The behaviour of the Samaritan in today’s Gospel would be very unsettling if we weren’t so familiar with the story. A man is robbed, beaten, stripped naked and left for dead by the side of the road. The people who could reasonably have been expected to help him walk by. It is the outsider, the foreigner who isn’t bound by laws and conventions who has the humanity to care for this man.
Thanks to newspapers, television, radio and the internet, we have become so used to witnessing the suffering of the victims of violence, of famine, of injustice; so much so that our hearts can become hardened and our consciences deadened. Let us ask forgiveness for the times we have walked by on the other side and neglected someone in need.
I’m sure that most, if not all of us, can look back on some incident in our life with shame and regret, perhaps to a time when we failed to do the right thing. We’ve just heard about two men, a priest and a Levite, who must have looked back over their shoulders and regretted their failure and felt shame. They passed a man lying beaten and half-dead in the street, and they did nothing to help him.
In fact, they walked by on the other side of the road in order to avoid him, for the man lying there naked and half-dead was a nuisance to them. He was an obstacle in their path, and most of all he was a reproach to their conscience. And so, not wishing to literally step over him, the priest and the Levite crossed over to the other side of the road to avoid him, not wishing to be disturbed even by the sight of him, and they pretended not to notice him. They ignored him and they walked on. But afterwards, did they remember him and did they secretly wish they had done something to help? Did the memory of that man lying half-dead in the road linger with them?
In our own lives we often face a situation when we know what should be done, but we fail to do it. And sometimes we try to justify our failure by building up a wall of excuses. We may take refuge in high-sounding principles; we may speak of our rights as if they were the only rights that mattered: the right not to get involved. On these occasions it almost seems that the difference between a child and an adult is simply that an adult can find more complicated and convincing reasons for not doing the right thing.
But there comes a time when we just can’t brush any more dust under the carpet. And a voice – we call it the voice of conscience – speaks within us and creates within us a deep unease. It calls us to come in from the cold world of pretence and to face the truth. The voice of conscience speaks not only to our intellect, but also to our feelings and to our heart, and it calls us to step down from the pedestal of our own imagined importance, and recognise that we can only be at peace with ourselves and with others by doing good – by doing the right thing.
We all know that when we obey the voice of conscience it hurts. And this is because it requires courage; it demands that we stand up for what is right and true, not for what is convenient or easy. It sometimes means that we will be ridiculed because we refuse to go along with some unjust law, or with some fashionable opinion, or some deep-rooted prejudice. But most of all, conscience may require a change of attitude within us. It may demand that we no longer pass by on the other side of the road; for it may force us to disassociate ourselves from people whose company we have previously kept and enjoyed.
We have the duty always and everywhere to follow our conscience, a conscience which must be formed by the teaching of the Church. For the voice of conscience is the voice of Christ himself. And so the more faithfully we follow our informed conscience, the closer we come to God.
Sometimes people talk of ‘following their conscience’ only when they find themselves in conflict with the Scriptures or the teaching of the Church. And yet if that is the case, how can they be close to Christ? As Catholics we are not in the position of being able to pick and choose what teachings of the Church we will accept and which ones we will ignore. We’re not what used to be called Cafeteria Catholics who choose what bits of our religion we like and ignore or discard the rest. In humility and obedience to Christ we accept them all. And it is for this reason we should make every activity and every decision at all times the work of Christ’s presence directing us from within – through our conscience. Only then will the voice of conscience surely and infallibly guide us. And, the more we follow our conscience, the more will the love of Christ take a deeper hold of us: a love which will transform us in this life and forever in the life to come.