July 14, 2019: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Deuteronomy 30:10-14

Moses said to the people:
“If only you would heed the voice of the LORD, your God,
and keep his commandments and statutes
that are written in this book of the law,
when you return to the LORD, your God,
with all your heart and all your soul.

“For this command that I enjoin on you today
is not too mysterious and remote for you.
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.”

The title “Deuteronomy” comes from the Septuagint deuteronomion, which means
“second law.”  Moses is addressing a new generation of Israelites, all those who would have been under the age of twenty when the exodus began almost 40 years earlier. These “new” Israelites gathered in Moab to hear Moses restate the law to them.

In this passage, Moses is pleading with them to return to the Lord with all their hearts and souls.  It is one of the most consoling and joyful exhortations ever written.

Moses said to the people: If only you heed the voice of the LORD, your God, and keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law,

“Book of the law” is a technical reference to Israel’s earliest traditions, some of which were written in legal form and others in narrative.  That material is found today in the Pentateuchal Torah, the first five books of the Bible.

when you return to the LORD, your God, 

Mention of the people’s return suggests they had turned away from the Lord in disloyalty, returned in repentance, and were now entering into a renewed covenant relationship.

with all your heart and all your soul.

“All your heart and soul” is a technical phrase that denotes all of one’s being.  It is associated with love of God, the first and greatest commandment within which all other statutes and ordinances find their completion (see Deuteronomy 6:5).

“For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you.

To those who may say the law is too difficult to understand or so lofty it is almost impossible to observe, Moses replies: No!  It is neither mysterious nor remote. It is not a secret hidden in heaven, awaiting the end-time to be revealed.  Because of human weakness it may be a challenge to follow, but it is relatively simple to understand.

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?’

Nor is it located across some impossible divide, unattainable for most of us.

No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts;

While the statutes are the word of God, and written in the book of the law, they are also written in people’s hearts. The law actually arises from the experience of women and men: worship one God, do not steal, do not lie, and so on.  It is as close to us as our own human life.  God is our life, and our lives reveal God.

This is a bold claim, not because it minimizes the value of the word of God, but because it does not.  It is a bold claim because it identifies human experience as the place where the word of God is to be found.

This is less a statement about what we call “natural law” than a reference to the will of God that we have learned and interiorized.  It reveals a stage in the revelation that God’s love, which created the universe, is always with us.

you have only to carry it out.

Essentially, Moses is insisting that his audience already knows the difference between right and wrong; what is needed is that they heed God’s voice and keep God’s command.

2nd Reading – Colossians 1:15-20

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace by the blood of his cross
through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

This week we begin a four-week series through Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Colossae was a city in Phyrgia, about 125 miles east of Ephesus, and very close to Laodicea (part of modern-day Turkey). The church there was not founded by Saint Paul, but by a disciple of his, Epaphras (Colossians 1:7).

Epaphras visited Paul in Rome, where he was imprisoned (A.D. 61-63).  Epaphras reported that false teachers had brought dangerous doctrines into the church at Colossae, prompting Paul to write to the Colossians and restate for them several truths about the faith.

The christology in this hymn praising Christ is referred to as high christology, which emphasizes Jesus’ divinity (rather than his human nature and his physical life on earth).

Paul will use several striking terms to characterize Christ for the non-Jewish church at Colossae, whose members were confused about the identity of Jesus.  He is the firstborn, the beginning, the head of the church.  Each adds a significant dimension to our understanding of Christ.

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God,

An image can either represent something or it can be a visible expression or manifestation of it.  It is precisely because images function in this way that the ancient Hebrews forbade fashioning images of God.  Once God was so represented, God could always be represented in such a limited way.

It’s clear from this passage that Christ is considered more than a mere symbol; rather, he is a visible manifestation of the invisible God.  To say that Christ is the image of God is not meant to limit our understanding of God; rather, it extols the person of Christ.

the firstborn of all creation.

Similarly, the term “firstborn” can also be understood in two ways.  It can refer to priority in time or to primacy in importance.  As the context which follows shows, the reference is not to Christ as the first created being, but to the sovereignty of the power he exercises.

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the
invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him.

Christ occupies a place of preeminence over all of creation; in fact, creation is dependent upon him.  He is the agent through whom all was created, and he is also the goal of all creation.

Note that Christ’s rule extends over the angelic realm as well (dominions, principalities, powers).

