Several questions come up in today’s readings: How do I know what God’s Law requires of me? How do I interpret the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? These are as relevant for people today as they were when the Bible was written.
The book of Deuteronomy is written as a long speech of Moses as a ‘last testament’ to the people. Moses has set before them the Law and urges the people to keep God’s commands, living faithfully in their covenant with the Lord. This selection is poetic in its description of how the Law is not just something imposed from without or something they have to search for, but an understanding of God living within his people and guiding them in their hearts. ‘It is in your mouth’ refers to the commitment to live in the Law that the people have publicly recited. Christians also have the assurance of Jesus ‘with us to the end of time’ and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.
There are two options for the Responsorial Psalm this week
The first, Psalm 68/69 is a prayer of trust in God in times of poverty and pain, and suits the Gospel reading with the injured traveller. The second, Psalm 18/19 is a meditation on the Law of the Lord, which follows well on the first reading, and also reflects on the question in the Gospel.
We will hear selections from the Letter to the community at Colossae for the next few weeks. It addresses problems of doctrine that have arisen in the church there, and answering these leads to reflections on the nature of Jesus Christ, such as the one we have today. These verses in a poetic form may have a quotation from an early Christian hymn.
The poem draws on the imagery of personified Wisdom in the Old Testament; particularly close is Proverbs 8:22-31. ‘Thrones, Domination, Sovereignties, Powers’ – these are words for angelic beings and important in this connection as some at Colossae had begun to think of such heavenly messengers as rivals of Christ and so they needed to understand their place in God’s creation as below Jesus. The second part of the selection brings in Jesus in his humanity, the reconciler through his death and the ‘first’ in resurrection. It continues the theme of Christ’s power extending through all of creation.
This is one of the most familiar and popular parables of Jesus but it is often useful to look more carefully at ‘what we already know’. Luke has set this in the context of one of many disputes with Pharisees on matters of belief and behaviour. There was a debate going on at that time among Jews about which is the most important commandment of the Law, the basic one that the others can be derived from, In the Gospel accounts, instead of one, there are two Jesus holds to be the essential moral law.
The Greek word translated ‘lawyer’ does not have the present meaning of a civil attorney but means an expert in the Jewish Law, a religious leader. When we first hear the lawyer’s question, we might assume he is asking earnestly, but it becomes clear as the exchange continues that he is more interested in justifying himself than in learning anything. As an expert in the Law he would be familiar with what the Jewish Bible had to say, and Jesus subtly points this out, by making him answer the question. The lawyer’s reply combines two texts, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. In Matthew and Mark, there is a similar version, in which Jesus is the one to make the connection between the two texts. We can’t tell if Luke knows of a different occasion, or if he adapted Mark’s version to use it as the introduction to the parable which follows.
After Jesus has confirmed the words, the lawyer persists with a new question that shows he was not really looking for the important commandment. Asking for a definition means a limitation; the idea is that some are to be loved as neighbours, while others can be ignored or hated. Jesus does not answer the question, but instead launches into a story.
Like most of his parables, Jesus sets his story in the world his listeners knew well. The road down from the mountain-top city of Jerusalem to the city of Jericho that Herod built on the Jordan plain was eighteen miles long, not far with modern transport but not so easy on foot or with donkeys through steep and rocky passages. It was well-known as a place where robbers preyed on the travellers. So the story starts with a familiar (if fearful) situation, then makes it specific. Other details that would be recognised were the oil which was soothing, and wine as a antiseptic. Of more surprise to the listeners was the that the man not only rescues the injured in this emergency, but makes himself responsible for any future care.
The background of the priest and Levite are significant details; in his commentary on Luke, Joseph A. Fitzmyer mentions their ‘privileged status’ in that society as the ones serving in the Temple and upholding the Law. They would be expected to follow the command to love. The story does not give any reasons for their ‘passing by’ the injured man, but commentators note that he was ‘left for dead’ and there might have been a question of dealing with a corpse. Under the details of ritual purity, contact with the dead was ‘defiling’ and kept one from serving in the Temple until cleansed by the prescribed rituals. They may think this is an ‘excuse’ for being more concerned over their own convenience than helping a person in need. The questioner was likely to be uneasy to see the failures of religious leaders. The common people listening to Jesus were probably now expecting that ‘someone ordinary like one of us’ will come next. If so, all were in for a surprise.
But with a change in time, this shock may well be lost on modern hearers. Today because people use the expression ‘the good Samaritan’ as a compliment, it can be hard to understand Jesus’ point about Samaritans. There was a long history of antagonism between them and the Jewish people, going back to issues from the time of the Babylonian Exile. The two groups disagreed about some beliefs, and the Samaritans did not worship in the Jerusalem temple but on Mount Gezerim in their own territory between Galilee and Judea. (Notice in Luke that in his grudging reply, the lawyer cannot bring himself even to say the word ‘Samaritan’.) That one who was so despised would help when those whose duty it was to care had failed would call for the listeners to make a new evaluation about their prejudices.
While we may appreciate the history of Jesus’ dealings with his contemporaries, there is another depth: in the Gospels he is also speaking to us today, in comfort, in calling us to make changes in our thoughts and actions, and at times challenging us to act in new and sometimes painful ways. I found it helpful to ask myself, ‘What group of people today would be as the Samaritans were to the Jews of the first century?’ Because we live in times that are divisive, even polarised, it was easy to come up groups that other people despise – in a time of increased hate crimes, many minorities are attacked, including of course the present day Jews. Many groups I easily named left me righteously blaming others, so I asked, ‘Whom do I feel most reluctant to see praised as a rescuer, and whom most embarrassed to see fail as did the priest and Levite?’ I saw how with many public figures whose words and actions distress me, how easily that turned to a personal judgement against them. Then I felt something the challenge Jesus had for that sort of prejudice. I can recommend the exercise to others.
There is of course more to the lesson. Jesus in not answering the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ makes a reversal. How do you act if you do love your neighbour? At the end, where our translation reads, ‘Go…’ Luke uses a Greek word with a range of meanings, that are closer to ‘journeying’ – which is the word Nicholas King chooses in his new translation. It shows the command is not just acting in one incident but to go through daily life always being the kind of neighbour who goes out of their way for those in need.