Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 11, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
The question the lawyer asks Jesus in today’s Gospel could be taken to be the great religious question: “What must I do to possess eternal life?” That is true, at least, if we don’t take “eternal life” to refer only to life beyond the grave, but take it to mean true life, authentic life, the only life worth living, even here and now. What must I do in order to live life as it ought to be lived? is the question, then. Jesus turns the question back upon the lawyer who then shows that he knows what is the most important element in such a life: total love of God and love of one’s neighbor as oneself. Praised by Jesus for his answer, he then tries to justify himself, and presses Jesus: “But who is my neighbor?” A question for which we may be grateful because it earned us the parable of the Good Samaritan.
A man is wounded and left for dead by thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite see him and go on by, no doubt for good reasons, they probably felt. It is a Samaritan who comes to the man’s help, binds his wounds, brings him to an inn, and pays for his care. The choice of the one who comes to the poor man’s aid was deliberate on Jesus’ part: he chose a Samaritan, a member of a people who for centuries lived alongside Jews in Palestine but were regarded by them as “half-breeds and apostates” (Dunn). It is one of these despised people who, as the lawyer has to admit, proved to be a neighbor to the wounded man, while the no doubt orthodox religious types passed on by.
Notice that Jesus does not directly answer the man: His last question to him is: “Who was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” “Neighbor” comes from the old words for “near” and “dweller”: a neighbor is one who dwells nearby. But there is nearness and there is nearness. The priest and the Levite, St. Augustine said, were near by birth to the wounded man, but the Samaritan, distant by birth, was near to him by mercy. It was the Samaritan’s mercy that recognized a neighbor in the man, his love that moved him near to him. This is why St. Augustine saw in the parable an image of our central Christian faith: The whole human race is that man left half-dead, he said, and Christ is the Samaritan who brings him for healing to the inn. That inn, he said in another sermon, is the Church, an inn in which we are being treated and cared for until the day when our wounds have healed enough for us to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Like the Samaritan, Christ became a neighbor to us.
It is a beautiful parable, pressing home to us in a very concrete way what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. One scholar has put it well: The neighbor whom we are to love as ourselves is “whoever God gives as neighbour on the road of everyday life” (J.D.G. Dunn) Our neighbor is the next person we encounter in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill, the homeless, the jobless, addicts, prisoners, immigrants. Our neighbor is anyone and everyone who needs to be loved, cared for, bandaged, healed. And we have no way of knowing who our next neighbor will be. Anyone of us could meet one within minutes of leaving this church this morning, and the challenge will be whether we pass on by, perhaps even for religious reasons, or whether, like the Samaritan, we stop and help.
In anticipation of this Gospel, we heard a beautiful section toward the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. which brings that book’s restating of the law of God to a challenging climax. Written during the Exile of Jews in Babylon, it anticipates the day when the people will have returned to the Lord with all their heart and all their soul, an obvious allusion to the first and greatest commandment cited by the lawyer in today’s Gospel. But our first reading says we are not to imagine that the great command is somewhere up in the sky or across the sea, so that it takes great effort to discover it. No, “it is something very near to you,” we are told, “already in your mouths and in your hearts.” We are reminded of the prophet Jeremiah’s words about the new Covenant that God would strike with Israel: “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts” (Jer 32:33).
This is what we believe has been given to us in the Holy Spirit: “The love of God,” St. Paul says, “has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” We are not commanded to do anything that is beyond the stars or across the seas. We are asked to live lives within the love of God revealed and made flesh in Christ and to live them from within ourselves, in his Spirit, as people whose love of God and love of neighbor is spontaneous and generous, natural to us.
To sum up: We are in one sense the wounded man whom Christ the Samaritan helped. In another sense, we enter the parable as potential Samaritans to the next person in whom we will encounter Christ in need. In need of Christ ourselves, we now must meet the needs of Christ.