If we are not careful, the Gospel today could easily be reduced to a kind of moralism which says, in effect, “Help people in trouble….be kind to strangers…etc.” While these are certainly good thoughts, this gospel, I would argue, is about far deeper things than mere human kindness or ethics. This is a gospel about the transformative power of God’s love and of our need to receive it.It is not a gospel that can be understood as a demand of the flesh, it is a Gospel that describes the transformative power of God’s love.
Lets look at the Gospel in three stages.
I. The Radical Requirements of Love – As the Gospel opens there is a discussion between Jesus and a scholar of the Law as to a basic summation of the Law. The text says, There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 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.
The Shema, a summary of the Law, known to every Jew is quoted by the lawyer here. And it will be noted how often the word “all” occurs. There is a radicality to the call of love that cannot be avoided. When it comes to love there is no mere call to give what is reasonable, to give, a little, perhaps even a tithe. No, the call is to give God ALL our heart, mind, being and strength. And we are to love our neighbor as though thy were our very self.
Now as we shall see in a minute, our flesh recoils at this sort of open demand and wants immediately to qualify and quantify it somehow.The flesh seeks refuge in law and says, “What is the minimum, what is the bottom line, what is the least I can do to meet the requirements and qualify?”
But love is, by its nature open-ended and generous. Love is extravagant and wants to do more. Love seeks the beloved and wants to please, wants to care. A young man who loves his fiance does not say, “What is the cheapest gift I can get you for your birthday?” Rather no, he will see an opportunity to show his love and may even spend too much. Love does not think, “What is the least I can do?” Love says, “What more can I do?” Love is expansive and extravagant.
And thus the great Shema speaks to the open-ended and extravagant quality of love.
But as we have already noted, the flesh, that fallen and sin soaked part of our nature recoils at such expansive talk and, as we shall now see, brings the stingy lawyer out in us that negotiates for lesser terms.
II. The Reductionism that Resists Love – Having given the beautiful answer of love our lawyer (and there is a lawyer in all of us) now reverts to form and speaks out of his flesh. The text says, But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In other words, “Look, if I have to love my neighbor, lets get this category as small and manageable as possible.”
Note how quickly he has retreated into a kind of fearful reaction to the broad expanse of love. His fear is likely rooted in the fact that he has reduced the Shema into a moralism, as if he, out of his own flesh power had to pull the whole thing off. And thus he recoils and demands terms of surrender. Since he thinks he has to do, he need to get its scope into the range of something HE can do. And thus perhaps he is willing to consider the people on his block to be his neighbor. But two or three blocks away, well that is just too much.
So the fearful lawyer in him has started negotiating a kind of “debt relief” where he seeks to “define down” the category “neighbor.” As we shall see, the Lord is not buying it, and will expand it even farther than the Jewish notions of his day.
Now, to be fair to the lawyer in this passage, there is a lawyer in all of us suing for terms of settlement. And while it is not wrong for us to ask for guidance in specifying the law a bit, we all know that “the lawyer ” in all of us is really seeking more to evade the demands, than fulfill them.
In a way we are all like the typical teenager. Every teenager, without having gone to law school is a natural lawyer. Give a teenager a rule, and they will parse every nuance of it to seek to avoid its demands, or to water it down in some sense.
Some years ago I was teaching 7th grade religion in our Catholic school. I told the kids, “Do your work, and no talking.” Within moments a young lady started singing. Interestingly her name was “Carmen” (which means “song” in Latin). When I rebuked her for breaking the no-talking rule she replied, “I wasn’t talking, I was singing…and you didn’t say anything about singing.” Yes, a natural born lawyer.
I remember too my thoughts in high school that I couldn’t break the 6th commandment (forbidding adultery) since I wasn’t married and certainly wouldn’t be intimate with a married woman since they were all “old.” Yes, the lawyer at work in me, but answered by Jesus in Matt 5:27-30.
And this is how we are in our rebellious, fearful and resentful flesh. Hearing a law, we go to work at once and seek to hyper-specify it, parse every word, seek every nuance and try to evade its vision in every way possible. If we are going to follow it at all, we seek the minimum possible outlay of effort.
So often Catholics and other Christians talk more like lawyers than lovers: “Do I have to go to confession? How often? Do I have to pray, how long!? Do I have to give to the poor? How much? How come I can’t do something? It’s not so bad…everyone else is doing it…..”
