We all know the importance of laws in our lives. They keep us on the right side of the road so we don’t run into each other on the road and assure us that the product we’re buying is exactly as described on the label. But, laws are not intended to draw us closer to one another or to God; only love can do that. God gave his people Israel the Ten Commandments as a sign of his great love for them and to help them understand how they could express their love for him and live in love with one another. Unfortunately, many people of ancient Israel – like the scholar of the law we hear about in today’s Gospel – thought that simply following the law would guarantee them eternal life. Listen to the question that this scholar poses to Jesus: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He seems to think that he can earn his way to heaven. You also get the impression that he’s a minimalist; he wants to discover what’s the least he has to do to get there.
Jesus, the model teacher, responds with a question, to learn the extent of the scholar’s knowledge. The scholar’s response is interesting because he begins with the law that all observant Jews would understand to be the greatest of all the commandments – the love of God. This is part of the shema prayer that all religious Jews recited four times a day. But then, the scholar adds a command about the love of neighbor that is found only in the Book of Leviticus, certainly not as important as the shema. We have to wonder if perhaps the scholar in today’s Gospel is trying to win favor with Jesus since he has heard him speak of love of neighbor. Maybe he was in the crowd when Jesus gave his famous Sermon on the Mount that spoke so eloquently of loving everyone – even your enemy. That’s what leads him to the second question: “Who is my neighbor?” After all, let’s not get carried away, he’s thinking to himself; this “love of your enemy is just too hard to swallow.”
That’s when Jesus, the perfect teacher, leads this man to the next level. We’re all familiar with the powerful story of the man who is attacked by robbers on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. We call this the parable of the Good Samaritan and learn that, in God’s eyes, everyone is our neighbor – even your enemy. This is such a familiar story that we just half-listen to it, wondering why the priest and Levite passed him by and hoping that we would be like the Samaritan who tended to the poor victim with such love.
I would like to draw your attention to the man who fell in with the robbers because, whether we like to admit it or not, we are all like him. We don’t know much about this man. We don’t even know why he was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. But, he attracted the attention of robbers, so he must have been a man of some means; you don’t usually rob a poor person. They stripped him as they robbed him; even his clothing had good resale value. Suddenly, this man had lost his wealth and his identity and was left by the side of the road, half-dead, as we hear in the gospel.
This detail – that he was half-dead – is important as we consider why the priest and Levite might have passed him by. According to Jewish law, touching a dead person leaves you unclean and unfit to offer sacrifice in the Temple. So, the priest and Levite – on their way to Jerusalem, probably to offer sacrifice – might have concluded that the man was probably dead and, wanting to avoid ritual impurity, they crossed over to the other side of the road and hurried past. They are good examples of those who follow the law without paying attention to love. But, let’s get back to the man who had been left there, half-dead. It is in his greatest need that the Good Samaritan comes to his aid. Filled with compassion – that’s a form of love that moves us to care for others – he tends to the man’s injuries and then, to make sure that he will recover, he lifts him up on his own animal and brings him to an inn where he continues to care for him. Then, seeing that all he needed was a little time to recover, the Good Samaritan made sure that he would be cared for by leaving two silver coins – a considerable amount of money in those days – and the promise to reimburse the innkeeper if even more is needed. The Samaritan was also a man of means – after all, he had his own animal, probably a mule or perhaps even a horse; only wealthy people had these animals in those days. And, he was carrying oil and wine and had money to spare when he arrived in the inn. But, he was quick to share of his abundance. I invite you to find our Lord in him. As the Son of God, Jesus is a person of infinite means – after all, as we hear in today’s second reading, he is the image of the invisible God, in fact, he is God himself. But, like the Good Samaritan, Jesus is eager to shower his abundant love upon all of us. And then, as we hear Jesus teach the scholar of the law, he instructs us – go and do likewise.
That’s the lesson these readings leave with us today. We are all like the man who was attacked by robbers. We are all people of great means – most important, we are children of God. But, we can find ourselves robbed of our identity and our true wealth, especially the greatest treasure – our faith. We are all beaten down by our own sinfulness and the temptations of the devil. In today’s first reading, we hear Moses call his people – and us – to heed the voice of the Lord and keep his commandments. As we hear in today’s Gospel, the scholar does correctly identify the two most important commandments – love of God and neighbor. And we love God and one another in response to God’s great love for us, aware that we do not deserve heaven – it’s a gift that God offers his faithful followers. Having been restored to life in Jesus – as the man who fell among robbers in today’s Gospel – we go and do likewise, sharing our love of God by loving one another. That’s what it means to follow God’s law; let’s make sure we learn that important lesson. And, unlike the scholar in today’s Gospel – that stingy minimalist – let’s be generous in our love, gratefully aware that it has been lavished on us by a very gracious God.