Thursday, July 11, 2013

Won't You Be My Neighbor? The 15th Sunday of OT

Fred Rogers used to sing at the opening of his classic children’s show:

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine? Could you be mine? …
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please, won't you please?
 Please won't you be my neighbor?

Fred Rogers was a highly theological educated man, an ordained Presbyterian minister who also gave generous grants to St. Vincent’s College and Seminary (Roman Catholic) in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  I think he was well aware of the theological significance of the concept of “neighbor,” which we will explore through the Readings for this Sunday.

This Sunday Jesus issues us a strong challenge to break down the barriers and prejudices that prevent us from showing love to other human beings.  Jesus’ teaching is in continuity with the best synthesis of the moral instruction of the Old Testament and Judaism, which views every human being as a “neighbor.”

1.  The First Reading is Dt 30:10-14:

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.”

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Book of Deuteronomy to the structure and meaning of the entire Bible.  The name “Deuteronomy” comes from the Greek deutero nomos, “the second law.”  It is so named because in it Moses repeats the Ten Commandments for the second time (cf. Ex. 20; Deut 5).  Deuteronomy is the fifth and last of the Torah, the “Books of Moses,” and it summarizes and interprets the preceding four.  Deuteronomy is thus the definitive statement of the Mosaic Covenant and Law in its final form, just before the people of God enter the promised land under Joshua.  Moses himself dies at the end of Deuteronomy, so this book is the final statement, the final will and testament, of the great Lawgiver of the Israelite nation. 

The importance of Deuteronomy is shown by how often it is cited and quoted in later literature.  Deuteronomy is one of the top three most-quoted books in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (along with Psalms and Isaiah).  Our Lord Himself quotes exclusively from Deuteronomy in his three responses to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (see Matt 4:1-11)

Deuteronomy is a book of paradoxes.  It includes within itself both the loftiest articulations of the love of God (Deut 6:1-9), as well as some of the harshest laws in the Old Testament.  In Deuteronomy, Moses is at the end of his career as leader of Israel.  He has communed intimately with God for forty years “face to face,” so he understands God’s nature and love.  At the same time, he has “beaten his head against a wall” trying to get the Israelites to follow God’s commands for even a few days in a row.  Ten times the Book of Numbers records Israel rebelling against God and Moses in the wilderness.  Thus Moses is caught between his vision of God’s lofty nature, and his oh-so-realistic understanding of the deceitfulness of human nature.

Today’s Reading is taken from near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, and comprises one of Moses’ final speeches to Israel before his death.  He pleads with Israel to follow God’s laws, and insists they are not too burdensome to carry out.  He insists that God’s law is “very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out.”  In other words, the law of the God of Israel, in its essence, is the “natural law,” the fundamental law of right and wrong that is written into our nature.  As the Catechism says:

§1955 The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life… Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue. This law is called "natural," not in reference to the nature of irrational beings, but because reason which decrees it properly belongs to human nature …
“The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.”

Properly understood, the heart of the Law of Moses is an expression and extrapolation of the natural moral law, which all persons are obliged to follow. 

2. The celebrant has an option for the choice of Responsorial Psalm.  The first option, Psalm 69, anticipates the Gospel Reading with its parable of the Good Samaritan.  In singing this psalm, the congregation identifies itself with the poor man beaten up on the way to Jericho.  We see ourselves as the poor and afflicted in need, who require the mercy and kindness of the Lord, whose love is so well expressed in the actions of the Good Samaritan:

R. (cf. 33) Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.
I pray to you, O LORD,
for the time of your favor, O God!
In your great kindness answer me
with your constant help.
Answer me, O LORD, for bounteous is your kindness:
in your great mercy turn toward me.
R. Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.
I am afflicted and in pain;
let your saving help, O God, protect me.
I will praise the name of God in song,
and I will glorify him with thanksgiving.
R. Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”
R. Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.
For God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah.
The descendants of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall inhabit it.
R. Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.

The second option for the responsorial psalm picks up on the theme of the Law of God articulated in the First Reading and the first part of the Gospel:

R.(9a) Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
the decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true,
all of them just.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
They are more precious than gold,
than a heap of purest gold;
sweeter also than syrup
or honey from the comb.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.