Sometimes too we seek to reduce holiness to perfunctory religious observance. Look, I go to Mass, I put something in the collection, I said my prayers….what more do you want? Perhaps we think, in a way, that if we do certain ritual observances which are good in themselves and required, that we have bought God off and do not need to look at other matters in our life. And thus the thinking is that since I go to Mass and say a few prayers, I have checked off the “God-box” and don’t really need to look at my lack of forgiveness, my harsh tongue, or lack of generosity.
This is reductionism. It is the lawyer at work in all of us seeking to evade the extravagance of love by hiding behind some legal minimalism. It emerges from a kind of fear generated by the notion that I, by my own unaided flesh power, am supposed to pull this whole thing off. No, actually you can’t. But God can, and this is why he commands it of us.
Our fleshly notions have to die, and our spirit must come alive with the virtue of hope that relies trustingly on God’s grace to bring a vigorous and loving response alive in us. Law and the flesh say, “What are the minimum requirements?” Love says, “What more can I do?”
Here is the gift of a loving heart that we must seek. And of this gift, the lord now paints a picture.
III. The Response that Reflects Love – The Lord then paints a picture of what his love and grace can do in someone. The text says, Jesus replied,”A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.
Now, there is a very important phrase that must not be missed, for it gives the key to the Samaritan man’s actions. The phrase is “was moved.” Note that the verb “was moved” is in the passive voice, he WAS moved. That is to say it was not so much he who acted, but that he was acted upon.
More specifically, Love and grace have moved within him and are moving him. The Greek verb here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplagchnisthe), a third person singular passive verb, meaning “to be deeply moved,” or “to be moved to compassion.” The verb is also in the aorist tense signifying something that has happened but also has a kind of on-going action.
Why is this phrase “was moved” so important? Because it indicates for us the gift of grace. So many of our fears about what God asks, and love demands, are rooted in a notion that we must do them out of our own flesh. No, that is not the gospel. In the New Covenant the keeping of the Law is received, not achieved. The keeping of the Commandments is a work of God in us to which we yield. To keep the commandments and fulfill the Law is the result of love, not the cause of it.
We do not know the Samaritan’s history, the Lord does not supply it, and since this is only a story, the Samaritan is only a literary figure.
But for us, the teaching must be clear: Our receiving and experiencing of Love is and must be the basis of our keeping of the Law. Having experienced and received God’s love for us equips, empowers and enables us to respond extravagantly as joyful lovers, rather than fearful lawyers.
Love lightens every load. When we love God, and when we love people, we want to do what love requires. And even if there are difficulties involved, love makes us eager to respond anyway.
Many years ago in the 7th grade I found myself quite taken by a pretty girl named Shelly. Yes, I was quite “in-love.” One day she was in the hall trying to carry a lot of books to the library and I saw my chance! I offered to carry those books at once. Now I was skinny as a rail, no muscles at all in those days, and those books were heavy! But I was glad to do it despite the effort. Love does that, it lightens every load and makes us eager to help, even at great cost.
A silly story perhaps of a dorky teenager (me), but in far more significant ways, love does this! It “moves” us to be generous, kind, merciful, patient and even extravagant. AND, we don’t do what we do because we have to, but because we want to.
The Samaritan in this story, was “moved” with and by love to overcome race and nation, fear and danger. He generously gave his time and money to save a brother and fellow traveler.
And so too for us, Let love lift you. Let it empower you, equip you and enable you! Go to the Lord and pray for a deeper experience of His love. Open the door of your heart and let the Love of God in. Go to the foot of the cross and remember what the Lord has done for you. Let what he has done be so present in your mind and heart that you are grateful and different. Let God’s love come alive in you.
And I promise you, as a witness, that love lightens every load and makes us eager to keep the commandments, to help others, to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, and kind, and to courageously speak the truth in love to others. Yes, I am a witness that love can and does change us. I’m not what I want to be, but I am not what I used to me. Love has lifted me and lightened every load.
Today’s gospel is not a moralism, as if to say: be kind to strangers, and help the down and out. Fine though such thoughts are, that is not the main point here. The main point here is, let the Lord’s love in your heart and you will do what love does; and you will do it extravagantly, not because you have to, but because you want to.
The grace of Love lightens every load and equips for every good work.
This song says, More of his saving fulness see, more of his love who died for me.