This week we are going to look at one of the most familiar—and most challenging—stories in the Gospels: the good Samaritan.
It begins with the “Law” of the Jewish people. At the time, the law consisted of many specific commands. The thought of following and remembering 613 different laws is intimidating by anyone’s standards. But this was what the Jewish people in the time of Jesus were called to do, according to the Old Testament. In Jesus’ time, most good rabbis had what they would call their “yoke.” By this, they meant a summary statement of the entire Old Testament law—all 613 of them! One rabbi was famously challenged to recite the law while standing on one foot. He said “Do to others what you would have done to you. This is the whole law, everything else is just commentary.”
Jesus is doing something similar in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. He asks a would-be follower to tell him what is in the law. The man responds, “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.” Elsewhere, Jesus summarizes the law this way as well.
In the parable that follows, Jesus seeks to explain what this law means. After a man asks him; “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus proceeds to tell one of his most famous parables—the story of the good Samaritan. It offers a difficult lesson, one in which our “neighbor” might turn out to be the person we most dislike. Through this story, Jesus redefines holiness—the goal of all those Old Testament laws—as mercy.
Unpack the First Reading
This portion of Deuteronomy is part of Moses’ long, final commendation to his people before he is told by God that “you are about to sleep with your fathers,” and the still harder message that “this people will rise and play the harlot after the strange gods of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake me and break my covenant which I have made with them” (Deuteronomy. 31:16, RSV). But Moses has given them fair warning to “heed the voice of the LORD,” which, he explains is clear and “very near to you.” Not only is it clearly written in the book Moses gives them, but it is also in their mouths and hearts.
We sometimes think that religious truths must be sought by searching in distant lands—India, perhaps, or China. Perhaps a Zen master in Japan has the answers to the human quest for esoteric knowledge. But God enters history and explains, first through the Jewish people and then, fully, in Jesus, what he wants of us. He doesn’t keep any secrets. He isn’t interested in playing “gotcha.” He makes it plain, as Moses says later in this same address, that it is simply a matter of choosing between “life and death, blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 30:19, RSV). In the moral life, the critical issue is not so much knowing what to do as finding the will to do what we know.
Unpack the Second Reading
In this beautiful Christological canticle St. Paul explains why Moses can say in our first reading that the command of God is not mysterious and remote, but already in our mouths and hearts. Jesus Christ, who St. John in the prologue to his Gospel calls the Logos, the very Word by which the Father called the universe into being, is the one in whom, through whom, for whom all things were made, such that “in him all things hold together.” Jesus, who is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, is the very pattern of the universe.
If we have eyes to see, the eyes of faith, then when we look at the ordered and harmonious structure of the material universe we will see him. He is its purpose, its key, its goal. The fullness of the Gospel, as St. Paul preaches it here, is that Jesus is not just our divine Savior who lived and died for our salvation at the center of human history— that is unimaginably fantastic, but not grand enough—he is the whole meaning of the world, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. He is the very grammar of the language our tongues speak and the very genetic code that drives the beat of our hearts. To return to the words of Moses, he is “very near” to us indeed.
Unpack the Gospel
Tons of ink has been spilled over the interpretation of this famous parable and little more can be added here. But the critical issue—in keeping with the theme of the first reading, “Heed the voice of the LORD”—seems to be contained in Jesus’ final words, “Go and do likewise.” This sophisticated scholar of the law who seeks to “test” Jesus and to “justify himself,” has his own convictions tested and is finally moved to see that mercy is the issue and not justice. Even the lawyer’s question itself, “Who is my neighbor?” is turned around by Jesus, who asks instead, “Which of these three...was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
That is, the issue is not so much, “Who do I have to treat as my neighbor?”—to which the usual response would have been, “the sons of your own people” (Leviticus 19:18, RSV). The real question is “Have I been neighbor to everyone, treating each as one of my own?” The scholar of the law must himself admit that the hated Samaritan, “the one who treated him with mercy,” is the one who acts as neighbor, to the man, a Jew, who was not one of his “own people.” The word for “mercy” in the Greek is eleos, the same word we use in a different form when we say at the start of Mass, Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy.” As the Our Father teaches us, we must give mercy to get it, and so we, like the lawyer, must “go and do likewise.”
Reflect & Discuss
In Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be among the most despised people around. In his parable about the good Samaritan, Jesus contrasts one of these people with a priest and a Levite—those who were supposed to be among the holiest members of Jewish society. Please take 5 minutes to watch the Opening the Word video found on FORMED.org. Then reflect on these questions below and discuss them with a friend.
According to the presenter, why were the Samaritans so disliked in Jesus’ culture?
Why was Jesus’ notion of mercy— as exemplified by this parable of the good Samaritan—so difficult for the people of his time?
Who might be the “Samaritans” in our culture or in our own lives?
Reprinted from Opening the Word Leader Guide with permission from Augustine Institute.