Right and wrong are written into the fabric of nature and the fabric of our nature.  If we thought rationally, we would discern the good from the bad.  However, due to our inclination to sin, we tend not to think rationally, but instead to rationalize.  We can’t think clearly, because we are not seeking truth, we are seeking our own pleasure.  For that reason, although right and wrong are written on the human heart, very few accurately perceive what is good and what is evil without the help of God’s revelation.  For this reason, the psalmist in Psalm 19 praises God for the perfection of his Word, of his Law.  When we receive God’s Word with humility, and accept his definitions of good and evil, suddenly “the lights come on.”  We are able to think clearly.  In hindsight, it seems so obvious: “Why couldn’t I see that abortion was wrong?  Why couldn’t I see that it was taking an innocent life?”  Yet at that time, we were trapped in a web of rationalization through which only God’s Word can cut, since it is “sharper than a two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).  Having been converted, we praise God for the revelation of his Law, which suddenly has made sense of our moral universe.

3.  The Second Reading is Col 1:15-20:

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.

The Second Reading helps us to understand how the natural law written on our heart is related to God’s supernatural revelation of Himself.  God’s highest revelation of Himself is the person Jesus Christ, whom we call the “Word” of God.  This Word busts into our reality by taking on human flesh, walking and talking with us for thirty years, dying, rising from the dead, and commissioning his messengers to teach his words until he returns.  Yet this Word was also the divine person through whom the whole cosmos was created.  Since in a very real sense we were created by Jesus, it is not inexplicable that our natural sense of right and wrong should correspond to to the positive law we find in Scripture: the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Two Greatest Commandments. 

This Second Reading also reminds us that the Christian Gospel is not just “a way” to come to God, but “the way” to come to God.  Christ Jesus is the image of the Father; he is the creator God.  All persons, whatever their ethnic or religious background, were made “in Christ” and in his image.  Therefore, the message of the cross is a universal message.  Christ’s suffering and death is the universal proof to all humanity of God’s merciful love for us, and his resurrection the universal proof of God’s ultimate power and goodness.  Other religions, philosophies, and teachers may grasp various points of truth, but they are not the way to the Father.

4.  The Gospel is Lk 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan:

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.”

Interestingly, when asked outright how to have eternal life, Jesus does not say, “Just have faith in me and then do whatever you want.”  He actually points to the law of God and the moral life.  Living a life in accordance with God’s law—which is a law of love—is not optional.  It is an integral part of what it means to be saved, of what is necessary to have “eternal life.”  Because of the Protestant emphasis on “salvation by faith alone,” large sectors of Americans who identify themselves as Christians have lost sight of the fact that living according to God’s law is a non-negotiable dimension of salvation.

The scholar of the law with whom Jesus converses is astute.  He summarizes all 613 commands of the Mosaic Torah under two broad commands: love of God, and love of fellow human beings.  He quotes the first command from Deuteronomy (recall our First Reading), specifically Deut 6:5, which is part of a famous passage (Deut 6:4-9) called the Shema in Judaism.  It begins “Hear, O Israel! [Heb. shema, yisrael!] The LORD Our God, the LORD is One!  You shall love the LORD your God …”   This Shema passage is recited by pious Jews three times a day, and functions in Judaism much like the Our Father or Apostles Creed does in Christianity (see here: 

The scholar cites the second commandment from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the LORD your God.”

Many Christians think Jesus was being original in summarizing the Mosaic Law as the two commands of love (see Mark 12:28-31), but Jesus was in fact simply endorsing the best traditions of Jewish moral and legal thought.  Jews and Christians differ over the identity of Jesus Christ, but not on the fundamentals of the moral law.

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied,
“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.”

In this scholar of the law, we see an example of the distinction between thinking rationally and rationalizing, as discussed above.  After Jesus’ reply, the scribe wants to “justify himself.”  He begins to rationalize: “Let me limit the number of people that the concept ‘neighbor’ applies to, and then the moral law won’t be so demanding!”

The scribe wants to “justify himself,” rather than to be “justified by God.”  To be “justified by God,” we do need to place absolute faith in Jesus Christ, and allow him to fill us with his Holy Spirit, which flows through Baptism and the other sacraments.  The Holy Spirit cleanses and makes us new.  The Spirit does not excuse our sins or “let us off the hook.”  Instead, the Spirit makes it possible for us to follow God’s law of love truly, and from the heart (Rom 8:3-4).  This is essential to what it means to be “saved.”

In response to the man’s question, Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan.  “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”  This was quite a descent, because between Jerusalem and Jericho one moves from one of the highest regions in Israel to one of the lowest, well below sea level.  During this rapid descent, the terrain becomes increasingly dry until one is surrounded by a desolate wilderness of eroded hills pockmarked with caves that provide ample hiding places for brigands, outlaws, revolutionaries, and thieves.  This man is apparently a bit of a fool for attempting the trip without traveling with a caravan, and he pays for his foolishness severely.

