One could easily reduce this Sunday’s Gospel to trite moral advice such as this: Help people in trouble; be kind to strangers. While these are certainly good thoughts, I would argue that it is about far deeper things than human kindness or ethics. This is a Gospel about the transformative power of God’s love and our need to receive it. It is not a Gospel that can be understood as a demand of the flesh.
Let’s 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 scholar quotes the Shema, a summary of the law known to every Jew. Notice how often the word “all” occurs. There is a radical nature to the call of love that cannot be avoided. When it comes to love, the requirement is not to give what is reasonable, to give a little, or perhaps to give a tithe. No, the call is to give God all our heart, mind, being, and strength, and to love our neighbor as though he were our very self.
Our flesh recoils at this sort of open demand; immediately we want to qualify it and quantify it somehow. The flesh seeks refuge in law, asking, “What is the minimum I can do while still meeting the requirements?”
Love, however, is by its very nature open-ended and generous. Love is extravagant; it wants to do more. Love wants to please the beloved. A young man in love does not say to himself, “What is the cheapest gift I can get her for her birthday?” No, he will see an opportunity to show his love; he may even spend too much. Love does not think, “What is the least I can do?” Love thinks, “What more can I do?” Love is expansive and extravagant.
The flesh, that fallen and sin-soaked part of our nature, blanches at such expansive talk and brings out the lawyer in us, negotiating for lesser terms.
II. The Reductionism that Resists Love – After giving the beautiful answer about love, the scholar of the law (and there is a lawyer in all of us) reverts to form and speaks out of his flesh. The text continues, But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In other words, he wants to say, “If I have to love my neighbor, let’s make this ‘neighbor’ 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 moral platitude, as if he could pull the whole thing off out of his own power. He recoils and demands more favorable terms of surrender. Because he thinks he has to do it all on his own, he tries to reduce the scope to something manageable. Perhaps he is willing to consider the people on his block to be his neighbors, but those two or three blocks away? That’s just too much.
The fearful lawyer in him has started negotiating a kind of debt relief. He seeks to narrow down this “neighbor” category. The Lord isn’t buying it; He will expand the concept even further than the Jewish notions of the day.
To be fair, there is a lawyer in all of us, always negotiating for more favorable terms. And while it is not wrong to ask for some guidance in understanding the law, we all know that the lawyer in us is trying more to evade the terms than fulfill them.
In a way each of us is like the typical teenager. Every teenager seems to be a natural-born lawyer. Give a teenager a rule and he will parse every nuance of it in order to escape its demands or water down the terms.
Some years ago, I was teaching 7th grade religion in our parish’s 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 rule, she replied, “I wasn’t talking; I was singing … and you didn’t say anything about singing.”
I remember my thoughts when I was in high school: I couldn’t break the 6th commandment (forbidding adultery) because I wasn’t married and certainly wouldn’t be intimate with a married woman since they were all “old.” Yes, the lawyer in me was at work.
This is how we are in our rebellious, fearful, and resentful flesh. Hearing a law, we go to work at once, parsing every word, examining every nuance so as to evade its intent in every way possible. If we are going to follow the law at all, we’re going to try to find a way that involves the least possible 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? Why can’t I do that? It’s not so bad; besides, 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 basket; I say my prayers. What more do you want? Perhaps we think that if we do certain ritual observances (which are good in themselves) we have bought God off and do not need to look at other matters in our life. Because I go to Mass and say a few prayers, I can put a check mark in the “God box” and don’t really need to look at my lack of forgiveness, my harsh tongue, or my lack of generosity.
This is reductionism. It is the lawyer in us at work, seeking to avoid the extravagance of love by hiding behind legal minimalism. It emerges from a kind of fear generated by the notion that we must be able to do everything on our own, by the power of our own flesh. But that’s not possible. You can’t pull it off on your own. But God can, and that is why He commands it of us.
Our fleshly notions have to die. Our spirit must come alive with the virtue of hope that relies trustingly on God’s grace to bring out a vigorous and loving response in us. Law and the flesh say, “What are the minimum requirements?” Love says, “What more can I do?” This is the gift of a loving heart that we must seek.
III. The Response that Reflects Love – The Lord then paints a picture of what His love and grace can accomplish in someone: 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.”
There is a very important phrase that must not be missed, for it gives the key to the Samaritan man’s actions: “… [he] was moved with compassion ….” Note that the sentence uses the passive voice (“was moved”). That is to say, it was not so much that the Samaritan acted, but that he was acted upon.
More specifically, love and grace have moved within him and are moving him. The Greek verb used 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 that something has happened but also that it has a kind of ongoing dimension to it.
Why is this phrase “was moved” so important? Because it indicates the power of the gift of grace. So many of our fears about what God asks and what love demands are rooted in the idea that we must accomplish them out of our own flesh—that is not the message of this Gospel. In the New Covenant, the keeping of the Law is received, not achieved. The keeping of the commandments is a work of God within us to which we yield. Keeping the commandments and fulfilling the law are the results of love, not the causes of it.
We do not know the Samaritan’s history; the Lord does not provide it to us. He is telling a story and the Samaritan is only a literary character in it.
We must clearly understand the teaching of today’s Gospel: Our receiving and experiencing of love is and must be the basis of our keeping of the law. Experiencing and receiving God’s love for us equips, empowers, and enables us to respond extravagantly as joyful lovers rather than as fearful lawyers.
Love lightens every load. When we love God and love other people, we want to do what love requires. Even if there are difficulties that must be overcome, love makes us eager to respond anyway.
When I was in the 7th grade, I found myself quite taken by a pretty girl named Shelly. I was “in love.” One day she was walking down the hall struggling to carry a pile of books to the library; I saw my chance! I jumped in and offered to carry her books. Mind you, I was skinny as a rail with no muscles at all, and those textbooks 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.
Perhaps it’s just a silly story of an awkward teenager, but it demonstrates what love does. It “moves” us to be generous, kind, merciful, patient, and even extravagant. 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, nationality, fear, and danger. He generously gave his time and money to save a fellow traveler.
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.
As a witness, I promise you that love lightens every load and makes us eager to keep the commandments, to help others, to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, to be kind, and to 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’m not what I used to be. Love has lifted me and lightened every load of mine.
Again, today’s Gospel is not mere moral advice. The main point is that we must let the Lord’s love into our heart. If we do, we will do what love does and we will do it extravagantly—not because we have to but because we want to.
The grace of love lightens every load and equips us for every good work.
This song says, “More of His saving fullness see, more of His love who died for me”