FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – Dt 30:10-14 Col 1:15-20 Lk 10:25-37-
Christ’s Teachings: Stimulus to Human Growth and Potential. Christ’s Teaching: Best in All the World; Christ’s Laws: Too High for People?
If you help person on the street whose life is in danger and if you are in any way considered negligent, you may be legally liable. For this reason, many physicians won’t stop at the scene of an accident. So some jurisdictions have enacted what are called “Good Samaritan” laws – that one who attempts the rescue of a person in peril, provided the attempt wasn’t made with complete recklessness, can’t be charged with contributory negligence if the victim’s condition worsens. To know the law about daily activities is important.
In matters of eternal life, it is even more important; thus the scholar of the law in today’s Gospel who posed the question to Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life (v.25). It’s a layer’s question. Jesus, knowing the complexities of the matter, sent the lawyer back to the law: “What is written in the law? How do you read it? (v. 26). And the lawyer’s answer, to love God wholeheartedly and one’s neighbor as oneself, is the heart-piece of the Jewish Scriptures. The first part of the answer, to love God from the heart, with generosity and love, is from the Book of Deuteronomy.
Today’s portion of that book is one of the most consoling and joyful ever written. It says simply that God is our life, and that our lives can reveal God. It recounts an important moment in our understanding of humanity and God. The words of Moses reveal a stage in the revelation that God’s love, which created the universe, is always with us. The all-powerful Creator will in time become the child of Bethlehem.
As for Deuteronomy’s heart-piece, religious Jews still put in the little boxes (phylacteries) which they wear on their forehead and on their arm when they pray, place it at their door posts, pray it detail during life, and want it on their lips as they die. When Deuteronomy speaks of this command enjoying you today (v. 11), the “today” means whenever the passage is read. We are not to think of God’s commands as remote and far from our minds, but as something very near (v. 14).
The second part of the lawyer’s answer, to love “your neighbor as yourself”, is from the Book of Leviticus (19:18), and is more problematic. It was that Part that the lawyer grasped at to show that he had had sufficient reason for asking the question in the first place and that he wasn’t to be dismissed as a mere schoolboy. He asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). The Jews’ regular answer embraced only their fellow-Jews. Jesus’ answer was part of his moral revolution. It was the story of the Good Samaritan.
The story was about a man as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho (v. 30). The road connecting Jerusalem, which was about 2,500 feet above sea level, and Jericho, about 800 feet below, dropped about 3,300 feet in a little more than twenty miles. The road was narrow, at times consisting of no more than boulder-bordered paths. It had many sudden turns – all of which made it a hunting ground for brigands. The traveler of the story may have been foolish for travelling alone along this road, and may have had no one but himself to blame for his falling victim to robbers. Anyone could have used that as an excuse for not helping him.
The first to pass by, a Jewish priest (v. 31), a symbol of religious power, could have the excuse that, for ritual purity, he would have to avoid coming near a corpse, which the wounded man appeared to be. The robbers had left him half-dead (v.32), an assistant at the Temple, a symbol of secular power. He, too, could say that he had to take every precaution to remain “pure”, or he wouldn’t be able to perform his duties.
The one who possessed the secret of eternal life was the last to arrive – a Samaritan (v. 33). He reached the secret without the lawyer’s learning, without priestly or levitical concern for purity, and without their status. He was moved with compassion – spontaneously, kindly, on a person – to – person level. In his act of mercy the known world of religion and power were turned upside – down.
Jesus’ choice of the Samaritan as the hero of his story made his audience wince. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along at all, for the same reasons some modern peoples don’t get along: race, politics, religion. In this case, it was a combination of all three. Racially, the Samaritans were Semites the same as the Jews, but they had for a long time intermarried, which the Jews strongly opposed. Politically, although the Samaritans shared part of the same land as the Jews, they had often collaborated with the enemies of Judah. And religiously, the Samaritans didn’t accept all the Jewish Scriptures, ignored Jerusalem, and looked to their own Temple in Mount Gerizim as their centre. Jewish law considered Samaritan testimony worthless in court. In retaliation, the Samaritans refused hospitality to any passing through Samaria.
