15th. Sunday, Year (C)
In our readings today we have an embarrassment of riches, and so it is a matter now of picking out one or two jewels, for in no way can I pretend to open up to your gaze the beauty and wealth of all that we have just heard.
In the Gospel we were told of a Scribe, an expert in the Jewish Law, who approached Jesus in what is, truly, the only way in which Jesus can be rightly approached:
"Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
That should be our attitude at this very moment as we try to understand and learn from the Gospel, before going on to offer Jesus' self-sacrifice to the Father, and then finally, in Holy Communion, surrendering ourselves to Jesus that He might draw us with Himself to the Father:
Lord Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus replied by asking the Scribe what the Law had to say about the way to eternal life and he responded without hesitation:
'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,' and 'your neighbour as yourself.'
Jesus had nothing to add to that. However, the Scribe -- not wanting to seem foolish for having asked a question to which he already knew the answer -- went on to justify himself and also pay Jesus a notable compliment by asking Him:
And who is my neighbour?
Yes, he was an expert in the Law who knew well the words of the Law, but here he was asking Jesus to tell Him what the words really meant: that was the humility of a man sincerely seeking to find the way to eternal life.
With our modern proliferation of books and skill in information technology, it is easy for people to be satisfied with knowing about the words of Scripture while appreciating little of their meaning and spiritual significance. Too often today self-styled experts and militant proselytisers attempt to show off their knowledge of the Bible by writing or reciting words: words are their favourite medium, for they trip so very easily off the tongue or pen, one after another, so easy to count and multiply. Spiritual appreciation, on the other hand, is a much more demanding than mere facility with words: it requires that understanding which only comes from respect for, and submission to, the whole of God's revelation; it involves humility, patience, and prayer.
Lord, who is my neighbour?
Jesus, in answer to this learned man's humility, told him a parable -- or perhaps He made use of a real-life incident -- about one whom today we call the Good Samaritan, and another who had fallen into the hands of thieves. This unfortunate victim -- probably a Jew and possibly a priest -- was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was the most public road in all Judea and the only road between those two cities for thousands of priests and Levites who, after having served in the Temple at Jerusalem according to a fixed rota system, would then return home until their next period for service. For about twelve thousand of these priests and Levites Jericho was thus their chosen place of residence, while the Temple in Jerusalem was their destination for work and worship. Despite being much used, this road was extremely dangerous for travellers, twisting and turning through rocky desert, and -- in the course of about 20 miles -- falling steeply some 3000 feet from the chill heights of Jerusalem to the near tropical depths of Jericho. Jesus’ parable, therefore, when it told of a traveller falling into the hands of robbers, was recalling an all-too-frequent occurrence that many had suffered before and many others would continue to experience in the future. The bandits of the Judean desert did not scruple to kill at times, but in this case, having robbed the man, they were content to leave him, wounded and helpless, by the side of the road.
Now, a priest, making the same journey from the Temple in Jerusalem down to Jericho, came upon the wounded man, and:
When he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
Then a Levite, having likewise completed his rota of service in the Temple and returning back to his home in Jericho:
When he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the opposite side.
Both the priest and the Levite would have recognized the victim as a neighbour, a fellow Jew, indeed, perhaps as a fellow priest or Levite. And yet, both of them, out of considerations for legal purity or for their own personal reasons, passed him by. Finally, a Samaritan arrived on the scene.
Now, Samaritans were regarded as enemies by the Jews, and, generally, Samaritans had a like opinion of the Jews. In this case, however, the Samaritan of whom Jesus spoke, having chanced upon the wounded man:
was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back'
Jesus was indeed revealing the meaning of the word "neighbour" to the Scribe: for His story showed that an enemy could -- should the occasion arise -- show himself to be a true neighbour; and consequently, it raised the question whether or not Jewish national pride and religious exclusiveness could have any further role to play in God's coming Kingdom that would transcend all such human boundaries and limitations.
The passing priest and Levite had the word of God on their lips, as Moses said:
The word is very near to you, already in your mouth.
That word they could repeat, discuss, dispute about, and perhaps use to display their learning. It was so easy, on such occasions, to forget that Moses had gone on to say that the word was also:
in your heart, that you may obey it.
