The Parable of the Good Samaritan is often read by many in a rather single manner to mean that we ought to be more generous to those in need or that we ought to not neglect those who suffer. Perhaps too, that racial and ethnic boundaries must be overcome as we broaden what it means to consider some one a neighbor. All of this is fine enough, there are plenty of social justice themes at work here to permit such a reading and they ought not be neglected. But as is always the case with scripture, there is more at work here than the merely obvious interpretation. In effect the whole passage before us goes a long way to show some of the deeper drives we have regarding the pride and self-righteousness, along with a stubborn tendency we have to reduce holiness to something “manageable” and merely human. Let’s take a look.
1. There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) – On the face of it this question is absurd. It is rooted in self-justifying notions. What must I DO to obtain eternal life….The simple fact is that we cannot save ourselves. We do not have the resources to obtain eternal life. No amount of human flesh power could even come close to paying the debt we owe. We do not have a rocket ship powerful enough to fly to heaven. We have no ladder tall enough to climb there. The lawyer’s flawed question sets him up for a series of misunderstandings about salvation and the absolute need for grace. Because he thinks that eternal life is somehow in his power to obtain it he looks more and more foolish as the interaction goes on.
2. Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “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.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:26-28) In way Jesus is humoring him and drawing him out. The man has suggested that salvation is in his power to accomplish. So, in effect Jesus says to him, “Since you think such a thing is possible, explain to me how you think so with your legal background.” The lawyer quotes the great Shema, the summary of the whole law contained in Deuteronomy 6. Now there is nothing wrong with the Law, and so Jesus says, “You have answered rightly.” But what IS wrong is thinking that this law is within my own unaided flesh power to keep. To love God with our whole heart, mind, being and strength is a remarkable call that should not be taken lightly or reduced a few ritual tokenary things. The honest truth is that most human beings do not love God this way and NO human being apart from grace even stands a chance of getting close. The human mind and heart apart from grace have been so wounded as to make such a law unattainable. The fact is not only do human beings (apart form grace) not love God with their whole heart, they barely give him leftovers. The usual human approach is to serve myself and the world and then, from whatever is left, I’ll throw a few scraps to God. I’ll pray, if I have time left over at the end of my busy worldly day. I’ll read scripture if it doesn’t interfere with my watching of the sports event or soap opera. I’ll put money in the collection plate after I pay my mortgage, Sears bill, magazine subscriptions and see what is left over. I’ll follow the teachings of God so long as they don’t interfere with my politics or worldview. So God barely gets leftovers from most people and that includes many who describe themselves as religious. For us to think we, by ourselves, are really going to pull off loving God with our whole heart, mind, being and strength or even come close is absurd on the face of it. And we haven’t even considered loving our neighbor yet! Jesus answers the lawyer (probably with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek) “Do this and you will live.” 🙂 He might as well have told him to leap a tall building in a single bound or to define the universe and give three examples. Does the lawyer really have any idea what it means to “do this?!” Surely not, as we see next.
3. But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) And now we surely have reached the endgame of legalism and trying to be justified by our own flesh power. In effect the Lawyer says, “OK, if I have to love my neighbor as myself, let’s keep the meaning of neighbor as minimal and manageable as possible.” In other words if there are too many neighbors running around, with the requirement that I love them as myself, I might not be able to pull the thing off. So let’s dumb down and minimize what and who is meant by neighbor. This is what the flesh does. It salutes God’s law but doesn’t really take it seriously. The usual tactic of the flesh is to argue about meaning (e.g. the famous, “That depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.”) and then to minimize the observance as much as possible by all sorts of legalistic minimalism. Hence the lawyer seeks to quibble over a precise definition of “neighbor” and keep that category as small and minimal as possible. He has to do this because he wants to accomplish the Shema on his own, by his own merit and power.
4. Jesus doesn’t take the bait and goes on to tell the well known parable of the Good Samaritan. With it he devastates the concept of a small manageable notion of neighbor. Neighbor cuts across national, ethnic, religious and political boundaries to encompass…..everyone. Jesus will not accept the reductionist demands of the flesh and its legalism.
5. He also sets aside another form of reductionism in the parable, that of religious reductionism. A priest and Levite pass also and refuse to help to victim by the roadside. Perhaps they were afraid, perhaps they had concerns about blood which would render them unclean and unfit for Temple duties. But whatever their reasons they also represent the human tendency to think we can buy God off by religious observances. If I go to Church, pay my tithes, and say a few prayers I can check off the “God box,” consider myself righteous and to have met all my duties. It becomes all too easy to walk past the needy, to walk past injustice, to tolerate evil, to remain silent and protect my hide and ego and all the while think God won’t mind because I sat in the pew last Sunday. This is just another form of reductionism and the Lord’s parable makes it clear that he is not impressed. We can’t buy God off. We ought to be in Church every Sunday, financially support the word of God, pray and so one. There is no excuse for not doing these things. But they are not the end of faith, they are the beginning of faith. If I really sat in the pew last Sunday to any real effect that I cannot walk on past the needy, ignore injustice, tolerate evil or remain silent in the face of error.
6. Thus in the end the love of God and neighbor are expansive loves that go beyond the ability of the unaided flesh to do. Without the healing of grace we are simply too selfish, greedy, egotistical, thin-skinned, resentful, envious, bitter, lustful and revengeful to even come close to loving God and our neighbor the way that is described. We have to stop playing games with God’s Word and stop trying to explain it in a way that makes it manageable. God’s word means what it says. And, with our unaided flesh it is impossible to fulfill it.
7. What then are we to do? Seek lots of grace and mercy. This parable is about more than caring for the poor. It is also about the absolute need for grace. Only with tons of grace and mercy do we even stand a chance in coming close to what the Shema sets forth. Only God can really give God the love he deserves. Only God can really love the poor as they ought to be loved. That is why we have to die to our self and allow Jesus Christ to live his life in us. He does this through the sacraments fruitfully received, through faith mediation on his Word and through prayer. Those who faithfully attend Mass and regularly receive communion worthily, those who confess their sins frequently and fruitfully receive the graces of that sacrament, those who faithfully and thoughtfully meditate on God’s Word, begin to experience a transformation that enables them to love. They receive a new heart and a new mind, the heart and mind of Christ. As Christ lives in them they see the Shema come alive, they begin to love God above all things and their neighbor as their very self. And it is not they who do it. It is Christ who does it in them.
8. What must I do to inherit eternal life? I must decrease and Christ must increase (Jn 3:30). I must die so that Christ may live in me (Gal 2:19-20).
The audio version of my homily is here: Going Deeper with the Good Samaritan
This song says, “When you see me trying to do good, It’s just Jesus in me….Loving my neighbor like a Christian should, It’s just Jesus in me.”