Deut. 30:10–14; Col. 1:15–20; Luke 10:25–37
Who is your neighbor? Who do you think of as neighbor? Is it the people in the houses closest to you? The people down the street on the corner? The people in a 10 block radius? Clearly Jesus thinks the term neighbor applies in a much more broad sense than how we usually use it.
I admit to feeling a twinge of guilt when I hear this parable. I can name maybe three of my close neighbors. That seems so unlike how things were when I grew up. Back when I was in sixth grade, I could name nearly every family on our street. I grew up watching Fred Rogers singing his opening song inviting the viewer to be his neighbor. But we don’t seem to live in a world that believes in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood anymore. Maybe we never did. But certainly, we have it infinitely better than the world of the first century, where casual barbarism, as I’ve heard one scholar put it, ruled the day.
The setting for Jesus’ parable in this gospel reading today underscores that fact. A man coming down from Jerusalem is waylaid, beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho—a notoriously dangerous stretch of road during that time. Even in modern times this has been the case, as this road was the supply line and route to Jerusalem from the coast during the Israeli war of independence, and the road is still littered with the wrecks of those vehicles ambushed during that time. Anyway, Jesus tells us first that a priest walks down the same road, and seeing the man left for dead, he crosses to the other side to continue his journey. Then a Levite does the same. The commentaries often make the case that the priest and Levite are on their way to Jerusalem to serve in the temple and that they are trying to avoid the ritual impurity they’d incur by touching a dead body, rendering them unable to fulfill their service. However, as I read the passage, I noticed that they were coming down the road from Jerusalem, not going up. And if you know anything about going to Jerusalem, you always go up to it. Even today, for a Jewish person to go to Jerusalem is to make aliya—to go up to Jerusalem. So the priest and Levite are returning from Jerusalem, and hence, not in jeopardy of missing their term of service.
Before I actually put all that together, I heard a great reflection on this parable from Dr. Brant Pitre, and he confirmed my suspicion. He also pointed out that one mitzvah or commandment for a pious Jew was the obligation to bury the dead. So what Jesus is highlighting here is not the conflict between one commandment and another, but of simple neglect to perform what one knows is just to anyone, friend or enemy, neighbor or stranger.
So who is our neighbor? That’s what the scribe asks. Jews of the first century had varying opinions. Leviticus 19:17-18 says to love your neighbor as yourself, as the scribe rightly notes. Some interpretations only included other Jews as neighbors, but Leviticus 19:33-34 says that one must also love the stranger in your midst as yourself. If this is the case, the stranger is treated as a neighbor. So Jesus is not teaching anything that the Torah didn’t already teach. He’s simply pointing out to the scribe, who should know better, the truth of the matter. Your neighbor is not just the one like you but may well be one who is quite different and might even hold contrary values to you—in short, your enemy. And Jews and Samaritans of the time were, in fact, bitter enemies.
But what the parable demonstrates is that mercy is not some lofty concept that we have to struggle to grasp. It’s right there in our hearts. We all know what mercy looks like. The scribe recognized it in the actions of the Samaritan easily enough. In our first reading from Deuteronomy 30, Moses makes note as well: “It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?’ 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 do it?’ No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”
In Catholic moral tradition, we have a term for this idea that morality resides in our hearts: natural law. It’s the foundation of Catholic moral teaching. It’s the reason why the Ten Commandments looks so much like the moral codes of other ancient civilizations. We know what’s right in many circumstances, but for whatever reason, like the priest and Levite, we choose not to do it.
That’s what it comes down to—a matter of choice, a matter of the will. And that brings me back to the gospel reading again. Jesus has pretty much schooled the scribe on the meaning of the second greatest commandment to love neighbor as self, but buried in there as well is a lesson about the first commandment—the one that comes to us from Deuteronomy 6:5, a most cherished passage from Hebrew scripture called the Shema: Sh-ma, Yisrael. A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Now Luke and the other gospels vary slightly from the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy. In Luke, the scribe says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being (or soul, which is perhaps a better translation), with all your strength, and with all your mind.” Yes, Jesus adds, “mind” to this passage. I won’t get into the technicalities of scriptural redaction here, but suffice it to say that the word mind doesn’t appear in the Hebrew. But its presence here is important from a Catholic perspective.
You see, love is not merely an emotion. It’s not just that warm feeling we get in our core when we really desire or prefer one thing over another. It’s not merely a heightened state of spiritual awareness of something’s importance and value. It’s not just an internal experience. As DC Talk used to sing, love is a verb. The word love is used in scripture almost exclusively as a verb. So love is an act of the will.
And an act of the will is an act that one chooses with the mind fully engaged. Your feelings are all well and good, but if you don’t make an act of the will to do something, your feelings are inert. They go nowhere and accomplish nothing.
In the context of the parable, this is important. To pious Jews, the mitzvot or commandments of the law are not done simply to check boxes off of a form or for external adherence to a code. You perform the commandments as an act of love toward God. And to act, you must engage the will. But to refuse to act, you must also engage the will. So priest and Levite in the story of the good Samaritan choose not to perform an act of love to God, while the Samaritan chooses to perform this act of love by loving his neighbor.
In a way, the Pharisees get sort of a bum rap in much of our scripture because the whole point of the law for them was to show their love for God in their daily lives. And what Jesus is really calling out here is not those who adhere to the law in letter and spirit, but those who choose not to follow the law when no one is watching. In fact, the parable is about just that disconnect. You cannot show love for God if your love stops at your neighbor’s doorstep. You cannot show love for God if it refuses the mercy that justice requires. Love of neighbor is itself an act of love for God.
The greatest act of love that we know is the act of mercy that Jesus performed up there and in his offering, in which we will take part in a few moments. And mercy often requires us to take up the cross and follow our savior. We are passing through what seems to be a horrendous time of hatred and senseless violence, of partisan rancor, of disillusionment. And instead of trying to find solutions, too many of us are simply content with pointing fingers in the other direction. Well, that’s not working. As Dr. King wrote in his book Strength to Love in another time of unrest and rancor, “Darkness cannot drive our darkness. Only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that.”
So will we embrace mercy and cross the road? Will we allow our love to pass over the doorstep of our neighbor and embrace the other? Will we let our own flickering flame dispel some of the darkness in this difficult time?
I pray that God will have mercy on us, and that we will have mercy on each other.