Posted July 07, 2009:
An Education of the Heart

by Fr. Bob Sharkey.

I suppose that when you read the gospel story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 11:29-37) many of you, like myself, identify immediately with the priest or the Levite.

We recognize how far we are from that kind of compassion, from keeping the commandment of love with the fullness that the Good Samaritan does.

So the problem is how to move from being the priest or the Levite to being the Samaritan, because God did not come to put before us an ideal of life we cannot reach, to give us commandments that we can’t obey.

So if the truth is that now we are the priests, the Levites, the ones who pass by, there must be a way to become the Samaritan.

It’s a kind of education, a kind of development. It can be called "an education of the heart." That is what this parable is about. It’s a teaching about how to fulfill the command.

So we can begin, first of all, by identifying ourselves not with the priest and the Levite but with the person who asked the question, "Who is my neighbor?"

What kind of a man was this questioner? He probably was a Pharisee, and that means that for him, religious life, serving God, was a matter of knowing what you have to do and then doing your best to do it.

So, like all the Pharisees, he knew all the various commandments, and how to carry them out in everyday practice.

He was a lawyer, and had probably been a student of one of these great rabbis who taught how to fulfill the commandments in every concrete circumstance.

That is the way he comes to Jesus. He says, "You are a rabbi. Now what is your teaching on these as compared to, let us say, Gamaliel or Eleazar?"

In other words, he wants religious instruction of his mind. He is seeking for an education of his intellect.

So, confronted with the command to love his neighbor, he approaches it with his mind. "Okay, now, just who is that? And how far does that go? Where do I draw the line?"

The priest and the Levite weren’t bad people, really. The reason they passed by was probably because, according to Jewish law, the Torah, these men who functioned in the Temple, who had liturgical duties to carry out, were disqualified, unable to carry out their duties if they had touched blood or a dead body.

So the reason they had to pass by was because they were busy about their own concerns, about their own work.

We can see that in our own hearts. The thing that is the greatest barrier to compassion in us is that we are busy making our own way, fulfilling the requirements of our own project, doing our own thing.

Somehow or other, I have got to accomplish my salvation, I have to carry out my achievement, make some place for myself in the world, be somebody. Therefore, your demands, the demands of others on me, your needs, I haven’t got time for them. I haven’t got the heart for them.

This kind of compassion that Jesus is teaching is impossible—impossible when we have our own project.

So the next step in the education of the heart is to surrender that project, to surrender the illusion that we have something to accomplish, and that therefore that justifies us in passing by those who are beaten, who are wounded, who are in pain.

When you do that, when you let go of your illusions, when you give up your projects, then something happens. You begin to make that passage from being the priest or the Levite to being the Samaritan.

Only, in order to get from there to there, you need to go through another step; and that step is to become a man fallen among the brigands.

When you give up your own illusion, your own project, your own achievement, then you discover that you are beaten and wounded, that you are crushed, that you need help.

Your poverty, your brokenness, your pain comes upon you. All the time your project was an escape from that brokenness, an attempt to hide that pain from yourself.

So when you give up your illusions, then the pain comes in—the awareness of your woundedness, your poverty, your helplessness.

When you know yourself to be a man fallen among the brigands, then the education of your heart has begun.

This is a harsh truth; at first it is harsh, heavy. But it is the truth, and it is the truth of the heart.

As soon as you become a man fallen among brigands, then you can begin to become a Samaritan. How is that? By becoming the Samaritan to yourself, that is to say, by having compassion on yourself.

Because a possible reaction to the experience of our own brokenness, our own pain, our own poverty, is to reject it, to harden ourselves against it, to push it away, to hide it, to refuse it; or to hate ourselves and to condemn ourselves for our pain, for our suffering, for our poverty.

No. Have compassion on yourself. Be a Samaritan to yourself. That is the beginning.

How is that different from self-pity? It differs by humility, by meekness and gentleness, by absence of judgment.

By humility, because in recognizing my own brokenness, I begin to look around and notice other people’s brokenness.

Eventually, I acknowledge that there is no reason why I should be any different from everyone else. That is to say, I am one of the human race, and therefore I share in this brokenness of the human race.

In self-pity, I regard myself as something special, and I think that it is a terrible thing that I, I should suffer, I should have this pain, I should be broken, I should be beaten.

And meekness. Self-pity always is filled with a kind of aggressiveness, either active or passive. It has an anger, a hostility. But true compassion has a meekness and a gentleness about it.

So you see, it is important to have compassion on yourself, because if we are hardened against ourselves, we harden ourselves against the true Good Samaritan who is Jesus.

If we do not have compassion on ourselves, we do not allow the inflow of his compassion upon our weakness, upon our brokenness. We do not allow his tenderness to touch us, to heal and bind our wounds, to pour the oil and wine of his love upon us. We resist him. That is why we must have compassion on ourselves.

When we have allowed the compassion of Jesus to come over us, allowed ourselves to experience it, we begin to experience his healing as well.

As we experience this vast outpouring of mercy upon us, then we begin to look at each other and see each other and recognize the same brokenness, the same pain, the same helplessness in other people.

And we come to their aid, not with arrogance, not with manipulation, not with pride and domination, but with compassion.

Compassion means sharing the suffering, sharing the pain, coming knowingly, able to support and to comfort and to heal because I know that you experience the same pain that I do, and I recognize my pain in you and your pain in mine. We are in the same state. We are in the same fix.

So comes this new compassion, this new phase of the education of the heart, this entering into the bright and joyous truth of this openness of heart, this tenderness towards one another.

And then, as that expands, I recognize that the commandment to love does reach all, that we are all in the same boat, we are all in this same brokenness, we are all men fallen among brigands, we are all in that helplessness.

Then we taste, we experience, the vast mercy of God, the compassion of God for all of us. We experience the God who embraces all that pain, who is, you might say, the innkeeper who takes in all the wounded travelers, who takes cares of them, who gathers them into his gentle love.

The heart knows that. It’s not something for the head. It is the heart that experiences that. The heart is learning, the heart is being educated, the heart is beginning to perceive the mystery of the mercy of God.

Faced with that, how does the heart respond? What is the final phase of the education of the heart?

A response to that mercy: that taste of divine mercy generates of itself in the heart an intense, immense love for that merciful One. The whole heart and the whole soul and the whole mind and the whole strength rise in a surge of love, joy, longing, trust. And then you see how the commandments are fulfilled.

So you see, the parable is not for our condemnation, but for our education. It doesn’t really matter how long it takes.

If it takes a whole lifetime, that is what we are here for. That is what life is all about: to learn to have a compassionate heart, to learn how to love God with that totality, and ourselves and one another, the same way.

That is what we are here for. That is the true project of our life. And we have a whole lifetime to do it.

The time to begin is now—the time to take the first steps. After the first steps, every step will follow. Do this and you will have life (Lk 11:28).

—From Restoration, Sept. 1977


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