25th Sunday after Pentecost
In the Gospel reading for today, our Lord is approached by a certain lawyer who attempts to test Him by asking: ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’
Our Lord Jesus Christ tosses this question back to him, asking: ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’
The lawyer then summarizes the teachings of the Old Testament, answering: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Christ affirms the wisdom of his response, saying: ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you shall live.’
But the lawyer, the Gospel tells us, wished to justify himself, and therefore said to Jesus: ‘And who is my neighbor?’
Let us reflect a moment today on why the Gospel says that he wished to justify himself with this question. And then let us think about the significance of Christ’s reply in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.
How is it that the young lawyer might justify himself by asking the Lord, who is my neighbor? Within the culture prevalent at that time, members of one tribe would only consider other members of their tribe to be their neighbors. Those outside their tribe or caste would be ‘outsiders’ indeed… not worthy of respect or even consideration.
So, for a Jew… a Samaritan would certainly not be considered their neighbor. For a Pharisee… an uneducated person would be considered beneath them and certainly would not qualify as a ‘neighbor’.
It is highly likely that the young lawyer, especially given his wise answer summarizing the love of God and neighbor, would have been kind and generous to those within his social circle. He may have sought justification for his good deeds among those whom he considered to be his neighbors.
But Christ our Lord had a new message to give to us… In His preaching and by His actions He continually broke down the assumptions and the comfort of social and religious boundaries. He deigned to speak and interact with the outcasts of Jewish society… prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and others.
In response to the question: ‘Who is my neighbor?’, our Lord tells the tale of the Good Samaritan. A certain man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and had been robbed and beaten and left for dead. A priest came by and, when he saw the beaten man, he passed by on the other side of the road. Likewise, when a Levite came by, he too passed by on the other side of the road. But then along came a Samaritan – one of the lowest classes of people in society – and, when he saw the beaten man, he had compassion and helped him: bandaging his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, and setting him up in an inn where he could recover and be made well.
The priest, who spent his time in the temple in prayer; and the Levite, who spent his time studying the Jewish Scriptures… neither of these two could be bothered to help the wounded man. It was the despised Samaritan who proved to be a neighbor, who showed mercy on the man who had fallen among thieves.
Christ drives home two important and groundbreaking points in this parable.
Many religious people of the time (and, shall we not also say of our time?) contented themselves with their religious observances of daily prayer in the temple, study of the Scriptures, and goodwill toward those members of their particular caste – those perceived to be their neighbor.
Christ’s parable blows apart the comfort and compartmentalization that allows us to lull ourselves to sleep and inaction.
As represented by the priest and by the Levite - if our prayer and if our study of Scripture is not penetrating our heart and elevating our soul to compassion, then we are missing the mark. The Apostle Paul writes: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’
We must love with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our strength, and with all our mind. And this compassionate love must be extended to our neighbor… Christ’s revolutionary message extends the concept of ‘neighbor’ from the confines of those within one’s caste to encompass all of God’s creation!
Every person is my neighbor. Every person is created in dignity and bears within them the stamp of God’s love.
This is inspiring and hopeful. This is also challenging and inconvenient. As Dostoevsky wrote: ‘I could never understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possibly love.’
It is much easier to love an abstraction like ‘humanity’ than it is to love the flesh and blood person standing right before you. Our neighbor may be someone in need outside our normal sphere of life… in which case we should extend ourselves to that person. Our neighbor may also be someone in need so close to us that we cannot even see their need… perhaps someone under our own roof.
In this time of thanksgiving and gratitude, let us be fully aware of the generosity, mercy, patience, and love which God shows to us in our shortcomings… extending some measure of the same generosity, mercy, patience, and love to our neighbor… everyone we meet.