14 July 2013. 15th Sunday of Year C.
Deut 30:10-14. “This commandment is not too hard for you.” It flows from being God’s chosen people.
Col 1:15-20. A hymn to Christ, head of the Church, universal mediator and redeemer.
Lk 10:25-37. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” The Good Samaritan.
Theme: The parable of the Good Samaritan is Christ’s answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” It should inspire us to go and do the same ourselves.
First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:10-14
Moses said to the people: “When you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Second Reading: Colossians1:15-20
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal lie?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The Samaritan Impulse
G. K. Chesterton was a journalist, a poet, a novelist, radio broadcaster, public debater, and theologian. He once wrote that the English secularised culture of his day retained, in spite of everything, values which were deep-rooted in Christianity. One such value must surely be that of the good Samaritan. In fact it was in England that the group called “The Samaritans” originated. The enduring impact of Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” is all the more extraordinary when we remember that for the Jews the Samaritans were anything but good. Instead they looked on them as being despicable renegades from the Jewish faith. They even accused Jesus himself of being a Samaritan and possessed by a devil (Jn 8:48).
It’s worth considering the significance of the parable for us here and now. Jesus used this story to bring home to us in a dramatic way the most important, the most all-embracing quality he requires of his followers. The importance of the parable lies in its context. It is the answer to a specific question – who is my neighbour to whom I must show as much love as to myself? The answer is brought home forcibly to the Jewish lawyer who put the question. Everyone without exception, even such as the despised Samaritan, must be regarded as a neighbour.
We might wonder what the Samaritan had to gain personally from his act of charity. The answer, in material terms, is precisely nothing. The whole point is that love which is really and truly love, is disinterested. Indeed where is the merit in being good only to friends, who will obviously reward you in return, should the need arise? Christian love must embrace everyone. Secondly, if you do not show love to the neighbour whom you see, then no matter what commandments you keep, what ritual sacrifices you join in, as did the priest and Levite in the parable, you become incapable of loving God, whom you cannot see. This is something which St John reiterates again and again. If you want to join in the Eucharistic banquet and receive God’s Son into your heart, then you must first cleanse your heart of all hatred, bitterness, ill-will, because the God we receive in this sacrament is love.
Communicating the Law of Love
A strong theme integrating these readings is the primacy of Jesus in the Father’s communication of the law of love. The passage from Deut. 30 is a fine example of how the people of Israel treasured the Mosaic Law, the Torah, as God’s clear and privileged communication of his will. This is a splendid set-up for observing the quantum leap that occurs in Christian consciousness when the post-Easter believers understand the person and the word of Jesus as fulfilling and even supplanting and surpassing the Torah. The gospel text presents a sample of that. Here, as in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:43-48), Jesus begins from, and then deepens profoundly, the Old Testament teaching of love. The Colossian reading – with its celebration of Jesus as image of the invisible God, head of the body, the locus of cosmic “fullness,” the reconciler of all – this supports the idea of Jesus as God’s most complete communication of himself.
But all this is in the background. Jesus’ teaching itself, the famous parable, will obviously be the centerpiece of any homily this weekend. The best service the preacher can do is to help the worshippers hear the story afresh. The key here is recovering the shock of the identity of the hero, a Samaritan. These people were the outcasts in first-century Palestine. Since they had intermarried with the occupying Assyrians in the 8th century B.C. they were considered a mongrel breed. And because they kept a separate tradition of the Torah and conducted a competing temple worship on Mount Gerizim (see Jn. 4:20-22), theirs was considered a corrupt form of Judaism. (See Sirach 50:25-26 for the traditional Hebrew attitude toward Samaritans.) For a Samaritan, a suspect stranger in Judea, to deal with an injured Jew would have been an act of unexplainable compassion and an unthinkable risk.
Some social analogy may help here. In his Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts: Jesus’ Doing and the Happenings, Clarence Jordan sets the scene in southern U.S.A. and retells the story as being about a black man aiding a white victim. Others have compared the situation of the Samaritan carrying the victim to the inn to that of a plains Indian in 1890 riding into a small town with a scalped cowboy on his horse. This catches the element of risk. Another analogy: a pastor working in the Middle East confessed that never once was he even tempted to tell Palestinians a story about a noble Israeli.
The point is to find a social parallel which will bring this story home to one’s own congregation. Note the significant shift between the lawyer’s question (Who is my neighbour?) and Jesus’ question (Which proved neighbour to the victim?). The lawyer wants a definition to comfortably limit his duty. Jesus cuts through word game: our neighbour is any human being in need. How this is specifically to be applied is up to the insight of the homilist and the listeners. Here God’s guiding Torah comes through the person and teaching of Jesus.
