ACTA  LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

 

Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Year C

Year of Luke

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READINGS

 

A reading from the book of Deuteronomy             30:10-14

 

Responsorial Psalm                           Psalm 19:8-11. R/. v. 9                         

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians  

                                                                               1:15-20   

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke    

10:25-37  

 

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The worst sins are not of the flesh.  The most destructive sins in the human village are sins of the heart, sins of the mind, sins of the spirit.  Consider what St Paul regards as the fruit of the Holy Spirit in human living:

 

    But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,     goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such     things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus     have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.                                                                                       Galatians 5:22-24

  

In the Christmas song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, the nine ladies dancing represent the nine virtues with which the Holy Spirit inspires the human heart.  The fact that each one of these is a feminine gender noun in the Greek language may be coincidental.  But, as someone said, “It makes you for to think”.

   What Paul does in the Galatian 5:16-22 is to expose the difference between “life in the Spirit`’ and “life in the flesh”.  Throughout his writings Paul uses the word “flesh” in several ways. “Flesh” may refer to the body, as in Romans 9:3 where he identifies himself as a Jew “according to the flesh”.  He means that he comes from Jewish stock. He can use it to refer to a human being, body and souls, a person, as a very literal translation makes clear:

 

    For by works of the law shall no flesh be justified before     him [God].                                                       Romans 3:20

  

    But there is yet another meaning that Paul gives to the word.  He can speak of “sins of the flesh” as embracing all sins that human beings are adept at, as he plainly does in Galatians:

 

    Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality,     impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits     of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness,     orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before,     that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of     God.                                                 Gal 5:19-21

 

   The “kingdom of God”, as we know from the Lord’s Prayer, means “being where the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven”.  The “desires of the flesh”, as Paul calls these sins, are a mixture of what we might call physical acts and acts of the mind (jealousy, rivalries, dissensions, envy, divisions).  What Paul warns against is whatever destroys peace, whatever creates division, whatever breaks up the unity of the people of God. Dissensions and divisions can knock at the door of good relationships in Paul’s little house-churches and that is his concern.  He tells these “foolish Galatians”,

 

    For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. Only do     not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through     love serve one another.                                  Galatians 5:13

 

“Flesh” here has a comprehensive meaning: anything that moves the human heart to selfishness that puts self-interest above the wellbeing of the body of Christ.  It is no surprise, therefore, that Paul and Jesus are in complete agreement as to the meaning of the whole of Jewish Torah:

 

    For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your     neighbour as yourself.                                      Galatians 5:14

 

   Of course, the first commandment of the Torah, God’s Law for the whole of humanity’s well-being, begins with God:

 

    Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You     shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all     your soul and with all your might. And these words that I     command you today shall be on your heart.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5

 

Unless humanity understands that it is not primarily obedience, deference, fear, or subservience that God demands.  What God demands is not of benefit to God; it is not a demand by a tyrant lord. We must love God in order to learn what love is.  God is love. We exist in the embrace of God’s steadfast love and if we know this and know how eternally safe we are in that love, we will love in return and thereby learn to love our neighbour as we ourselves know ourselves to be loved.

 

   The command given in the Book of Leviticus is not quite as “a certain lawyer” quotes to Jesus in today’s Gospel.  The sentences in Leviticus are in fact rather different:

 

    You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall

    reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of     him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the     sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as     yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

 

it is important to spot the difference when we are considering the meeting of Jesus and those who attempted to test Jesus.

A reading from the book of Deuteronomy             30:10-14

 

    For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he     took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the     Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes     that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the     Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

          For this commandment that I command you today is not     too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that     you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it     to us, that we may hear it and do it? ’ Neither is it beyond the     sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and     bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? ’ But the word is     very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you     can do it.       

The word of the Lord.

Isaiah, the Psalms, and Deuteronomy - the books of the Hebrew Bible most often quoted or referred to in the New Testament.  It is incumbent anyone trying to understand our Gospels and the letters of Paul and the rest to come to know what these ancient writings are about.  Did you know, for instance, that it was a discovery of the original—or a copy of the original—Book of Deuteronomy that changed your life and mine?

