A scholar approaches Jesus to test Him with a legal question; Jesus answers with a question Himself. Why?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Lk 10:25-37)
Today we are reading a very well-known portion of St. Luke’s Gospel—the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is fascinating to watch the progression of this episode. It begins with the approach of a “scholar of the Law,” a man who was an expert in explaining the details of the Mosaic Law. He wanted to test Jesus. Why? We don’t know much about this man, but we at least know that his question was not looking for an answer as much as an outcome, although it sounds very noble: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” By this time in His public ministry, Jesus had created an enormous buzz. Even Herod was asking, “Who is this?” (see Lk 9:7-9) Perhaps the scholar was suspicious that Jesus was a charlatan, attracting large crowds out of a large ego. We can assume his question has some element of hostility in it, because Jesus answered it by asking another question, His frequent response to a trap (see Mt 22:15-22): “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The quiz of Jesus now turns into a quiz of the scholar. He answers well—love God with all that you are and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus is pleased with his answer. This way of life is indeed the key to eternal life. End of discussion, right?
Not exactly: “But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” With this additional question, we find out much more about the scholar. Why did he feel the need to “justify himself”? What does this mean? It could mean that the scholar was frustrated that his test didn’t produce the desired outcome. Did he ask the first question out of a desire to expose Jesus in some kind of infraction of the Law? Did he have misgivings that an itinerant preacher with such a huge following of ordinary folk could be qualified to be a teacher in Israel? Because Jesus didn’t actually answer the first question, there was no way to find fault with Him. That was not the scholar’s desired outcome, so he pressed on. Did he think Jesus would so expand the meaning of the word “neighbor” that He would inevitably get tripped up in the many rules that tightly governed the relationship Jews were allowed to have with people both inside and outside their community? If the scholar exposed Jesus in an error, his testing (and self-righteousness) would be “justified.”
To answer this question, Jesus told a parable. It might help us to know an Old Testament story about how some Samaritans, whom the Jews hated as half-breed foreigners and corrupters of true religion, once (hundreds of years earlier) showed great mercy to people from Judah captured in battle. The soldiers wanted to make everyone who survived the battle their slaves, but several Samaritan “princes” protested this brutality. In their kindness, they “assisted” the captives, put them on their “donkeys,” and took them peacefully to “Jericho” (see 2 Chron 28:8-15). Was Jesus drawing on this historical incident to teach about the meaning of “neighbor”? Notice that the two men who “passed by on the opposite side” were caretakers of the Temple and part of the religious elite in Jerusalem (a “priest” and a “Levite”). The Samaritan, on the other hand, did all that he could to assist the fallen man. Even our scholar had to admit that he was a true neighbor to the robbers’ victim.
How far this exchange has come from where it started! The discussion moved from one about who qualifies to be treated as a neighbor into one about how a good neighbor treats others. Loving our neighbor isn’t a matter of trying to figure out who he is. Rather, it is a matter of knowing that whenever we see someone in need, heis our neighbor, and we are to respond to him as the Samaritan did: “Go and do likewise.”
In addition to the instruction this parable gives us about loving our neighbor as ourselves, it is also a beautiful metaphor of how Jesus, the “foreigner” from heaven came to save us after the Law of Moses (represented by the priest and Levite), as good as it was, could not. Man, after Adam was robbed by Satan in the Garden and left for dead, needed supernatural healing in order to keep God’s law, which is precisely what the long history of Israel revealed. Jesus comes as the Good Samaritan, with His anointing of the Holy Spirit and the wine of His Presence in the Eucharist, to take us to the inn of the Church for new life. He, like the Samaritan, pays our debt and promises to come back to us.
Our Loving Neighbor now makes it possible us to be loving neighbors, too.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, please help me have my eyes and heart open to any neighbor who needs my love.
First Reading (Read Deut. 30:10-14)
As Moses was close to death, he exhorted the people of Israel to keep the covenant God had made with them, loving Him “with all your heart and all your soul.” He goes on to tell them that, contrary to the Gospel’s scholar’s notion that definitions and clarifications were necessary before men can do the will of God, “the command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you.” Jesus makes this exceedingly clear in our Gospel reading. When the scholar wanted more details about what leads to eternal life, Jesus simply told him a story in which everyone(including the suspicious scholar) can recognize a loving, compassionate neighbor.
Our problem is almost never about knowing what to do; no, as Moses said, “it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.” Our problem is that we don’t like what Moses said next: “You have only to carry it out.”
Possible response: Heavenly Father, I excel in making excuses to avoid doing what I know is right and good. Please forgive me.
Psalm (Read Ps 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36-37)
The psalm helps us understand why merciful and compassionate love for those in need lies at the heart of our relationship with God. That is what He is like! “See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, may your hearts revive! For the Lord hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds He spurns not.” The Incarnation revealed this kind of Love in all its fullness. We can, therefore, have confidence to sing, “Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.” Creatures made in God’s image and likeness will only be truly happy when they live in harmony with God’s design. The commandment to love our neighbor simply puts light on the path to this happiness.
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Col 1:15-20)
St. Paul, in what he writes about Jesus as the “image of the invisible God,” sheds some light on why the scholar’s second question in our Gospel took him in a direction away from eternal life. He wanted to know who was included on the list of neighbors to be loved, which also means who could be left off. Yet here St. Paul describes the dynamic of Divine Love that always, always seeks to unite, even enemies (as it did in the parable). Jesus, in His Body, came to “reconcile all things,” because “all things were created through Him and for Him.” When we contemplate this, our minds begin to touch on truly mysterious heavenly truths. Some have suggested that in the mystery of the Eucharist, we have the first downpayment, as it were, that somehow, in some way all things—even material things like bread and wine—really are reconciled, made one, with Him.
Amazing, isn’t it?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, our world is so full of separation and disunity. It is hard to imagine how it can all be put back together. But love of neighbor is a good start today.