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JULY 15, 2007: Fifteenth Sunday of the Year


Deuteronomy 30:10-14
Colossians 1:15-20
Luke 10:25-27

An ironic aspect of today's three readings is that we're hearing them in the context of liturgies which emphasize God's transcendence in our lives. We're in a building specially set aside and designed for otherworldly services, observing the gestures and listening to the words of someone traditionally regarded as "ontologically different" from everyone else present. We're watching motions and hearing music performed in no other place.

In the midst of this unearthly environment, Moses' words in the first reading enter our ears and intersect our lives. "This command I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky . . . . Nor is it across the sea . . . . No, it is something very close to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out."

At this point in Deuteronomy, Moses is just four chapters from his death. The sacred author makes these words part of the great Jewish liberator's last will and testament; an aspect of faith he most wants the Chosen People to remember. Trying to ward off the teaching of those who would one day insist that Yahweh's commands revolved only around transporting us from the confines of our everyday world and placing us squarely in the realm of heaven, Moses reminds us we're to work out our salvation against the background of the natural and normal.

Paul also argues that it's precisely in this world that the risen Jesus exists. No matter where we are, Jesus is in the neighborhood. "In him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible . . . all things were created through him and for him."

The Apostle forcefully reminds the Colossians, "He (Jesus) is the beginning, the first born from the dead, that in all things he might be pre-eminent." It makes no difference whether we're dealing with heaven or earth, Jesus permeates both.

Luke tells us Jesus had problems with those who permitted religion to waft them out of this world and situate their faith and obligations in a more heavenly zone. He's particularly upset with anyone who practices a religion which stops him or her from carrying out God's will in the ordinary circumstances of life.

Hearing today's parable, most of us zero in on the Samaritan's generosity and sacrifice for a complete stranger. Jesus' original audience, brought up to despise heretical Samaritans, likewise would have been impressed by his actions. But they probably focused on the priest and Levite more than we do.

Both are liturgical ministers, part of the Jerusalem temple sacrificial system. Their ministry demands a special ritual purity. Among other obligations, neither is permitted to function in his office for a specific period after he comes in contract with blood or touches a dead body.

That's why, Jesus tells us, when the priest "saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he also passed by on the opposite side." Though they might have felt pity for the mugged Jew, their lofty position in the worship system stopped them from acting on that pity. Religious obligations trump love obligations.

Jesus' message couldn't be clearer. The one person in his narrative forbidden (under pain of death) from taking part in organized Jewish religious services is the only one who follows God's command to be neighbor to all.

In modern terminology, Jesus warns that, if we're ever facing a life and death situation, we'd better pray an atheist comes on the scene. He or she's the only one who wouldn't come up with six or seven religious reasons why they couldn't help us.