Love in the time of fallenness: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 10:25–37:

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.”

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.”

Today’s Gospel is one of the most well-known episodes of Jesus’ teachings. This parable extends far past religious teaching; it’s safe to say it is its own cultural phenomenon. The term “good Samaritan” is well known even absent the source material, a measure of just how influential the Gospels have been.

As such, the lessons that Jesus teaches in this are already well known and very understandable. Additional context, in that Samaritans and Judeans were antagonistic towards each other over religious differences, enhances but does not change our understanding of this parable. It does underscore the toughness in which Jesus taught that all men and women are our “neighbors” in God’s law. If we are to be children of God, we must love our brothers and sisters as we do ourselves. It is in that way that we show our love of the Father with all our minds, hearts, and souls.

So that might be pretty obvious to all who hear this passage today. Perhaps we can focus more on what love is in Jesus’ parable. Love in this case isn’t the presence of warm and fuzzy feelings. The Samaritan didn’t sing the Judean victim’s praises and pledge unending fealty to him. He simply saw the man dying in the street and did what he could to save his life. We get confused in the language of love at times and forget its real meaning, which is not romance or endorsement of all aspects of another. It is simply this: to sacrifice for the good of another for the other’s sake alone.

That separates the Samaritan from the priest and the Levite in this passage. It’s not that either of the other two men held any special animosity for the victim. It’s just that they didn’t care. It mattered not to them whether the man lived or died, or at the very least it didn’t matter enough for them to sacrifice even a small part of their day to see what could be done. They didn’t hate the victim, but they had no love at all for him either, even though he was more a part of their own community than the Samaritan’s.

Jesus challenges us in this parable to imagine a world in which all men and women had their neighbor’s best interests at heart at all times. The Judean might never have been a victim in the first place if God’s law had been truly followed by all. But even if the Judean had been injured in some other way — an accident or an attack by an animal — it would have been unthinkable. Just the fact that this parable could be told and understood measured how far people had fallen away from His Word.

That was not a new phenomenon, either. It is the story of fallen humanity almost from the moment of exile from the Garden of Eden. Even in Moses’ time, we learn in our first reading today, the Lord reminded the Israelites that they didn’t need to look to the stars or sky to find Him. The Lord could be found much closer at hand:

“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.”

We already know this, because the Lord has already written it on our hearts. We know that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, not because we like them but because they are family — the Lord’s family, and therefore ours. If we are to love God and seek His adoption, we have to love His whole family, not just those we favor.

This parable, of course, foreshadows Jesus’ own sacrifice on the cross for all of us. Jesus may not have “liked” each and every one of us at times in our own lives either. He certainly acted with anger against the moneychangers in the temple, for instance. However, Jesus came to save them too, and died on the cross for them just as much as he did for the two thieves next to him and all of the sinners before and since. That is the measure of God’s love, and His salvation through that sacrifice matches that measure.

Being a good neighbor in this parable has little to do with personal feelings, but with a commitment to love for the Lord rather than our own selfishness. That doesn’t mean agreeing with our “neighbors” or even feeling warm and fuzzy thoughts, but it does mean a commitment to seeking their best interests even when it might cross our own interests. But if we seek this enthusiastically enough, we might find that those interests don’t cross nearly as much as we first think.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Good Samaritan,” by Balthasar van Cortbemde, 1647. On display in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.