 

    Josiah and a Prophet

 

Few kings in the history of the Jewish people were full of the grace of God.  Indeed, most were, from the point of view of fidelity to God’s ways, utter failures.  The prophet Ezekiel believed that God should be shot of the lot of them. This is what God had to put up with:

 

    The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy     against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even     to the shepherds - Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of     Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds     feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the     wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.     The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not     healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have     not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force     and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered,     because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the     wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the     mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over     all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.                                                                                   Ezekiel 34:1-6  

 

   Of the few kings who listened to the word of God and was a true shepherd of God’s people, King Josiah (640-609 B.C.) stands out.   He was only eight years old when he became king of Judah but he reigned for thirty-one years in Jerusalem. When he was 26 years old he instigated a programme of religious reform beginning with repairing the Temple that had, in an age of royal indifference, had come to a sorry state.  During reconstruction work a scroll was discovered and the High Priest called the royal secretary and placed it in his hands.  He hurried to King Josiah and read it to him (most kings in history were illiterate). When the king heard the words of the scroll, he was deeply distressed; fearing that the neglect of what the scroll demanded would incur the wrath of God.  He issued an urgent command:

 

    Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all     Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found.     For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us,     because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do     according to all that is written concerning us.                                                                                     2 Kings 22:13

 

So five men of the King’s court went off to a prominent prophet named Huldah, the keeper of the royal wardrobe, and the wife of a man named Shallum.  She authenticated the scroll as the word of God and warned that its teaching must be observed. And that was the day that our lives changed.

   For the scroll was the original or a copy of the Book of Deuteronomy and it was around that scroll that the traditions of Israel began to be written down and the Hebrew Bible.  It may be that the scroll was not as ancient as it was presented to be to the king. It may have been planted by people who desired reform. Whatever the truth of the matter (and I incline to the planted theory), one of the effects of its discovery was to begin the process of writing down Israel’s ancient religious experiences.   The Hebrew Bible was born. Modelled on the Hebrew example, Christians in turn began to collect and preserve the writings that became our New Testament, a process that lasted three or four hundred years. In fact, we did not have a complete and exclusive list until the Council of Trent issued its decree on 8 April,1546.

 

   What all this means is that a process begun by a prophet  made us People of the Book, not of traditions handed down by word of mouth.  Jews and Christians are faith communities that live by what we read. Our Bibles, as we know them, were initiated by a seamstress woman.  Remember her name: Huldah.

 

   Deuteronomy

 

אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר משֶׁה֙

 

Reading from right to left, the Hebrew line above is the first line of the Book of Deuteronomy and its translation is,

 

THESE ARE THE WORDS MOSES SPOKE

 

We call these words the Book of Deuteronomy, a name that means The Second Law, a name is intended to convey that this scroll is a second edition of the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The scroll was composed in order to do what we all have to do. It tries to say in its day what Moses said in his day. We struggle to say in our day what Jesus said in his day. Deuteronomy tried to bring the past into the present.  That’s what we have to do to make God’s word speak to our time and place.

    Deuteronomy, THE WORDS, as it is called in Hebrew and by today’s Jews in their synagogue, is regarded today as the foundation of Judaism as it is practised today.  Let me quote words from the introduction to that book in The Jewish Study Bible:

 

Deuteronomy is … a deeply religious traditional text that, more than any other book in the Bible, provides the foundation of Judaism.   The religious conviction that God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai and that the Torah embodies the terms of the covenant originates with Deuteronomy.  Many familiar Jewish ritual objects, like the mezuzah, the tefillin, and the tzitzit (fringed garment), come from Deuteronomy, as does Judaism’s most important prayer, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). But the Shema is more than a prayer.  Judaism understands its recitation to be a binding legal act in which individuals pledge their commitment to Torah. By reciting the Shema, the congregation in the synagogue brings the plot of Deuteronomy to life in the present, as it enacts and renews that oath of allegiance to God that, it believes, Israel first vowed on the plains of Moab.   

 

Christians tend to see what they are and what they are called to become, in the Gospels, and more generally in the other writings of the New Testament.  In the Lord’s Prayer we bind ourselves to all that God is and to all that God gives: feeding, forgiveness, protection, deliverance for the power of evil, and a Father’s care that will see us safely home.

   To understand our holy books we need to understand where the faith of those who came to believe in Jesus came from.  For the most part, the faith of Jesus, Peter and Andrew, James and John, the faith of Paul of Tarsus and Barnabas of Cyprus came from the Book of Deuteronomy. It gave them directions for living in God’s covenant.  The Book of Psalms gave them a manual of prayers, prayers for all seasons, and for every mood and tense. The prophet Isaiah provided them with glimpses of what was to come, not in perfect clarification but enough to sustain hope and confidence in the truth that all would be well.

   Today’s reading is full of the delights.  First, there is the delight of God when attending to the well-being of the people of Israel.  For by living the teaching of Deuteronomy with all their heart and soul, this people will never stray far from their God.