What kind of people are these?
Newspapers and the other media tend to paint a rather depressing picture of human nature, which would seem bent on war, destruction, social and political injustice, and on all types and forms of immorality. That, of course, is what is seen as making news. But it should blind none of us from being more aware in our daily lives of the basic goodness of human nature, and of noting the many selfless and quite unnoticed acts of love and charity. And by being positive about our human nature and its capabilities for good, we become more aware of our own potential to love selflessly. This is what Jesus tries to help the lawyer to experience. Instead of giving him a dictionary definition of “neighbour,” he presents him with the parable about the Samaritan who acts not out of a sense of duty or of guilt, but out of sheer love and generosity. Though we are not told, we can hope that the lawyer is fired with enthusiasm to live in a similar manner.
We could concentrate on the negative elements of the parable – the brigands, the priest and the levite. But this would be to miss the point, and we end up falling into the trap of the press and the media. The emphasis in the parable is on the positive capabilities of human nature – even in people not normally expected to display such characteristics. This too is the overall thrust of Deuteronomy. Quite often, as Christians, we approach this book of the Old Testament with a certain lack of enthusiasm, noting its negative stipulations and its prohibitions. Yet to concentrate on this aspect would again lead to distortion. For Deuteronomy, expressed as a summary of Moses” instructions, is God’s teaching to Israel on how to live a life of love and charity. Deuteronomy repeatedly emphasises God’s undying and unchanging love for his people, and from this perspective urges its hearers to respond in kind, They are to live a life of love for God and for their neighbour, defined above all by the trio of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. These were the people most in need of charity in the community of Israel, and the idea is that, if one is charitable to them, then one is charitable to all without exception.
Sometimes we Christians get impatient with ourselves that we are not always living out the life of love, feeling that the priest and the levite are still within us. Our impatience is stoked up by the commercialised society we live in, always demanding quick results. We are conditioned by advertising techniques: we expect that fast foods will not only be fast but nutritious, and so on. Perfection in love is usually not so instant. It’s well to remember that the guidance in Deuteronomy was given while still on the way to the Promised Land, and that the parable of the Lord is told while the disciples are still making their way with him to Jerusalem. The “journey” element can remind us that love and charity are part of the journey of faith. And, as with many journeys, there are stops and even wrong turnins. It is when we get bogged down at such stages that we lose our sense of direction and our infinite capacity to love.
Vertical and horizontal religion
This is a enriching gospel about the two great commandments, an excellent story to illustrate what the two commandments are about. It gets to the core of the message.
Several days after the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, a newspaper carried two pictures side by side. The first showed the side of the ship slashed open by a massive iceberg. The caption read “The weakness of man, the supremacy of nature.” The second picture showed a passenger giving up his place on a lifeboat to a woman with a child in her arms. The caption read “The weakness of nature, the supremacy of man.” Today’s gospel points to a balance between God and neighbour, between a vertical religion, that includes only God, and myself and a horizontal religion, which includes only my neighbour and me.
It is important to notice that the questioner was trying to catch Jesus, to see if he would say anything that was contrary to the law, which they held with such intensity. Jesus’ reply was “What does the law say?” Jesus is prepared to meet him on his own terms. The man quoted the law about loving God and loving neighbour, and Jesus said “Fair enough. Do that, and you’re on your way to heaven.” Later on, of course, Jesus would further refine the commandments to one new commandment: “Love one another as I love you.”
Jesus was a born teacher. He usually began with something that was quite familiar to his listeners, and he used that to bring them to a new insight into what he wanted them to learn. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was infamous for bandits and robbers, and any one who travelled that road on his own was certainly taking a great risk. He told a story about this road to highlight what he meant by love of one’s neighbour. A neighbour is not just someone who happens to live on the same block. It is someone who is regarded as one who should be friendly. A true neighbour can always be depended on. It is not a question of where the other lives. When I come into your presence I become your neighbour, and I am in a position to help, should such be needed.
A thing to notice about the Samaritan in the story: When he started something, he saw it through. It is easy to throw a coin into the hat of a beggar and then pass on down the road. It is different to share a compassion for the other, feel their pain and isolation, somehow want to helm them to healing and security. That is love in practice, more personal and “touching” than generic charity, which can be quite cosmetic and theoretic.
A good way of looking at life is to check the balance between the vertical and the horizontal, how I approach and regard God, and how I approach and regard my neighbour. “Whatever you do to the least of these, that’s what you do unto me.” “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there you remember that someone has been hurt by you, go first, and be reconciled with that person, and then come and offer your gift.”