One of the most difficult things we encounter in our lives of faith is taking the "other worldly" things we learn about and putting them into "this world."
The author of today's Deuteronomy passage confronted that very problem. That seems to be why he created this well-known instruction for Moses. "For the 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 and 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."
That's the problem: how do we make God's plan a part of our everyday lives?
As a disciple of Paul, the unknown author of Colossians is deeply rooted in the Apostle's theology that all who imitates the risen Jesus becomes part of the body of the risen Jesus. "He (Jesus)," the writer reminds his community, "is the head of the body, the church." What we do, he does; what he does, we do. This "image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" is an essential part of all we do here on earth.
What is it that we should be doing? The answer is simple and to the point: reconciling all things for him; bringing all people together as one in his name.
Sounds great in the abstract. Sort of like being told, "Love your neighbor!" The problems start, as we hear in today's gospel, when someone has the audacity to ask, "And who is my neighbor?"
In his challenging response, Luke's Jesus couldn't be more specific and more problematic. The neighbor to the Jew mugged and left for dead alongside the Jericho/Jerusalem road isn't the priest or Levite. This super-religious pair doesn't dare even touch the poor soul. If he's dead, or if they just come in contact with his bloody body, they've made themselves "unclean:" unable to participate in the sacred rituals around which their life revolves. No wonder they "passed by on the opposite side.”
The most unexpected, despised person of the historical Jesus' day and age fulfills the role of neighbor. The Samaritan doesn't have to worry about not being able to perform temple rituals. He's forbidden, under pain of death, to even go into the temple! Because their Jewish ancestors intermarried with Gentiles during the 8th century BCE Assyrian Exile, all Samaritans were regarded as unclean. They were "half-breeds," unworthy of the name Jew.
Years ago, I'd torment my freshman religion classes with a hypothetical moral case. "You're on your way to Mass on Sunday - last Mass you can possibly attend - when you come upon an accident. If you stop, you could be of help, but you'd either miss Mass or come so late you'd commit a mortal sin. What would you do?"
The majority of my students (after eight years of Catholic education) usually replied, "I'd go to Mass." A few with sensitive consciences promised to pray for the injured as they went by. And a couple promised to leave Mass at communion and go back to see if they could help.
Somehow it's just too difficult for a lot of us to break through our liturgical relegations and actually love our neighbor in the concrete.
If you're ever in a serious accident, better pray an atheist happens by.