   What God demands it not beyond the power of the people.  Unlike the gods of neighbouring peoples, their God is never far away.  God is never up in the clouds, hidden away from human concerns. God has not gone far away over the seas, so that one must venture on the dangers of the deep to be near God.  No! The word of God is in your mouth (as you learn it by recitation from your earliest days). By recitation it is written on your hearts, by keeping it, you live in the light of God.   

    The Book of Proverbs has a couplet that sums up what Deuteronomy proclaims:

 

Every word of God proves true;

he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Proverbs 30:5

 

THESE WORDS, as Deuteronomy begins (and so gives the book its name), believes that its words proclaim all that every Jew needs to know to walk in the way of the Lord.  These words have not lost their power or become redundant.  They retain their eternal power to become the WORD made flesh.

      

 

Responsorial Psalm                          Psalm 19. 8-11. R/, v. 9

 

R/.  The precepts of the Lord gladden the heart.

 

The law of the Lord is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure,

                        making wise the simple.                   R/.  

The precepts of the Lord are right,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is pure,

                           enlightening the eyes.                 R/.    

The fear of the Lord d is clean,

enduring forever;

the rules of the Lord are true,

                           and righteous altogether.                 R/.

 

More to be desired are they than gold,

even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey

and drippings of the honeycomb.

 

R/.  The precepts of the Lord gladden the heart.

 

This is a Sabbath Psalm.  It is recited at the beginning of the Saturday morning Sabbath service in synagogues over the world. The psalm opens with a hymn to creation, announcing that,

 

The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Psalm 19:1

 

The first part of this psalm does not use God’s holy name of YHWH.  It is a hymn to God (El as in El-ohim, that is, God, as in “God created the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1:1).  The second half (verses 8-15) speaks of YHWH. The first half is probably much older that the second.

   [By way of an informative note, Psalm 19 (18 in the Vulgate numbering) is quoted 19 times in the Roman Lectionary.  It occurs especially on the feast day of the Apostles, as, for example, on the Feast of Peter and Paul, on that of Philip and James, and that of Simon and Jude.  The Response verse given on each occasion explains why this psalm was chosen for these occasions:


Their word goes forth through all the earth.

 

The verse in question is,

 

Their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:4

 

Martin Luther understood this verse to refer prophetically to the proclaiming of the gospel by the apostles and to all who succeeded them in that ministry. The Roman Lectionary has followed Luther in reading into the Hebrew Scriptures what is not there.  The first half of the psalm is a declaration that God may be discerned in the work of God’s hands:

 

The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours out speech,

and night to night reveals knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words,

whose voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

 

It is a misuse of Psalm 19 to rob it of its meaning in the Hebrew Bible in order to imply a reference to ministers of the Christian gospel.]    

   Our Responsorial joins the psalm as it moves to praise the wisdom that come in YHWH’s teaching, YHWH’s Torah.  Simple people are made wise by the Lord’s words; they are not the preserve of the learned.  Because the Lord’s law is perfect in promotion of justice and righteousness, it revives the drooping human spirit, lifts up the heart, and gives light to eyes that have grown dim.  

    In praying the whole psalm, we are invited to look around us to the work of God’s creation and be in awe.  In the second we give thanks for a Teacher who reaches into our hearts and souls to implant there the knowledge of righteous living that is more precious than gold.

   It is a pity, therefore, that the final lines of this beautiful psalm are omitted:

 

Let the words of my mouth

and the meditation of my heart

be acceptable in Your sight,

O Lord,

my Strength and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19:14

              

 

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians  

                                                                               1:15-20

HE IS the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. HE IS before all things, and in him all things hold together. And HE IS the head of the body, the church. HE IS the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

The word of the Lord.

 

The reading from the letter to Colossian Christians may be an appropriate point to raise the question of authorship in relation to the letters of St Paul.  The Council of Trent (on 8 April, 1546) issued a decree on the books that were to be regarded as part of our Bible and numbered fourteen epistles (letters) as the work of the Paul the Apostle.  In our time, scholars have reduced the number of letters actually written by St Paul to seven:  Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. This is not due to the perversity of modern scholars.  It is simply that we know more and, in the case of Catholics, scholars have freedom, hitherto denied them, to engage in international scholarship without fear of losing their jobs.  Pope Pius XII in 1943 invited Catholic scholars to engage in genuine scholarship. Since then, with a few hiccups, Catholic scholars have become a welcome and exceedingly important part of modern scholarship. Given the times we live it, the Church is blessed with a very significant number of women scholars of the highest quality.