Now, sinful, worldly, men have always been able to use the Word of God as a weapon for personal advancement in an earthly kingdom, despite the fact that God had originally given it as a guide to our heavenly home. Those who use their facility with the Word of God as a weapon for earthly advancement need only to apply their natural talents and human techniques in such a way as to win earthly patrons and stir up simple supporters by making and championing short-term and shallow judgments according to popular appearances and personal advantage. On the other hand, those using God’s Word as a guide to our heavenly home, have to ask, knock, wait for, and pray to, Him Who is infinitely above us and Who judges the hidden secrets of mind and heart: only then will they be enabled to proclaim His truth and manifest His beauty before men rather than promote their own popularity and success.
The Word of God is meant to be ever at work in our lives, as the prophet Isaiah, speaking in the name of the Lord tells us:
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (55:11)
The Scribe, as a Jew, preferred to limit the word "neighbour" to his fellow Jews; but, nevertheless, He felt uneasy about it and so he asked Jesus "who is my neighbour?" whereupon Jesus showed him that it was not possible to limit the significance of God's Word according to human prejudices. However, when -- at the end of the parable -- Jesus asked:
Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbour to the robbers’ victim?
The expert in the Law still could not bring himself utter the words "the Samaritan", so ingrained was his Jewish prejudice. He could only prevail upon himself to say:
The one who treated him with mercy.
We are like that in so many ways, and that is why the same prophet Isaiah proclaimed (66:2):
The Lord says, ‘on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word’.
We cannot determine or fix beforehand where the Word of God will lead us; Isaiah says we should tremble -- perhaps even thrill -- at the sound of it, because the Word of God is meant to work in us, and -- by the power of the Holy Spirit -- to change us, in accordance with plans God has for us: it is a harbinger of beauties as yet unseen and possibilities as yet unknown.
As we heard in the second reading all the fullness of God dwells in Jesus, and that is why we cannot try to restrict the effect of His Word in our lives. We are called to become children of God in Jesus, and if we are to be found in the likeness of Jesus we must be formed by His Spirit according to His Word. We must allow His Spirit to lead us wherever He wills if we are to reach the blessings prepared for us, blessings we cannot even begin to imagine of ourselves, let alone prepare for. The Spirit alone knows the depths of God, He alone is Holy and Wise, and we must trust ourselves to Him.
There are still today many who seek to control the effect of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit of God in their lives. Like the Jews of old, they want to form themselves according to their own fancies or in accordance with ideas of goodness and holiness popular in society around them. Today, for example, most people's idea of Christian goodness enables them to recognise and appreciate work done for the poor and for children in need; a life devoted to prayer, however, especially as a monk or nun in relative solitude, seems alien to them, perhaps, even inhuman. Modern ideas of sanctity usually involve soft words and attractive, pleasant, attitudes; on the other hand, clear doctrinal teaching and firm discipline in moral matters is thought to be unacceptably rigid and unsympathetic. And so, the modern disciple of Jesus will frequently be found trying to interpret the guidance of the Holy Spirit along broad, loose, lines acceptable to modern ideas of human rights, the freedom of individuals, and God’s gentle and accommodating goodness. However, holiness of this sort is just as false and inadequate as, and probably less sincere than, the exclusive holiness of the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' times.
People of God, listen to the Word of God as proclaimed by Mother Church, not that glibly quoted for popular acceptance by frequently self-appointed and self-taught gospellers. Beg the Holy Spirit to lead your life along the way of Jesus, to form you in Jesus’ likeness, and then try to answer God’s call to faith, trust, and love with a humble simplicity of mind and heart; do not allow your own prayerful thoughts and conscientious actions to be distorted or determined by the selfish pride, prejudices, and fears, of modern society.
The Spirit first led Jesus out into the desert and then along the most unlikely way of the Cross: the disciple of Jesus is not greater than his Master; he or she too, must be open, willing, and obedient, enough to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said (John 3:8):
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Finally, what is perhaps the greatest jewel hidden in the field of today’s readings:
Who was, Who is, the Good Samaritan? How could he just postpone, or at least seriously interrupt his journey to spend a night at the inn, where he was not likely to have been popular as a Samaritan? Why was he alone able to deal with the man’s wounds? Why did he not just pay the hotelier extra for that first day’s extra care, as well as for subsequent days’ care, ‘bed and board’? Was the Samaritan, in fact, a hint at Jesus Himself? He interrupted His journey by His suffering and death on Calvary; He alone could provide essential medicine for fallen man. Jesus did continue His journey to His heavenly home after having cured man’s grievous wound and then committed him to the care of His Church, the inn and hotelier in the story.