15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 11, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
There is at first sight a certain contrast between two of our readings and the third. As you surely have noticed, the first reading, usually from the Old Testament, is chosen in anticipation of the Gospel reading, the two of them combining to offer one theme that a preacher might choose to expand upon. Meanwhile, the second reading, usually from an Epistle of St. Paul, offers a distinct theme for reflection. Today the two sets of readings–OT and Gospel, on the one hand, and Epistle, on the other–do not only differ; they seem to be in contrast to one another
The reading from Deuteronomy is part of the last instructions that Moses gives the Israelites before they are to enter the promised land, a plaintive call for them to keep the commandments of the Lord, to return to him with all their heart and all their soul. He insists on the simplicity of what God enjoins: it is not mysterious or remote; it’s not off in the sky or across the sea so that someone has to go there to get it. “No,” Moses says, “ it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”
The Gospel passage illustrates the proximity, familiarity almost, of what God requires. To the lawyer who asks how to inherit eternal life, Jesus evokes from him a text that echoes our first reading: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s it, Jesus replies: Do this and you shall live.” But who is my neighbor, the lawyer asks, perhaps somewhat defensively. And Jesus responds with the parable of the good Samaritan, of the man who sees the need of a stranger he happens upon and acts to meet them. That’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself–it means to act as a neighbor to the next person you meet. You don’t have to work out grand theory or an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts: be alert, and you will find God’s will for you in the next good thing you can do to a brother or sister.
How concrete this all is! The whole range of Christian moral life reduced to its essential–not mysterious, not remote, not complicated–but simple, immediate, obvious: Love the next needy person you encounter.
And is there not a contrast between this simplicity and directness and the magnificent hymn we have heard in our second reading? Scholars disagree as to whether Paul is here quoting an early Christian hymn in praise of Christ or whether he himself may have composed it, drawing upon an already existing tradition of Christian hymnody. In any case, here we have, within a few decades of Christ’s death and resurrection, a poem that speaks in the most exalted terms of the same Jesus of Nazareth we encounter in today’s Gospel. He has a primacy in creation–“the firstborn of all creation”–and a primacy in redemption–“the firstborn from the dead”; all creation is in him and through him and for him: all things hold together in him. And he is the head of the community of the redeemed, the one in whom all things are reconciled, the one who has made peace through the blood of his cross.
It would take centuries for the Church’s full faith in Christ to become conscious and articulate, but the essential steps had already been taken by the time this hymn was composed and sung at early Christian liturgies. It in a sense anticipates the formal liturgy and creedal formulae which we enact and recite every Sunday.
Some might be tempted not only to notice a contrast in our readings but even to see a contradiction in them: the simplicity of the Gospel vs. the beginnings of the elaborate dogmas and complicated theologies that seem precisely mysterious, remote and distant. I don’t think we have to choose between the two. I would relate them in this way: the Gospel sets out in utterly available and comprehensive terms where our central Christian duties lie: in the service of God and of the next needy person we meet. But Christian motivation for fulfilling this duty is not simply that we are commanded by Christ, but because we believe that in him God has himself come to the aid of needy humanity. That is why a number of the Church Fathers, St. Augustine most especially, saw in the parable of the Good Samaritan also a parable of Christ himself: Christ was the Good Samaritan who encountered a battered and bleeding humanity and stopped and came to his aid. This is the dimension of the divine gift in Christ that the hymn in today’s reading is celebrating. See who this is who has met us and aided us in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. See that he is himself the key to the meaning of the universe, the one in whom, through whom, for whom all things were made; this is the one whose blood has reconciled us with one another and with God.
The hymn to Christ, in other words, describes the God whom we worship, defines the value he placed upon us if the blood of Christ was the price of our redemption, holds out the model for our own Christian living. The hymn does not take us away from the immediacy of the encounter with Christ in the next needy person we encounter; instead it reminds us of the great love that our own efforts are supposed to mirror in our world today.