Background on the Gospel Reading
As Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem, he is confronted by a scholar of the law who wants to test him. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. Here, in Luke’s Gospel, the lawyer asks what we must do to inherit eternal life. In the other two Gospels, Jesus answers the question by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, on loving God with all your heart, and Leviticus 19:18, on loving your neighbor. Here Jesus asks the expert to answer this question, “What is written in the law?” The man is caught and responds with Deuteronomy 6:5. This verse is one of the most important prayers in Judaism, and it was said twice a day in Jesus’ time. Love of God and love of neighbor are what is required for eternal life. Jesus’ response is simple, “Do this and you will live.”
Having been shown up by Jesus, the lawyer tries another question: Who is my neighbor whom I must love like myself? In the society of Jesus’ time, with its distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, clean and unclean, this was a trick question. Jesus responds with one of the most beautiful of all the parables, the Good Samaritan. It is found only in Luke’s Gospel.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho descends 3,300 feet in just 17 miles. Its narrow passes and rocky terrain made it an easy place for bandits to wait for travelers. The traveler in this parable is identified only as “a certain man.” Luke uses this phrase in many of his parables so that the audience, Jew or Gentile, could identify with the man. After the attack, the man is left for dead, naked and bleeding on the side of the road. A priest comes along, but rather than helping, as one might expect, he moves to the other side of the road. Another religious person comes along, a Levite who assists in the Temple. His reaction is the same as the priest’s. Both of them choose to not even find out if the man is alive. A third person comes along. The listeners would probably expect him to be an Israelite. This would make the parable a criticism of the religious leadership. Instead he is a Samaritan, an Israelite’s most hated neighbor. Samaritans were descendents of Jews from the northern part of the country, who had intermarried with Gentiles and did not worship in Jerusalem. The Samaritan not only goes over to the injured man but cleans his wounds, puts him on his own animal, takes him to an inn to recover, and promises to pay all his expenses. The hated enemy is the compassionate neighbor in this parable.
Jesus has demolished all boundary expectations. It is not social definitions such as class, religion, gender, or ethnicity that determines who is our neighbor. A neighbor is a person who acts with compassion toward another. The point becomes not who deserves to be loved as I love myself, but that I become a person who treats everyone with compassion.
When Jesus asks the lawyer who was the neighbor in the story, the lawyer can’t bring himself to say it was the Samaritan. All he says is that it was “the one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus’ response was similar to that of the first discussion: “Go and do likewise.” The lawyer, and we, know what is right. The key is to do it.
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
The good Samaritan
There was a lawyer who, to disconcert Jesus, stood up and said to him, ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? What do you read there?’ He replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’ ‘You have answered right,’ said Jesus ‘do this and life is yours.’
But the man was anxious to justify himself and said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of brigands; they took all he had, beat him and then made off, leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan traveller who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him on to his own mount, carried him to the inn and looked after him. Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said “and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have.” Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands‘ hands?’ ‘The one who took pity on him’ he replied. Jesus said to him, ‘Go, and do the same yourself.’
During the twentieth century, moral relativism was in vogue in elite cultural circles, but now it is the dominant moral outlook of the broader culture. Against this, C.S. Lewis argued for “the universality and inescapability of the moral law.” Although there are subtle moral differences between cultures, if we look close enough, we can discern fundamental moral agreements. The Catholic tradition says that this moral bedrock is a reflection of the Eternal Law in the mind of God. It is the voice of God within us. Listen to that voice.
We are to love God and our neighbor with all the strength of our being, as the scholar of the Law answers Jesus in this week’s Gospel.
This command is nothing remote or mysterious—it’s already written in our hearts, in the book of Sacred Scripture. “You have only to carry it out,” Moses says in this week’s First Reading.
Jesus tells His interrogator the same thing: “Do this and you will live.”
The scholar, however, wants to know where he can draw the line. That’s the motive behind his question: “Who is my neighbor?”
In his compassion, the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable reveals the boundless mercy of God—who came down to us when we were fallen in sin, close to dead, unable to pick ourselves up.
Jesus is “the image of the invisible God,” this week’s Epistle tells us. In Him, the love of God has come very near to us. By the “blood of His Cross”—by bearing His neighbors’ sufferings in His own body, being Himself stripped and beaten and left for dead—He saved us from bonds of sin, reconciled us to God and to one another.
Like the Samaritan, He pays the price for us, heals the wounds of sin, pours out on us the oil and wine of the sacraments, entrusts us to the care of His Church, until He comes back for us.
Because His love has known no limits, ours cannot either. We are to love as we have been loved, to do for others what He has done for us—joining all things together in His Body, the Church.
We are to love like the singer of this week’s Psalm—like those whose prayers have been answered, like those whose lives have been saved, who have known the time of His favor, have seen God in His great mercy turn toward us.
This is the love that leads to eternal life, the love Jesus commands today of each of us—“Go and do likewise.”