistance, moving steadfastly towards Rome. Colonel Kappler sees the writing on the wall, and recognizes that German defeat is now inevitable. He fears for his family’s safety from vengeful partisans, and in a one-to-one meeting with O’Flaherty, asks him to save his family, appealing to the same values that motivated O’Flaherty to save so many others. The Monsignor, however, refuses, refusing to believe that, after all the Colonel has done and all the atrocities he is responsible for, he would expect mercy and forgiveness automatically, simply because he asks for it, and he departs in disgust.
Kappler is eventually captured by the Allies, and during the course of his interrogation, he is informed that his wife and children were smuggled out of Italy and escaped unharmed into Switzerland. Upon being asked who helped them, Kappler realizes it must have been his one-time adversary, Monsignor O’Flaherty, but he replies simply that he doesn’t know.
In the movie’s epilogue we learn that O'Flaherty was decorated by several Allied governments after the war. Meanwhile, Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was visited in prison every month by O'Flaherty, his only regular visitor. The most gratifying outcome of O’Flaherty’s Good Samaritan work, however, was that eventually, the former SS officer converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and was baptized by the Monsignor himself.
It’s a simple yet powerful story, and I really don’t need to spell out in detail the message it holds for us. It’s not meant to improve on our Lord’s parable, which has the same message, but is simply a true illustration of its significance being upheld by a good and decent Catholic man. We should resolve today to act with equal courage if God should ever provide for us a similar opportunity to help those we don’t like, and even those who are our persecutors. It is not only our duty to do so, but we never know what benefits may result from our good deeds. Should anyone, ever, ask for our help, we must obey God’s greatest commandment, which is to love him and our neighbor. And on this simple, yet hard-to-obey commandment depends the answer to that most important question of all: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s food for thought… We must love our neighbor as ourselves. No matter who they are.