Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fifteenth Sunday: "Who Is My Neighbour?"

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year "C") July 11, 2010, ON BEING A NEIGHBOUR TO ONE IN NEED [Texts: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; [Psalm 69 or 19]; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37]

The Book of Deuteronomy presents Moses speaking on the threshold of the Promised Land. Giving his final instructions, he begs God's people to be faithful to the Lord's ways. In today's reading, he insists that they listen to and heed, that is obey, God's Torah by putting it into practice.

Many centuries after Moses, readers of this deeply spiritual book--the one most often cited by Jesus in the New Testament--know that its message is addressed to them. In patiently attending to its message, they come to know they must be totally engaged in carrying out its divinely-inspired precepts.

For clinging to God's instruction will be the key to happiness ("the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart... More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb").

Moses somewhat rhetorically argued that Torah observance did not require one to ascend to the heavens, as Enoch had (Genesis 5:24) or Elijah would (2 Kings 2:1-12). Nor did one have to go across the sea to find it. Instead, in a passage anticipating the prophecies of Jeremiah (31:33) and Ezekiel (36:26-27), which foretell God's Spirit writing Torah on human hearts, Moses argued "it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe".

Moses insisted on God's holy people putting the commandment into practice, pleading it "is not too hard for you".

Luke's depiction of Jesus, which at times likens Him to a "second" or "new Moses", stresses the notion of faith in action, putting the emphasis on doing ("what must I do to inherit eternal life?" ... "Do this, and you will live".... "Go and do likewise").

Following in the footsteps of Moses, who received and handed on God's Law to Israel, Jesus came to teach it and interpret it.

Though the legal expert ("a lawyer") was considered wise in contemporary society, his motives are not pure (he "stood up to test Jesus"). Yet when Jesus asked him, in turn, how he read the law, he correctly answered, combining Deuteronomy's command of single-minded love of God (6:5) with a text from Leviticus (19:18) on love of neighbour -- a single commandment in two parts.

The lawyer tried to justify himself in light of Jesus' invitation to keep this double injunction. He asked about the identity of his neighbour. In reply, Jesus told one of the most shocking yet powerful of His parables, about a compassion Samaritan.

The parable is violent and provocative. One hears with horror, the injuries inflicted on the Jewish traveller: "he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead". Perhaps more shocking was the behaviour of observant Jews who considered their own safety or concern for ritual purity (a corpse defiled) could lead them to "pass by on the other side".

For Jews, caring for one's neighbour meant first of all looking after one's fellow Israelite. But "a priest" and "a Levite" could not be bothered. Yet--contrary to every expectation--a despised stranger ("a Samaritan") took a chance, and made himself vulnerable enough to take a look and give a hand. The hated enemy showed members of God's family how to have a human heart.

The most stunning feature lies in Jesus' reversal of the issue at stake in identifying one's neighbour. Not who deserves one's attention and care. But rather Jesus' challenge to become the kind of person who can "be a neighbour". Being a neighbour means showing compassion to everyone encountered--however frightening, alien, defenceless or naked that one might be. Jesus invites His hearers to risk life and possessions, as the Good Samaritan did.

The extraordinary wisdom of Jesus' teaching opens us to Paul's declarations about Christ in the epistle to the Colossians. Colossae was a small city in the Lycus River Valley in Phrygia (the southwestern section of modern Turkey). This small church seemingly struggled with current pseudo-philosophies, showed exaggerated interest in ascetical practices and a preoccupation with angelology.

Paul urged them to look to the Lord as the source of all their wisdom, since all else exists "through Him and for Him". Indeed, he declared, "in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell".

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