Father Damien of Molokai was a Good Samaritan

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday of Year C

by Fr. Tommy Lane

What kind of a priest was he to pass by on the other side of the road and leave the poor man thrown down by the side of the road? (Luke 10:31) And that Levite wasn’t any better, was he? (Luke 10:32) And they were supposed to be the holy people! Why would they do such a thing? At the time of Jesus there were so many priests that they had to take it in turns to serve as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem! All the male descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron were priests (Ex 29:44). They were from the tribe of Levi and the remainder of the tribe of Levi who were not descendants of Aaron and did not become priests were Levites who were priests’ servants in the Temple (see Num 3:1-10). Why would a Jewish priest pass by on the other side of the road? The robbers left the poor man half dead (Luke 10:30). The poor man must have been unconscious and appeared dead. He looked like a corpse on the side of the road. If a Jewish priest touched a corpse he was considered unclean and could not serve as a priest in the Temple. (Num 19:11-19) When you consider the length of time he was waiting to serve in the Temple as a priest we can better understand his reluctance to check if the person was still living or dead. From our point of view now that would not excuse him, but it does help us to understand better.   

The hero of the parable is the Good Samaritan. He reminds me of a real life priest, Father Damien, canonized as St. Damien in 2009. Father Damien was born in Belgium in 1840. After a mission given by the Redemptorists he decided to join a religious order and joined the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and took the name Damien. He was sent on a mission to the Hawaiian Islands in 1864 and ordained a priest in Honolulu that same year. On the island of Molokai the Hawaiian government had set up a leper settlement in 1858. It was known as a living graveyard because there was no cure for the disease. Once people contracted the disease they were taken to the island by force and never again saw their family. There was no food brought to the island either, these poor sick lepers were supposed to fend for themselves even though as the disease progressed one lost nearly all one’s fingers and toes. In 1873 at his own request and with the permission of the bishop Fr. Damien decided to minister in Molokai as their resident priest. Fr. Damien knew that having served on the island he would never be allowed to leave the island due to the contagious nature of the disease. From the 600 lepers there at that time there was often more then one funeral every day. For a long time Fr. Damien was the only one to help them. Not only did he help them spiritually but in every other way also. He dressed their ulcers, helped them to erect cottages and he built many buildings himself; he dug the lepers’ graves and made their coffins. Fr. Damien was a thorn in the side of the government constantly begging on behalf of the lepers. Instead of funerals being a sad occasion on the island, Fr. Damien turned them into a happy occasion with processions, torch-bearers, music, bands and choirs. Fr. Damien taught the people their value in the eyes of God. Then when people came to the island they were given a royal welcome. In 1885, twelve years after he first began to minister on the island he noticed the first symptoms of the disease as he no longer felt hot water on his feet. He continued to help for as long as he could but he died three years later in 1888. Pope John Paul II beatified him on June 4th 1995 saying, “he showed forth Christ’s tenderness and mercy for every human being, revealing the beauty of that person’s inner self which no illness, no deformity, no weakness can totally disfigure. He offered the lepers, who were condemned to a slow death [his very life]...; he became a leper among the lepers; he became a leper for the lepers. He suffered and died like them, believing that he would rise again in Christ, for Christ is Lord.” He was a canonized saint in 2009.

I was reminded of Fr. Damien by the Good Samaritan in today’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37). Fr. Damien is a powerful example of a Good Samaritan. He was more concerned about the well-being of the lepers than about himself. He helped to raise the lepers up from their misery just as the Good Samaritan raised up the beaten-up man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It cost Fr. Damien a big price - serious illness and his own life - just as it cost the Good Samaritan to look after the man who was robbed.  After having told the parable Jesus asked which of the three proved himself a neighbor. The Good Samaritan did; he loved his neighbor as himself. Fr. Damien did also.

When Jesus told a parable we are meant to compare ourselves with the characters in the parable and see which of the characters we are like. Do we pass by on the other side of the road instead of helping? Do we like the Good Samaritan forget about ourselves and give help. None of us has yet allowed the graces of Jesus to come to full flower in our lives so there is some selfishness in each of us as well as some of the Good Samaritan. We are called to grow more and more from being selfish and self-centered to being a Good Samaritan type person, to being a Fr. Damien type person. This we can only do with the grace of God. With the help of God’s grace, we want to love our neighbor as ourselves as best we can.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2001

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More homilies for the Fifteenth Sunday Year C

The Good Samaritan

Related Homilies: Today’s Gospel in the context of Luke

love of neighbor Seeing Jesus in others

If anyone wants to be first he must be servant of all

stories about helping others

stories about seeing God in others