Commenting on Fratelli Tutti, Anthony Egan observes that the parable of the Good Samaritan cannot be left to talk only to political elites, but raises important questions for everyone alike. He explains how both Jesus and Pope Francis are inviting us to cross the borders of our own comfort zones and encounter the outsider, the unexpected and unlikely neighbour, and in so doing, risk encountering Jesus as well.
Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti is, as we’ve come to expect, nothing if not challenging. Many have commented on its scope and challenge, noting how Francis offers us an example not seen much in these times: visionary and compassionate leadership. I would add that given our current global crop of crooks, poseurs and mad demagogues this is a welcome change.
What I’d like to explore today is something different: his use of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the encyclical’s particular implication for the Church.
We need to see the context. The people Jesus speaks to are the religious establishment, both well-versed in and sticklers to the Law. Their ‘types’ – the priest and the Levite – come off very badly, even though they acted in accordance with the strict interpretation of the Law. (To come into contact with the victim would have meant exposure to blood, rendering them ritually impure). The hero is the Outsider – a Samaritan was in the eyes of the audience a heretic. Jesus forces his audience to admit that from the story’s perspective, the ‘heretic’ fulfilled the Law by breaking it.
Francis uses this as the basis for his systematic critique of contemporary global society. Powerful as it is, we may all too easily read and respond to Fratelli as something aimed at politicians and power elites. Not us!
That is a mistake.
It is as much a challenge to the Church – indeed to all religions. What does the Good Samaritan and Fratelli Tutti say to the faithful?
Would I be pushing the envelope to propose that the story and its context is a call to get our priorities right? I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that all too often the Church talks Samaritan but acts like priests and Levites. We obsess over right worship, right vestments, even the language of liturgy – often, it seems to me, more than over justice and care for the marginalised. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the liturgy and worship – so long as it isn’t an escape. Here I commend the example of the great 19th and early 20th Century High Anglican socialists – good and holy folk who combined bells and smells with commitment to the poor.
Since I’m on a roll, I’m going to push it further. Are our institutions truly welcoming of all, or do we trap ourselves, almost without noticing, in legalistic exclusion? Instead of being a means to grace, it becomes a refuge of the saved. Full participation is a reward for keeping the rules, not sustenance for the journey into holiness.
How many of us, too, have found more welcome and love through encounters with ‘outsiders’ – ‘mixed’ families of the divorced and remarried, the witness to love of gay couples, or people struggling with addictions – than we have with the ‘normal’ people in the pews?
Jesus (and through this encyclical Francis) challenges us to move beyond artificial borders to find God through the unexpected and unlikely neighbour. Do we dare to follow him?