   The reasons for scholars to question the certainty of the Council of Trent’s acceptance of 14 genuine letters of Paul have to do with a host of difficulties.  For example, you will notice in coming weeks that the Letter to Hebrews is no longer introduced as “A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Hebrews” as in the old Roman Missal.  This is because that letter is so different in many ways from anything we know Paul wrote. For one thing, the Greek in Hebrews is the best in the New Testament by far. Its theology is significantly different from Paul’s.  For instance, the author of Hebrews is the only writer to believe that Jesus was a priest. Or rather, Hebrews presents Jesus as priest in heaven following his resurrection and exaltation to God’s right hand. It does not claim that Jesus was a priest on this earth.  If he were, it would be astonishing that Paul did not know this.

   On the basis of theology, quality of writing, special interests, style, and the history of tradition in relation to authorship, scholars have reduced genuine letters of Paul’s from 14 to 7.  

   But the debate goes on.  It is not new debate. The Council of Trent favoured St Augustine’s list of what books belong in the Bible, over against St Jerome, who believed we should accept only those books regarded as biblical by our Jewish brothers and sisters.

   Today many scholars do not believe that St Paul wrote Ephesians. Likewise Colossians. It is certain that Colossians was written before Ephesians since that letter quotes and is otherwise obviously dependent on Colossians.  I agree with this assessment but I am convinced that whoever wrote these letters knew and understood the teaching of Paul and ought to be regarded as developers of the thought of the great apostle, writing as they did many years after his death.

   The matter, many might say, is of no interest to people in the pew.  More’s the pity. For if you believe that, for example, Colossians and Ephesians, as well as 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and the letter to Titus, were not written by Paul but by writers who sought to develop the teaching of the apostle, then you are committed to the principle of development of teaching to meet new times and new circumstances.

 

   Church

 

The word “church” occurs four times in this letter and the usage is significant.  Two refer, as usual in the seven authentic letters of Paul, to house-churches:

 

    Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and     to Nympha and the church in her house.

Colossians 4:15

 

The letter must be forwarded to near neighbours:

 

    And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read     in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the     letter from Laodicea.                                       Colossians 4:16

 

This indicated how letters of Paul and letters of other writers came to be widely known.  Christians copied them and sent them on to neighbouring churches.

 

   What is most important is the use of the word “church” in the other two occurrences of the word in this letter.  The first occurs in our reading from Colossians today and in a paragraph that is of the greatest significant in the whole of the New Testament for our understanding of who Jesus is:

 

He is the head of the body, the church.

Colossians 2:18

 

We will meet the second occurrence next week.

 

   In the seven authentic letters of Paul he uses the word “church” about 25 times and in every case the reference is to local house-churches.  But in Colossians he employs the word twice to refer to the Church, the universal Church that was spreading its wings from the eastern Mediterranean as far as Rome itself.

 

   An Identity Parade

 

   Today’s second reading presents a very mature understanding of who Jesus is.  The operative words in this identity parade are He is … .  The phrase occurs four times in today’s reading.  Each statement is followed by an explanatory sentence.  What is especially remarkable is the progression from one to the next as we move from before creation to the time of the Church and to the death on the cross, to the final reconciliation with our God for all eternity.

 

   The first clue to the identity of Jesus is the foundation of all the other identity features:

 

HE IS the image of the invisible God.

   Colossians 1:15

 

The word in Greek is the eıĸōn.  Jesus is the icon of the God we cannot see.  Christ Jesus is the “image” of God, in whom we see what God is and what God has destined us to be. John’s Gospel expresses the matter in a classic sentence:


    In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God     and the Word was God.                                           John 1:1

 

In the book of Proverbs and in the Book of Wisdom “wisdom” (sophia) is said to be at God’s right hand when God created the heavens and the earth:

 

When he established the heavens, I was there;

when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above …

Proverbs 8:27-28

The opening sentences of our Bible announce that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth by the power of the word:  “And God said, “Let there be light”.  The creative Word of God calls all that there is into being.  St Paul makes the point this way:

 

    For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on     earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—     yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all     things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ,     through whom are all things and through whom we exist.                                                                       1 Corinthians 8:5-6

 

   The image of God is not a copy of God; rather the eıĸōn is a manifestation of God’s being.  Icons are not copies. An icon is not painted. The correct word to use when describing an ancient or modern icon is to say that “it is written”.  It tells the story of all that its subject was and did and signifies for those privileged to look upon it. So with Paul and with what we read today in Colossians.  In the eıĸōn of God we can read all that God is for all creation and all humanity.  

