Moses said to the people:
"If only you would heed the voice of the LORD, your God,
and keep his commandments and statutes
that are written in this book of the law,
when you return to the LORD, your God,
with all your heart and all your soul.
"For this command that I enjoin on you today
is not too mysterious and remote for you.
It is not up in the sky, that you should say,
'Who will go up in the sky to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?'
Nor is it across the sea, that you should say,
'Who will cross the sea to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?'
No, it is something very near to you,
already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out."
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace by the blood of his cross
through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.
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."
He replied to him, "You have answered correctly;
do this and you will live."
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus,
"And who is my neighbor?"
"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."
One of my favorite Peanuts quotes is Linus’ offhand remark, “I love mankind . . . it’s people I can’t stand.” I presume it became quite popular in the late 50s and early 60s because so many of us identified with the little guy. We can love things in the abstract, but when it comes down to loving them in the concrete we frequently find a half dozen reasons for suspending our love.
That’s exactly the problem Luke’s Jesus tackles in today’s gospel pericope. It’s not difficult to repeat his answer to the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We’re to demonstrate our love of God by loving our neighbor. On face value it’s easy to understand. The kicker comes when the legal scholar follows his first question with another: “And who is my neighbor?”
Those who deal with the 613 Laws of Moses know that definitions of terms are essential to understanding those laws. For instance, when it comes to the commandment “You shall not commit adultery” we Christians presume that prohibition refers to having relations with anyone who’s the spouse of another. Yet many Mosaic Law experts are convinced this commandment originally applied only to those who were having illicit relations with Jews. Similar relations with Gentiles weren’t covered under this particular commandment.
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t provide this legal expert with a precise definition of neighbor; instead he tells him a story.
Most of us know about the historical animosity between Jews and Samaritans, but few of us appreciate the actions of the priest and Levite. When the two pass by on the opposite side of the road, they’re not just refusing to get involved with a fellow Jew in need; they’re actually forced to do so because of their religious obligations. Functionaries at the Jerusalem temple, they’re forbidden to touch a dead body or even come into contact with blood. So, in this particular situation, this particular Jew doesn’t fit their theological definition of a neighbor. He’s more a temptation to sin for them than a concrete occasion to fulfill Yahweh’s command in the book of Leviticus to love your neighbor. The Samaritan, on the other hand, isn’t limited by their religious restrictions. He’s forbidden – under pain of death – from even entering the temple!
Notice when Jesus asks, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” the lawyer doesn’t say “the Samaritan.” He simply replies, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
As much as I hate to admit it, Jesus seems to be saying that if any of us ever find ourselves in dire straits, we’d better pray an atheist come by. “Religious persons” would probably have four or five reasons why, in this situation, they’re absolved from helping us. Luke’s Jesus couldn’t be clearer: religious obligations can never excuse us from helping someone in need.
He agrees with the author of Deuteronomy who, in our first reading, reminds us that God’s commandments are ensconced in our everyday lives. We don’t have to look up to heaven to find out what God wants us to do; we simply have to look around us. God works in the concrete, not the abstract.
The Pauline disciple responsible for Colossians takes this concreteness one step further, expressing his belief that the human Jesus was actually the “image of the invisible God.” Not the holy card image of Jesus, but the real image.
Along that line, historians remind us that no one over the age of 20 in Jesus’ day and age had a full set of teeth. Since the historical Jesus was 30 when he died, I presume he fits Linus’ definition of “people.”