Wednesday, July 6, 2016

LAW OR LOVE?

15TH Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.  Luke 10:25-37.
AIM: To show the meaning of the good Samaritan parable for us today.
The story we have just heard is so well known that its title, AThe good Samaritan@, has entered into everyday speech. Even people unfamiliar with the New Testament know that Aa good Samaritan@ is someone who helps a person in need.
Asked by Aa scholar of the law@ B a man who has studied the Ten Commandments and the centuries of rabbinic commentary on God=s law B about the conditions for eternal life, Jesus poses a counter-question: AWhat is written in the law?  How do you read it?@ As a good teacher, Jesus knew that people remember best the answers they have found themselves. Answers given us by the teacher cost us nothing and are easily forgotten. The man=s response combines two scriptural texts: the command to love God completely in Deuteronomy 6:5 and the command to Alove your neighbor as yourself@ from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus= reply affirms this answer: AYou have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.@
The man says he still has a difficulty. It is not a moral difficulty C how to love God and neighbor. His difficulty is intellectual: how far does his obligation extend?  AAnd who is my neighbor?@ With his unique ability to read hearts and minds, Jesus perceives the man=s real difficulty at once. By assuming that he has all the ability to love that is required and needs only to know the limits to which he must extend his love, the man has disclosed that his love is seriously deficient. Jesus recognizes that what the man really needs is not instruction but conversion. With great tact, and without allowing the man to feel rebuked, Jesus tells a story.
The seventeen-mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho leads, even today, through trackless sand dunes with no sign of human habitation save the occasional Bedouin tent. In Jesus= day, robberies and muggings were frequent along this lonely way. In the prevailing daytime heat a severely wounded man=s chances of survival were slim without first aid. The victim in this story has been beaten and stripped of his clothes. He has lost a great deal of blood and is in shock. He lies unconscious, his condition critical. Jesus himself calls the man Ahalf-dead.@
The first two travelers to come by, first a Jewish priest and then a Levite, are returning to Jericho, a town with a large population of clergy, after their eight-day tour of duty at the Temple in Jerusalem. Both Asaw him [but] passed by on the opposite side.@ We need not assume that they were indifferent to the man=s fate. They might have feared that the muggers were still lurking nearby, waiting to strike again. In that case it would be best not to linger. Another motive for not stopping, especially if the man was dead, was unwillingness to incur ritual impurity through touching a dead body.
In Jesus= day, as in ours, people were familiar with stories that had three characters. Following the appearance of two clergy, therefore, Jesus= hearers would have expected that the next passerby would be a Jewish layman. As so often, however, Jesus surprises us. When the next passerby turns out to be a Samaritan, Jesus= hearers are shocked. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans was notorious, something like that between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq today. Shortly before the passage we are considering, Samaritan villagers refuse to give Jesus lodging, because they recognize him as a Jew, Aon his way to Jerusalem@ (Lk 9:53).
Devout Jews had a special aversion to Samaritans because, though ethnically related to God=s people, they did not recognize the Jewish prophets and did not observe God=s law. The actions of this Samaritan show, however, that he is living the law=s spirit far better than Jesus= questioner with all his knowledge of the law=s letter. Like the priest and Levite, the Samaritan Asees@ the man. Unlike them, however, he is Amoved to compassion.@
The Samaritan gives the unconscious victim first aid: oil for its soothing properties, wine as a disinfectant. Taking him to the nearby inn, he remains with him overnight. Jesus makes this clear by saying that the man gave the innkeeper two silver pieces Athe next day.@ Commentators have calculated that this would pay for the man=s care for twenty-four days. His injuries are obviously grave if he must remain so long. Innkeepers in Jesus= day had a reputation like that of taxi drivers in some parts of the world today. Without this generous payment, and the Samaritan=s promise that he would return to take care of any further expenses, the victim would have been at the innkeeper=s mercy.
As the story ends, Jesus has still not answered the question, AAnd who is my neighbor?@ Instead he has shown how a true neighbor behaves. He remains tactful with his questioner, however. He might have asked: AWhich of these three most resembles yourself?@ Such a question would have put the man on the defensive, blocking the change of heart he needed. Rather than confronting his questioner with a lesson difficult for him to accept, Jesus invites the man to draw his own conclusion. AWhich of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers= victim?@
The answer is obvious: AThe Samaritan.@ We see just how difficult it was for the man to state the obvious, with its uncomfortable implications, from the fact that he cannot even utter the name of the despised outsider. He resorts to a circumlocution: AThe one who treated him with mercy.@
Only when the man has himself stated what no one hearing the story could fail to see, does Jesus confront him directly: AGo and do likewise.@ At last the man has his answer C though even now only by implication. His neighbor, the one who has a claim on him C on his time, his trouble, his purse C is anyone at all who is in need. The man had asked about the limits of neighborly obligation. The parable says in effect: >there are no limits.=

 Only when the man has himself stated what no one hearing the story could fail to see, does Jesus confront him directly: AGo and do likewise.@ At last the man has his answer C though even now only by implication. His neighbor, the one who has a claim on him C on his time, his trouble, his purse C is anyone at all who is in need. The man had asked about the limits of neighborly obligation. The parable says in effect: >there are no limits.=

 Only when the man has himself stated what no one hearing the story could fail to see, does Jesus confront him directly: AGo and do likewise.@ At last the man has his answer C though even now only by implication. His neighbor, the one who has a claim on him C on his time, his trouble, his purse C is anyone at all who is in need. The man had asked about the limits of neighborly obligation. The parable says in effect: >there are no limits.=

That is breathtaking. It would be breathtaking, that is, if the story=s sharp cutting edge had not been dulled for us, like so much of Scripture, by familiarity.  How, we ask, can Jesus make such a radical demand? For one reason alone: because this is the way he, Jesus Christ, treats us. Jesus is the despised outsider, hated and rejected by those who ought to have known, recognized, and welcomed him.

Jesus is the one who finds us lying bruised, battered, mortally wounded along life=s way. Without the help that he alone can supply, our situation is hopeless. For no merits of our own, but simply because of his infinite compassion, Jesus comes to our aid. Heedless of the cost to himself, he binds up our wounds, pouring upon us the healing oil of his forgiveness in the sacraments of baptism and penance, the exhilarating wine of his love in his holy word and in the Eucharist. He entrusts us to the care of his Church, promising to come again and again as often as may be necessary, to tend to our every need. Because of this total generosity toward us in our need, a readiness to help which caused Jesus to lay down his life for us, he is able to say to us: ASee how much I have done for you C look what I am doing for you even now! Then go and do the same for others.@        

The man who asks Jesus, AWhat must I do to inherit eternal life?@ is like many sincerely religious people today. Wanting to do what is right, he develops a spirit directly contrary to God=s law, even when he thinks he is obeying the law. His question, AAnd who is my neighbor?@ shows that he was unable to get beyond the law=s details. To be cured, he needed to encounter the Lawgiver. 

His name is Jesus Christ.