Trinity 6 Year C
Mother Teresa and the Good Samaritan
I’d like to tell you about a woman called Agnes Bojaschiu. Agnes Bojaschiu was born in 1910 in Skopje, which was then in the Macedonian part of Yugoslavia. Her family was Albanian, and her parents were grocers. They were Roman Catholics. When she was aged only 17 she left Yugoslavia to go to Dublin, to train as a missionary nun. Agnes was only 21 when she took her nun’s vows, and immediately sailed to India to become a teacher there. For twenty years, she taught geography at St. Mary’s High School, Calcutta. This was a rather smart school in a city of appalling squalor.
In 1946, when Agnes was 35, she decided she had to do more to help the thousands of people in Calcutta who were living in absolute poverty. She left the convent where she was living, and took a room in the slums, alongside the beggars. After acquiring some basic medical training, in 1950 she and twelve young novices set up a new congregation of nuns, called the Missionaries of Charity. Two years later, the Calcutta city authorities gave them a disused building, where they could care for dying destitutes from the streets. The number of nuns grew very quickly, and before long hundreds of young women had joined them, courageously submitting to strict poverty and discipline.
You have probably guessed by now the name by which Agnes Bojaschiu is more well known. When she became a nun she took the name Sister Teresa: when she set up the Missionaries of Charity she became Mother Teresa. Her nuns possess only two sets of clothes, a pair of sandals and a crucifix. They sleep in dormitories, eat simply, and travel around mostly by foot. They spend several hours in prayer every day, and for the rest of the day attend to the sick, comfort the dying, rescue abandoned babies, teach orphans, or visit poor families.
Mother Teresa died in 1997, aged 87, having gone on from her childhood in a grocer’s shop in Yugoslavia to change the world. Today she is seen as perhaps the most famous recent example of someone who gave up everything so that she could serve God and her neighbour. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, and last October she was beatified by the Pope (the next stage being sainthood). She described her life as ‘trying to do God’s will with a smile’. When she died in 1997 the world mourned.
When we read today’s familiar gospel, about the story of the Good Samaritan, we think about people like Mother Teresa. An expert in the Jewish Law has asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life. Jesus replies by quoting the so-called ‘golden rule’ of Moses, saying " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'". The man presses him further, however, saying, “And who is my neighbour?” It in response to this question that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
Notice, thought, that contrary to popular opinion, the parable of the Good Samaritan is about much more than just being nice to people, or even about helping others. The point is that the people of Samaria and the people of Israel were not particularly friendly to one another. (The roots of the enmity go back several centuries. The people of Samaria were those who were not deported after the destruction of the Northern Israelite kingdom by Assyria in 722 B.C. They argued that the Temple of God should be at Mount Gerizim, not in Jerusalem, and in fact built a temple at the base of that mountain, near the town of Shechem - now Nablus). It was not the priest or the Levite – from the same people as the man who was robbed and beaten – who came to help: but the man from Samaria, who by all accounts should have been indifferent to the sufferings of one who was his enemy. Loving one’s neighbour, then, for Christians, means not allowing differences of race, colour or religion to stand in the way of one’s kindness – but seeing all people as equally deserving in the eyes of God.
People often forget that Jesus taught far more than just being nice to people. He called his followers to devote their whole lives to serving others – even to the point of giving up one’s very life for other people, as he was about to do. It was this call to total self-giving that inspired Mother Teresa to leave her family at the age of 17 and soon after that to go many thousands of miles to serve some of the poorest people in the world.
But how does the example of Mother Teresa help us in our own lives? How does she help us in our own attempts to follow the way of Jesus more closely? I imagine that most of us must feel that the life of total self-giving which Mother Teresa exemplified so well is simply not practical for mere mortals like ourselves. We have families to support or care for, we need to earn a living, and we can’t just leave everything and go to live in one of the poorest parts of the world.
What I want to say, though, as we reflect on the life of Mother Teresa, is that saints do not have to be famous. Indeed there are thousands upon thousands of people whose saintly lives have not been officially recognised by the Church, but who are nevertheless still important in the eyes of God. For we can never tell how important even little acts of self-giving and service may be to other people and to God. I wonder if Simon of Cyrene ever realised how his small act of service to Jesus in carrying his cross would be immortalised in Scripture. And I imagine that the anonymous widow who gave her last coins to the Temple treasury – the widow’s mite – never knew how this little act of sacrificial giving would be used by Jesus to inspire countless others to be generous in giving to God.
Society today tends to place most value on money, status, and success. We live at a time when the celebrity is king – or queen – and fame is the pinnacle of achievement. But that wasn’t the way of Jesus. Remember how he actively resisted Satan’s temptation to rule all the nations of the world – if only he would bow down and worship him. And how he refused to try to win the acclaim of the people by throwing himself off a high mountain so that God’s angels could save him. No: the little acts of self-giving and service, which do not bring with them fame, glamour or celebrity status, are just as important in the eyes of God as heroic acts of service which are reported on television.
How many people have given up all kinds of other opportunities to care for an elderly parent; or have made great sacrifices so that their children can receive the care they deserve? Then there are those people who give up their free time to help with a community organisation – a youth club, guides or brownies, scouts or cubs. For some of us, given the situation we live in, these are the forms of self-giving which can really make a difference to those around us. I think also of a young man I got to know in America through a summer job which I once had on a camp near Chicago for disabled people. His name was Marty Halloran; he had cerebral palsy, and could not move anything except one of his feet. He could not speak, and had to be helped to eat and drink. His mother, Rose, devoted her whole life to looking after her son. Hers was not the kind of care which makes newspaper headlines, but without her Marty’s life would have been nothing.
In conclusion: we must thank God for those rare people, like the Blessed Mother Teresa, as she now is, who give their lives in the service of their neighbour in ways which are impossible for most of us. But it’s also important that the existence of people like Mother Teresa does not make us diminish the value of the everyday acts of service which result in no such fame or public recognition. The church has its official saints: and it has far more anonymous saints. But of course no-one is anonymous to God; and a life that is devoted to caring for only one person is a life better lived than one which is devoted just to caring for oneself.