Seeds of the Word - What stops us from being merciful?

Stained glass at St. James Cathedral, Seattle. Photo: M. Laughlin Stained glass at St. James Cathedral, Seattle. Photo: M. Laughlin

Why aren’t good people merciful when someone needs them the most?

All of us are familiar with the parable about the man who was robbed and left half-dead on the road and the good Samaritan who aided him. We usually pay attention to the Samaritan’s good example. Coming from a group of people hated by the Jews, he’s the one who surprisingly helps the half-dead man. (see Luke 10:29-37)

We rarely consider the two first men who found the half-dead man along their way and chose to just pass by: a priest and a Levite.

Behind the example given by the Samaritan we find a lesson of mercy. He not only shares his belongings with the half-dead man, anointing his wounds with his own wine to disinfect them, sitting him on his own animal, paying for a bed at the inn and leaving extra money with the innkeeper. He also shares with this man what perhaps is the most precious treasure of everyone, his personal time. He stops, aids him, takes him to the inn and cares for him for some time.

But it is worth trying to understand what prevented the other two from being merciful to someone who was dying on the road. After all, they were good men. One of them was even a priest. The other came from the tribe of Levi, where all priests from Israel came from.

When religion stifles mercy

Doubtless the priest was moved after seeing the half-dead man — he had been beaten and was bleeding. Next time the priest went to the Temple, he surely prayed for the dying man, asking God to help him and to save him. Yet, is our prayer useful when our hands don’t help the one we are praying for even when we have the opportunity to do so in front of us?

This priest preferred to move on because he would become unclean if he touched the wounded man, according to the rules the Jews had come up with. Being unclean, he could not enter the Temple until he had gone through the due purification rituals. He was a priest and needed to go inside the Temple! In his case, it was his religious devotion that prevented him from being merciful.

How striking it is to realize how the religious piety of a good man makes him refrain from being merciful with the one who needs him the most. It is sad when religious rules made up by people become handcuffs that don’t let us be merciful in accordance to the law of God and the Gospel teachings.

When social conventions muzzle mercy

Levites were highly regarded because all priests came from this tribe. Nonetheless, this Levite in the parable also refused to touch the half-dead man. He didn’t want to become unclean either. If he did, he could not approach his friends or other people until he went through the due purification rituals.

Yet, what made the one who touched a wounded person unclean? Nothing but their made-up rules and social conventions. Thus encouraged — or discouraged, rather — by the conventions of his society, the Levite prefers to pretend nothing is happening and moves on, leaving behind that poor man and letting him die. Breaking social conventions makes us look bad to others, and we don’t like that.

How sad when we stop doing good to the ones who need our mercy the most because we want to look good before the rest. How sad when social customs prevent us from being merciful.

O Lord, do not let us commit the sacrilege of muzzling our heart with the pretext of being too pious or too polite. Help us always to be first and foremost merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful.

Read the Spanish version of this “Semillas de la Palabra” column from the May 2016 issue of NORTHWEST CATHOLIC.

Mauricio I. Pérez, a member of St. Monica Parish on Mercer Island, is a Catholic journalist. His website is