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  • Fr. John Jennings

OUR SACRED STORIES: What Defines a Christian – Who are we?

Definitions are convenient. The Concise Oxford Dictionary has a definition of a Christian – [Someone] believing in or professing or belonging to or in harmony with the Christian religion. But is that all we are? Are we not more than this? The Gospels challenge us to see more.

In the Gospel of Luke we hear the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). It is one of those gospel stories that we could almost tell by heart. Jesus tells the story of an exchange with a lawyer (an expert in Israelite religious law) who asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds: “What’s written in the law?” The lawyer offers the two-fold commandment of love, for God and for neighbor. Jesus indicates, this is correct. Then comes the challenge from the lawyer: “And who is my neighbor?” To that, Jesus responds with the story of the “Good Samaritan”.

A man was on a journey. On the way he encountered some thieves who beat and robbed him, “leaving him half dead” by the side of the road. Several persons walked on by including a priest and a Levite, persons central to the religious practice and rituals of Israel. These two “passed by on the other side”. This comment is important for it reveals that they feared touching a bleeding or dead person as it would make them ritually unclean. For them, to do so would be to break their religious ritual laws.

Finally, a Samaritan came along. He did not pass by but instead showed observance of the ultimate law - mercy, compassion and care. Not only this, he made provision for the wounded man’s continuing care.

It is no small thing that as Jesus tells the story of the man beaten up on the road, those who followed the ritual law meticulously, “passed by”. It was the Samaritan, an unbeliever and an outcast to Israelites, who stopped and using all his resources, offered compassion and care.

Jesus’s mission is one of mercy – for all, by all. That is the message of the Kingdom of God. No one is excluded from this mercy, for God’s loves all, unconditionally. We are facing a world that seems bent on building walls and boundaries, national, cultural, religious. The root of this lies in fear of “the other”, the one who is different from us.

“Jesus Christ is the face of God’s mercy.” As his disciples, we are called to be the face of Jesus, revealing God’s love and mercy. There are no walls or boundaries in this. In a world confronted by hatred and violence, division and war, is this a better definition of a disciple of Jesus?

Compassion and care know no boundaries, no borders. This is the ultimate law for all humanity. It lies at the core of living as a disciple of Jesus. Pope Francis captured this image of what it means to be disciples of Jesus, Christians, when he promulgated his Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti in October 2020.

Francis began by referring to St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). “Fratelli tutti”. With these words, [He] addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel. Of the counsels Francis offered, I would like to select the one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brothers “as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him”… St Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allow us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives. (Fratelli tutti 1)

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