The priest and Levite “pass by on the other side.”  It was not just that these persons were “too busy,” as the famous Veggie Tales version would have it.  Contact with a dead body would result in ceremonial uncleanness, preventing the priest and Levite from performing duties in the Temple.  It was not possible to tell whether the man is alive or dead, so the priest and Levite give him a wide berth to avoid potential contamination.  Both forget the teaching of the prophet Hosea: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6).  In other words, deeds of mercy take precedence over cultic concerns, even in the Old Testament itself.  The priest and Levite may have been liturgically correct, but failed to grasp the heart of God’s law.

On the other hand, a Samaritan passes by.  Samaritans were mixed-race descendants of Israelites and Gentiles.  In 722 BC, the Assyrian army conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and deported the middle and upper classes.  The King of Assyria brought in several Gentile ethnic groups to replace the deported Israelites (2 Kings 17:7-41).  These Gentiles mixed with the low-class Israelites left behind, producing the Samaritans.  The Samaritans offered to help build the Temple in Jerusalem when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile c. 537-520, but they were rebuffed by the Jews (Ezra 4:1-4).  The Samaritans then decided to build their own Temple on Mt. Gerizim in northern Israelite territory.  Eventually they developed a different system of cultic purity (“kosher”) and different legal tradition (“halakha”) than the Jews.  Jews regarded them, with justification, as schismatics and heretics.  Although the Samaritans had been harshly treated by the Jews, there was simply no theological justification for building a Temple to the LORD on Mt. Gerizim (see John 4:16-26).

So, this Samaritan—a mixed race person of heretical and schismatic religious doctrines—happens to pass by on the road, and takes notice of the man.  Although the Samaritan has admittedly wrong views about where to worship and how, he does understand that mercy takes precedence over cultic purity (Hos. 6:6), and thus—ironically—he has a better fundamental understanding of the Law of God than the priest or Levite.  He bandages the man’s wounds and cares for him as if he were a family member.

At the end of the parable, Jesus says, “Who was a neighbor to the man?” and tells the scholar of the law, “Go and do likewise.”  Notice how Jesus shifts the discussion.  The scholar had asked “Who is my neighbor (to me)?” but Jesus teaches a lesson on how to be a neighbor to other people.  It is a lesson that, no doubt, sat very uncomfortably with the scholar of the law, because Jews absolutely despised Samaritans.  The idea that the mercy of God should be expressed across borders of heresy, schism, and cultic purity was very hard to accept.

There is a deeper level of meaning to the parable.  The beaten man is a symbol of Everyman, of the human condition.  The priest and Levite represent the Old Covenant (i.e. the Mosaic Covenant), which is good in itself but does not have the power to save us.  The Good Samaritan is a type of Jesus himself.  Although Jesus was not a Samaritan, he was accused of being one (John 8:48) and he consistently showed love for the Samaritan people (John 4; Luke 9:51-55).  The Jewish religious authorities viewed Jesus as similar to a “Samaritan,” in that he did not observe the “proper” cleanliness laws and departed from the standard Jewish tradition (the teachings of the elders) in his interpretation of the Law.  Thus Jesus is the one rejected by the religious leaders, who nonetheless comes to us, observes our pitiful condition, and condescends to bandage our “wounds” and care for us, even though it means “contaminating” himself by contact with our corruption and sin. 

I am aware that the Christian tradition of seeing Jesus typified in the Good Samaritan is widely rejected by scholars, but I believe the tradition is correct.  Jesus often told parables with multiple levels of meaning, and he was known to tell parables in which one of the characters was an image of himself (see Matt 21:33-41).  I believe this is the case also with the Good Samaritan parable.

To summarize the message of today’s Readings: God’s Law for us is fundamentally expressed in the twin commands of love of God and love of neighbor.  The interpretation of the rest of God’s laws should be directed to the fulfillment of these two commands.  God’s love has been shown to us, sinners that we are, by Jesus Christ taking compassion on our pitiful state and “bandaging our wounds.”  We should show this same compassion to others, be willing to overlook whatever boundaries—race, religion, political party, culture, etc.—that would otherwise prevent us from recognizing a person as our “neighbor.”


Michael Demers said...

Thank you for all the Sunday commentaries you've made. I appreciate them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Bergsma for converting to the Catholic faith and your wonderful insights. I have just discovered your blog and eagerly look forward to whatever you write. I'm a big fan!

Anonymous said...

Mr Rogers just seems creepy nowadays. A grown man who really likes children and seems to be grooming them. *shudder*