This Samaritan – who would himself be excluded from being a neighbor in the then – current Jewish meaning of the word – didn’t stop to consider that bandits then as now at times used decoys in the road to fake injury. He wasn’t afraid of losing time. He didn’t grudge the trouble. He generously paid the innkeeper two day’s wages – even though, because of the danger of robbers, it is not likely that he had much money with him. He poured oil and wine over the victim’s wounds and bandaged them. Oil and wine were the common remedies for bruises and cuts: the wine for its cleansing, astringent properties, the oil for its soothing and healing. And his credit was good. He promised to pay any further expense on his way back, and his promise was accepted.
When Jesus asked which of these three was neighbour to the robber’s victim (v. 36), the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say the despised word “Samaritan”. He answered that it was the one who treated him with mercy (v. 37). This was a new definition of neighbor. In the Book of Leveticus, the neighbor was one who was to be loved, such as a countryman. The new definition of neighbor is one who loves. Jesus was at the same time answering the important question that should have been asked: “Who is capable of becoming a neighbor?”
Jesus’ admonition to go and do likewise was a date to be remembered in the history of humanity! He was saying what no other religion in history ever said – that everyone in the world, without exception, is our neighbor. Every place we go is from Jerusalem to Jericho. If we love like the Samaritan loved we will be compassionate, attentive, and affectionate to all. The human race grows in sensitivity. Just as we look back in history at some practices of people and call them barbarous, we, too, may be looked upon by future generations as insensitive in many ways – to gays, for example, and lesbians, and victims of AIDS. The human race has had God’s invitation for almost 2,000 years now to grow into Jesus.
That is what today’s portion of the letter to the Colossians is about. To a non-Jewish church at Colossae, confused about the identity of Jesus, this section of the letter – written by St Paul or in his name by one versed in his way of thinking – is one of the most highly developed theologies of Jesus. It beautifully tells us, in brief, that Jesus – and not the Torah, as the Jews believed – is everything. In himself, Jesus is the image of the invisible God (v. 15). Jesus is also everything to creation. All things in heaven and on earth were created through him and for him (v. 16).
Jesus is everything to the Church, of which he is the head (v. 18). Head signifies the principles of authority and vitality. He is the Church’s beginning, not only in the sense of time, but in the sense of being the source, like the bubbling brook is the beginning of the stream and remains with it. Jesus is, in fact, everything to all things. For in him all God’s fullness was pleased to dwell (v. 19).
Today’s liturgy teaches us to ask not only, “Who is my neighbour?”, but also, “Am I a neighbor?” Have I become so used to seeing, either in real life or in vivid colour on TV, the suffering of the victims of violence, of famine, or of injustice, that my heart has become so hardened that I find it difficult to love? Do I consider my religion a vertical one, containing only my going up to God and God coming down to me, or also a horizontal one, embracing broken humanity as well, through whom we might find God?
Do I, like the priest or Levite in Jesus’ story, make rational-sounding excuses to relegate caring for the sick only to doctors, nurses, chaplains, and others who work in pastoral or health care? Do I, like the scholar in today’s Gospel, have faultless book-knowledge of the law, but am careless about living it? Or do I, like the Samaritan, listen to my heart and put my religion into practice? Am I repelled by those who aren’t beautiful, or who reek with the stench of alcohol or urine, or who are weak or foolish or unintelligent?
Or does my love, like the good Samaritan’s, prompt me to end up not only in feeling sorry for the misfortunes of others, but in doing something about them? Everyday God counts on our human hands to help raise the unfortunate from dung-heaps. Jesus seeks people committed to the love and care of one another and the earth under the guidance of God’s peace and justice. That should be us! But we often miss the victims on the side of the road. Real love seeks not legal limits, but opportunities to help.