   The “firstborn of all creation” is a metaphor.  The firstborn is the one who inherits everything.  All that God gave and gives to humanity is placed into the hands of the eıĸōn of God. The very act of creation came through the Word.  No matter how exalted the angels or any other spiritual entities, they owe their origin to the Word for,

 

HE IS before all things, and in him all things hold together.

 

The creative Word uttered by God, the first-born, is before all things.  That is, their very being flows from and is held together by the Word. The coherence of all things is placed into the hands of the firstborn who has charge of and is responsible for all that there is.

   There is a special creation, a body within creation, the Church that requires the most attentive stewardship:

 

HE IS the head of the body, the church.

 

It is his care of the Church that marks Christ Jesus as the head of the church.  It is that he is the creator of the Church, the one in whom the Church finds its origin, its existence, its purpose, and its destiny.  All of this coheres into one startling fact. It is this. The Church is born in a death. All that the Church is, all that it is for, all that it is destined to be, indeed, all there is, brought to God in an act rooted in grim history:

 

    For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and     through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth     or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:20

 

The great shalom, the final and eternal peace that is the destiny of “all things” is brought about “by the blood of his cross”.

 

    Today’s second lesson is a hymn, a burst into song, an Alleluia.  It sings of all that Jesus is and all that we, in knowing him, become.   

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke    

10:25-37

    And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying,     “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to     him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And     he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your     heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and     with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” And he     said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will     live.”

        But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And     who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down     from     Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who     stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half     dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and     when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a     Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the     other side. But a     Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to     where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He     went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and     wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to     an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out     two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take     care of him, and whatever more you     spend, I will repay you     when I come back. ’ Which of these three, do you think, proved     to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?”     He     said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to     him, “You go, and do likewise”.      

The Gospel of the Lord.

 

We have all heard peculiar interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan in our time.  There is a long tradition of interpreting the story by tapering it to circumstances far removed from its place in St Luke’s Gospel. For from the days our Gospels were written, interpretation was inevitable.  The very act of translation from one language to another is an interpretation. Jesus told the parable in his Aramaic tongue. The Gospels were written in Greek. Luke, whose Gospel contains many parables not found in Matthew or Mark (John has no parables!) was not a Jew and probably knew no Aramaic.  How do we know that Luke’s setting of the story was original? Did Jesus tell it to a lawyer who asked a question in order to test the man from Galilee who has just set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51)? The context in which things happen is always a factor in the business of interpretation.

    Take, for example, the interpretation of one of the greatest Christian scholars, a man from Alexandria, named Origen.  His father was martyred in 202 A.D. His son was a layman, ordained in later life, and he was tortured during the persecution of the Emperor Decius, and died as a result.  He was a brilliant Scripture scholar but he worked within the Alexandrian way of approach to understanding Holy Writ. This is how Origen understood the parable of the Good Samaritan:

    The Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man is to be understood as Christ; the man’s journey from Jerusalem to Jericho is our own decline from heavenly     to earthly things; the bandits who attached the man are hostile spiritual forces or demons; the inn in which the Samaritan took the man for safety and restoration, is the Church.

 

Many ancient commentators such as St Irenaeus of Lyon and St. Augustine interpreted this and other parables and incidents in the Bible in this way of going behind the plain story to seek the hidden - and for them - what was the real meaning of the event. It is always wise to beware of the interpreter.                                                                      

 

   The Setting …

 

The first thing to realise is that we come across the parable in Luke’s Gospel.  It has been said by many that St Matthew’s Gospel is about the kingdom of heaven but Luke’s Gospel is about the Church.  This Gentile Christian wrote to inform and counsel those who walked the way of Jesus. By including many parables of Jesus, he hoped to teach his Christian readers and hearers to understand that Jesus was their model.  What Jesus did and what he said were to be taken to heart and to be embraced as a way of life that must become their own.

   The parable of the Good Samaritan is told as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem and to all that will happen there.  Notice that Luke says that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem”. Jesus was not a tourist. Luke insists that he well knew what lay ahead and cautioned his readers to attend to all that is done and said as he draws hear the place of death.  

