We are living in Hollywood’s Comic Book Age. A global obsession, superhero movies are seen by hundreds of millions, without doubt the most popular genre in theaters today. And why not? They are fun, noisy, and full of action. Perfect accompaniment to a big box of popcorn.
But all stories, even those ripped from the comic book pages, have a meaning – the better ones have several levels of meaning. What is it about superheroes that appeals to us? Some would say that our culture feels powerless in the face of powerful forces – terrorism, the economy, or infectious viruses. We secretly wish that there were superheroes around, dropping in when needed to rescue us.
A good story invites us to enter the story ourselves. We might identify with the superhero, we could imagine being them but for the lack of a radioactive spider bite or a secret government experiment gone wrong.
Jesus was the master story teller of all time. His knowledge and understanding of human nature shows through in his every word and action. Jesus’s parables have many levels and compel us to enter the story. Today we heard one of his most famous parables, one that has given our language a term that even unbelievers recognize- the Good Samaritan. In entering into the story, who do you identify with?
Most of us envision ourselves as the Good Samaritan, the one who helps. We imagine that the parable is telling us to help others in need as the Samaritan does. This is a valid and productive way of understanding the parable. Perhaps in our more honest moments we see in ourselves the priest or the Levite who just pass by pretending they did not see.
But do we ever consider ourselves as the traveler by the side of the road? The traveler who was robbed, beaten, left half dead? It may be valuable to try. In fact we might see in that stricken traveler the fate of humanity, the fate of the race of Adam after the fall, after our expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
When we see ourselves as the one who fell in with robbers we become the ones who need help, we are the ones who must receive. We are the wounded, bruised by living in a fallen world, tricked and robbed of our birthright by the father of lies who tries to strip us of our dignity and leaves us to die.
From the perspective of the wounded… one thrown down by the side of the road, this parable is about the way that God helps us, the way that God brings us salvation. In addition to inviting us to give to others, the parable shows us how the kingdom enters our lives. So we ask: how was that grievously injured person saved? How was life rescued from the grave?
For the wounded traveler, rescue came as a surprise and as a gift. The parable is telling us that often God comes into our life as a surprise. The one lying in the road might have expected that the priest or the Levite, good people that they were, would stop to help him. They did not. But who could have thought that a Samaritan would have pity on him? Remember Jews and Samaritans were enemies and would not even eat a meal in the presence of one another. So who could have guessed that this foreigner would stop and show mercy, even lavishly spending his own money on our care? No one. It was a surprise.
God’s coming is also a gift. The parable shows us that God sends us life without our ability to earn or merit it. The wounded one was helpless to save himself from the robbers. Whatever errand this person was on, whatever pilgrimage, can not be completed by their own efforts. From where he fell he could not even see Jerusalem, the site of God’s temple, and could not rise up again. It was a free and gracious gift from an unexpected source that saved him, and us, from death on the side of the road.
In the same way, Jesus surprises us with his gifts of grace. He picks us up, treats our wounds with the sacred Chrism oil of grace, and pours out the wine of his precious blood to heal us. He carries us to the inn, the Church, a field hospital for the wounded. He pays the price lavishly for our healing and promises to return.
The parable shows us in a beautiful manner that God is always near, always present. Jesus became human so that we could see him walking our roads, travelling with us on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho or whatever path we find ourselves upon. He is our ever present savior, a real superhero for our times and all times. His superpower is love. We need not summons him from a distant planet nor await his arrival. He already walks among us. We have a God who, as we heard from Moses in our first reading is “not too mysterious and remote… very near, already in your mouths and in your hearts”.
The parable tells us that God is in charge, and God will decide how salvation comes. Often God will lead us to life in ways that surprise us and even shock us. We all want life, life for ourselves and for those that we love, and we turn to God and we ask for life. God hears our prayers and answers them, but not always in ways we anticipate. Sometimes the road to life is painful. Sometimes it passes through disappointments and failures.
God will save us. Our God who walks among us, Jesus, Emanuel, will bring us to life, but on God’s terms, not ours. In the gospel, the lawyer asks Jesus the question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “You go and do likewise” said Jesus. Acknowledge your weakness, your wounds, your poverty. We do not earn nor get to choose the way in which salvation comes, we can only embrace it when it arrives. Surrender yourself to God’s mercy and wait with joy for Jesus to heal you and give you life.