The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37
Who are the people in your neighborhood? Who is your neighbor? This is the question of our gospel reading. It was a legitimate question to Jesus from the Jewish scholar, but it wasn’t asked with a legitimate intention.
There were over 600 statutes of the Jewish Law, stemming from the Ten Commandments, and other precepts, especially in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. So it was not unusual for the scribes (the trained biblical scholars) to ask a new teacher about his interpretation. One of the common ways to do this was to ask him to summarize his interpretation by identifying what he saw as the most important of the laws, his key for interpreting all the other laws. So this scholar asks Jesus what his opinion is of the key to salvation. And Jesus (who, unknown to them, is the very Law of God incarnate) responds by reversing the question back to the scholar, as if to say, I think it’s self-evident, what interpretation could there be? So the scholar then answers his own question to Jesus, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus respond to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” In Matthew’s Gospel, it’s Jesus who says these words. Here in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus inspires these words in his examiner.
The scholar then asks, “So who is my neighbor?” As I said at the beginning, it was a legitimate question to Jesus from the Jewish scholar, but it wasn’t asked with a legitimate intention. These two parts of the scholar’s answer come from two different places. The part about loving God with all your heart and strength comes from Deuteronomy 6. And the part about loving one’s neighbor as yourself comes from Leviticus 19. But if we look at that whole verse, it says, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” So the scholar’s question is, “Who is ‘my own people’? Is it my family? My tribe? All Jewish people? Just those striving to be pure and holy? How far is this love of neighbor like myself supposed to reasonably extend?” Jesus then responds to his question with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
What’s Jesus’ point about this parable? That it wasn’t the Temple Priest, and it wasn’t the Temple Levite (who spent their lives offering the Sacrifices of the Temple, and were experts in the Law) who gave the example of living out the law, but the no-good Samaritan, the despised outsider. Jesus was saying, your neighbor is not just fellow Israelites, fellow believers, fellow people who look and act and believe the same as you… which is not what the scholar wanted to hear, who wanted to constrict the command of love.
Your neighbor, whom you are obligated to love as you love yourself, is also the people you dislike, the people you’ve been having fights with, the people you ignore, the people who are strangers. And especially, your neighbor is anyone you see who is in need: the vulnerable, the outcast, the poor, and frightened. Your neighbor is every person who is made by God in His image, which is every person. What does it mean to love your neighbor? To do as the Samaritan did: to show mercy, to personally sacrifice, to put yourself out and become vulnerable, to invest yourself (in love) in their well-being and flourishing.
This comes into even clearer focus in light of the first reading. This is the basic law written into our nature of being a human person, natural law. That’s what Moses means when he tells the Israelites, “For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”
Carry what out? The basic human principle that is distorted by sin: that we are to love God, and to love every other person with the same love God has shown us, especially in Christ. Christ is humanity without sin. As the Church said in Vatican II, Christ not only reveals God to man, but reveals man to himself. That’s why we’re supposed to imitate Christ: not just because he’s God, which is very true and important, but because he’s man without the effects caused by sin. He’s man reset to factory settings, before the Fall, in intimate communion with God. In Christ’s example, and his teaching, he gives us images and example of what the Old Testament points us toward: what it means to truly be human.
To recap an earlier conversation we had, we often hear the question, “Do you need to be Christian to be a good person?” And the answer is, “YES.” Why? Because of sin. St Theresa of Avila says, if the “soul were always attached to God’s will, it is clear that it would not go astray. But the devil comes along with some skilled deception and… confuses it… Then little by little he darkens the intellect, cools the will’s ardor, and makes self-love grow until in one way or another he withdraws the soul from the will of God and brings it to his own.”
Almost everyone wants to consider themselves a good person. Which is good. We have the love and need for the good, the true, and the beautiful (which is God) written in our hearts. And much of what humanity does is good. But without the light of the true faith, people promote abortion, thinking it’s morally good. People promote false imitations of marriage (including cohabitation) thinking it’s morally good. People promote all sorts of bad things that offend love of God, love of our neighbor, and even our love of ourselves, because sin darkens the intellect. And then disordered sentiment (desire) pulls the intellect and the will to justify what it wants to be true, but isn’t. We can allow that darkness to control us, or we can cooperate with God who wants to heal us and free us, and then send us out in love to heal and free others by our testimony. Love and Truth go together, and cannot thrive if separated… because they can’t be separated, they have the same source, which is God. There are things that seem good, and seem just, and seem loving, but in truth, are not. To truly be good, to be holy (which is to be like God), we need the light of faith, and the grace of God given to us in the sacraments, to heal us from sin and error.
I’ll end with this quote from another Theresa, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (the religious name of St. Edith Stein), who was a Jewish-convert to the Catholic faith, and martyred by the Nazis in Auschwitz. St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote this, which beautifully summarizes our reflection on the Good Samaritan: “Our love for our fellow humans is the measure of our love for God. But it is different from a natural love of our neighbor. Natural love goes out to this one or that one, who may be close to us through the bond of blood or through a kinship of character or common interests. The rest then are ‘strangers’ who ‘do not concern’ us, who, it may be, eventually come to be repulsive, so that one keeps them as far away as possible from contact with us. For the Christian, there are no such ‘strangers.’ Rather, he is the ‘neighbor,’ this one who stands before us and who is in the greatest need of our help; it doesn’t matter whether he is related to us or not; whether we ‘like’ him or not; whether he is ‘morally worthy’ of help or not. The love of Christ knows no bounds, it never stops, it does not shrink back from ugliness and dirt. He came for the sake of sinners and not for the sake of the just. If the love of Christ lives in us then we will, like Him, go out after the lost sheep.”