    Without any preparation, a certain lawyer stood up.  But Luke begins the story with And behold!  Remember most Christians almost down to our own day were illiterate.  They heard the stories read to them. Luke’s And behold! is a teacher’s shout:     “Pay attention! Sit up and listen! This is important!”  Luke is underlining the fact that what he is about to relate has immediate and enduring relevance to Christian living.  Luke uses “And behold!” 26 times in his Gospel - each time to ensure the full attention of his audience. These days we would say, “Listen up!”

   Luke uses the word’ “lawyer” when he is referring to teachers of the Law of Moses, the Torah (see 5:17).  It is important to realise that this lawyer approaches Jesus to test him, that is, to expose him to censure if his teaching does not conform the Mosaic Law.  Luke uses a very strong form of the verb and we might translate “to subject him to rigorous testing”. His question, therefore, must not be taken as coming from an honest inquirer.

The idea that there is life after death came late to Jewish understanding and even today is by no means a universal feature of Jewish faith.  The lawyer here has obviously been acquainted with the Book of Daniel where the phrase makes its first appearance in the Hebrew Bible:

 

    And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall     awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and     everlasting contempt.                                           Daniel 12:2

 

Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, the expert in the Law of Moses and extracts from him the standard answer: Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18:

 

    You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and     with all your soul and with all your might.  

Deuteronomy 6:4

 

… you shall love your neighbour as yourself …

Leviticus 19:18

 

The version quoted in Luke’s story is more elaborate than that in Deuteronomy 6:4 but it does justice to the demands made in Torah.  The demand to love God with all your heart demands that one’s whole being is a response to God. Every fibre of one’s being, one’s very soul, must be given over to the love of “the Lord your God”.

  The Leviticus text demands that one must love one’s neighbour in the way and to the degree that one love’s oneself.  But the Law’s demand is that one’s love extends to fellow Israelites and to a foreigner resident in the land. As we shall see, Jesus demands that neighbourly love must extend far beyond the Jewish household.  However, for the moment, Jesus accepts the man’s reply and urges the lawyer to go beyond quoting to the commandments to the much more difficult business of fulfilling them: Do this and you shall live.

   But the lawyer “to justify himself”, to appear in a good light, comes up with a testing supplementary question.  Remember how the story began: “a lawyer stood up”, indicating an audience to be impressed. Hence his question:

And who is my neighbour?

 

The answer in Leviticus is crystal clear.   Your neighbour is your fellow Jews and any foreigner who resides in your community.  Leviticus does not demand that his fellow Israelites must love all humanity - far from it!  Jesus is about to undo the lawyer’s self-satisfaction by telling a story, not about a Jew, but about a Samaritan, one of them, don’t you know.

 

   On being a neighbour

 

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  No mention of a name or a national identity. The phrase “a certain man” occurs seven times in Luke’s Gospel (and not at all in the others).  It is mainly used to introduce parables and the intention seems to be to make everyman, not any particular person, the subject of attention. As far as Jesus is concerned, it might be anyone. The man fell among thieves and ends up half-dead.

   Now three people appear on the scene.  The first two, a priest and a Levite (a Temple official) were going down that way - by chance.  They just happened to be there, two people wandering down the Jericho road.   They, men of the cloth, both saw the man - this is emphasised; it is told twice - pass by on the other side.  No explanation is given, no excuse made.

   A Samaritan, as he made his way, saw the man and he had compassion.  He is a Samaritan, a descendant, it was believed, of those foreigners dumped by the Assyrian when they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (see 2 Kings 17:21-41).  A saying at the time says it all: He who eats the bread of the Samaritans is like one who eats the flesh of swine”. The phrase “had compassion” is at the end of the sentence to give it emphasis.  It is a powerful verb, often translated as “moved to compassion”, stressing a physical upset at the very sight of another’s pain (see Mark 1:41; Matthew 9:36; and Luke 7:13).

    There is purpose in this man’s journey.  He does not travel be chance. He made his way intent on purpose.  He is about his business. But that purpose must give way to a call on his compassion.  

    The rest of the parable emphasises the depth of that compassion.  Everything he does is done to ensure the wellbeing of the man who fell among thieves.  His care attention to the man’s every need is in sharp contrast to the neglect the religious prigs who passed by.

   The outsider, the despised Samaritan, is presented to the lawyer, not as a neighbour.  Rather, the Samaritan shows that a neighbour is not someone else that you might or might not love.  A neighbour is one who acts as a neighbour when only neighbouring love will serve. The important thing, the only thing, is to be a neighbour:

 

    Which one of the three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour     to the man who fell among robbers?

 

The power of the parable is that Jesus changes the question.

 

Joseph O’Hanlon

 

   

   

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