15th. Sunday, Year (C)
(Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37)
"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 next going on to offer Jesus' self-sacrifice to the Father, and then finally, in Holy Communion, to surrender ourselves to Jesus that He might, by the gift of His Most Holy Spirit draw us with Himself to the Father: Lord Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus replied by asking the lawyer 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: You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.
The lawyer went on to try to justify himself, many would say, for having asked a question to which he already knew the answer; but was he, perhaps, rather choosing to humble himself yet further by revealing what was most deeply troubling him, thereby paying Jesus a notable double compliment by asking Him again:
And who is my neighbour?
Yes, he was an expert in the Law who knew well the words of the Law and it is quite customary to suspect that such a legal man was setting some sort of trap for, ‘testing’, Jesus; but Jewish spiritual training by God was at its peak when Jesus the Messiah came to His people and so I am prepared to take this particular lawyer seriously and suggest that here he was really asking Jesus to tell Him what the words ultimately meant, that his question was a true expression of the humility of a man becoming ever more humbly aware of the limits of his own learning and sincerely seeking to find the way to eternal life from One mysteriously wiser and better than he.
Often today self-styled experts and militant proselytisers attempt to show off their knowledge of the Bible by writing or reciting words from or about the Bible: words are their favourite medium. Spiritual appreciation, however, is much more demanding than a facility with biblical subjects and biblical words: it normally requires serious spiritual experience and training and a lot of personal discipline, it is not something just ‘picked up’ in the course of ordinary or even scholarly living; it demands an understanding which only comes from respect for, and submission to, God's revelation and Mother Church’s authoritative exposition of that revelation, along with her centuries old spiritual tradition arising from her appreciation of worthy responses to His subsequent historical initiatives; 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. 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 in the course of which the bandits of the Judean desert did not scruple to kill at times. In this particular case however, 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, passed by on the opposite side.
Both the priest and the Levite could well have recognized the victim as a fellow Jew, indeed, perhaps as a fellow priest or Levite. And yet, both of them, out of considerations perhaps for their own physical safety, legal purity, or other more personal and family reasons, passed him by. Finally, a Samaritan arrived on the scene.
Now, Samaritans were regarded as enemies by the Jews; and, generally, Samaritans reciprocated such sentiments. 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 one meaning of the word "neighbour" to the lawyer: for His story showed that an ‘enemy’ could -- should the occasion arise -- show himself to be a true neighbour; and consequently, it brought into question Jewish national pride and religious exclusiveness.
Notice this Samaritan, however: he was riding a horse/donkey, had plenty of money and time to spend on the injured man, was able to plan a return journey (a Samaritan going towards Jerusalem!) dangerous though it was especially for someone so obviously ‘well off’ and so unpopular as a Samaritan. Who is my neighbour? Who was the Samaritan?
Remember some Jews once said of Jesus (John 8:48–49):
“Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed?” Jesus answered, “I am not possessed; I honour My Father, but you dishonour Me.
Notice that Jesus did not deny the charge of being a Samaritan. Was He recognizing or reserving the title of ‘Good Samaritan’ for Himself?
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 favouring popular prejudice 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 may they possibly 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 (55:11) speaking in the name of the Lord tells us:
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.
The lawyer, as a Jew, had long learnt to limit the word "neighbour" to his fellow Jews; but, nevertheless, He was beginning to feel 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 Jesus finally asked him:
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. To which words Jesus rejoined: Go and do likewise.
We are all like that in so many ways, which is why the same prophet Isaiah proclaimed:
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’. (66:2)
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 divinity 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, therefore, 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.
Most people today seek to control/limit 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 in accordance with traditionally accepted models of goodness and holiness, or practices popular in society around them, or again, according to their own fancies. 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 likely to be just as false and inadequate as, and possibly less sincere than, the more 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 to that so 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, secret prejudices, and rampant fears (suicide rather than God-willed death, flee His face rather than welcome His coming) 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:
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. (John 3:8)
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 ready and able to deal personally with the man’s wounds, why did he not just pay the hotelier extra for that first partial day’s care, as well as for the subsequent days’ care, ‘bed and board’? Was the Samaritan, in fact, a hint at Jesus Himself? The lawyer was asking ‘who is the neighbour to whom I should do good’ but there is the hidden question ‘who is the neighbour doing such good in the parable?’ Jesus is indubitably the supreme and most sublime ‘neighbour’ for mankind, and He was truly seeking to help this humble despite-being-learned lawyer to realize that he must ultimately learn how to put himself under the guidance of the Spirit of the coming Kingdom of God which Jesus was both proclaiming and introducing.
Jesus’ own journey would be interrupted His suffering and death on Calvary before coming back again to journey upwards toward the heavenly Jerusalem. In the meantime, after having cured mankind’s grievous wound -- for He alone could provide such uniquely essential medicine for fallen man -- He then committed him to the care of His Church, the inn and hotelier in His parable.
Today we are invited to humbly rejoice in the wonder and the mystery of Jesus: to think over, mediate on, His wisdom, His goodness, and the challenge His sublimity offers our understanding and appreciation of His oneness with us. A Sunday can pass by quickly chewing such cud!