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

“Paul did not say ‘He was made before all things,’ but that ‘He is before all things.’ He is not only the maker of all, but also He manages the care of what He has made and governs the creature, which exists by His wisdom and power.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 450), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul, On Romans]

He is the head of the body, the church.

Paul shifts his focus and ties creation together with redemption.  Using the metaphor of the body, he depicts both the union that exists between Christ and the Church and the preeminence that is Christ’s as head of that body.

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.

Redemption is accomplished through Christ’s resurrection (“firstborn from the dead”).  Christ is both the first one raised and the one through whom all others will be raised.

For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, 

Finally, as image or manifestation of the invisible God, the fullness of God dwells within Christ.

and through him to reconcile all things for him,

In this capacity, Christ is the agent of reconciliation, a reconciliation with a universal scope.  It includes all created things in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible.

making peace by the blood of his cross through him,

The means of this reconciliation that Christ brings is the blood of the cross.  The sacrificial death of the human Jesus becomes the means through which the cosmic Christ reconciles all creation with God.

whether those on earth or those in heaven.

“I believe that when our Lord and Savior came, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were blessed with God’s mercy. Previously they had seen His day and rejoiced (John 8:56). It is not believable that they did not profit from it later, when He came and was born of a virgin. And why do I speak of the patriarchs? I shall boldly follow the authority of the Scriptures to higher planes, for the presence of the Lord Jesus and His work benefitted not only what is earthly but also what is heavenly. Hence the blood of His cross, both on earth and in heaven.” [Origin (after A.D. 233), Homilies on Luke 10,3]

In short, Paul has asserted that Jesus — and not the Torah, as the Jews believed — is everything.  He is not just a great philosopher who lived at an identifiable time in history, he is the very image of the invisible God.

Gospel – 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 we hear the famous parable of the good Samaritan. While providing a powerful lesson about mercy toward those in need, this teaching also proclaims that non-Jews can observe the law and thus enter into eternal life.

There was a scholar of the law

A lawyer, known then as a scribe.

who stood up to test him and said,

This challenge to Jesus’ knowledge of the law is an attempt to publicly shame him.

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The irony is that the lawyer is asking the right question, but for a very wrong reason (to catch Jesus in an error).

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

Jesus, likely realizing that he is being tested and certainly knowing the complexities of the matter, sends the lawyer back to the law.

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,

The lawyer gives a perfect answer, the first part of which is from Deuteronomy 6:5, the heartpiece of the Jewish scriptures.  Religious Jews today still put it in the phylacteries which they wear on their forehead and arm when they pray, place it at their doorposts, pray it daily throughout life, and want it on their lips as they die.

and your neighbor as yourself.”

The second part of the answer is Leviticus 19:18.

He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

By answering his own question correctly, the lawyer has revealed that he was not expecting to learn anything from Jesus, but was testing him.

Jesus’ comment is reminiscent of Leviticus 18:5 (see also Galatians 3:12; Romans 10:5).

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

When Jesus answers the challenge successfully, the lawyer attempts to save face by justifying himself, showing that he had sufficient reason for asking the question in the first place.  Like a modern-day lawyer, he presses Jesus to define his terms explicitly.

It’s possible that this question about the definition of “neighbor” was a general topic of debate at this time.  “Neighbor” was originally interpreted to mean another Jew, although sometimes resident aliens were included in this injunction (see Leviticus 19:34).

Jesus will use this as an opportunity to launch part of his moral revolution.  His response is the story of the Good Samaritan.

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.

Jerusalem is about 2,500 feet above sea level.  Jericho is only twenty miles away, yet sits at 800 feet below sea level.  This means that the road connecting the two cities drops about 3,300 feet in a very short span.  The steep road was also very narrow, with many sudden turns.  All of these things made this path a hunting ground for brigands.

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.

Priests and Levites were temple personnel, highly conscious of their ritual purity.  In this story, they are caught in a dilemma: even if they wanted to help the man, he may have been dead, and they would incur ceremonial defilement by touching him.

Should they fulfill their social obligations to another human being, or should they protect their cultic purity so that they might fulfill their ritual obligations?  They chose the latter.

But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him

Recall from two weeks ago that the Samaritans were despised “half-breeds” and already considered unclean by the Jews.  The hearers of this story would have considered Samaritans a heretical and schismatic group worshipers, loathed even more than the pagans.

was moved with compassion at the sight.

Obviously a Samaritan would have no ritual obligations; however, the text makes it clear that his motivation was not out of having nothing to lose, but from compassion.

The word here used for compassion (splanchnízomai) is the same emotion that overwhelmed Jesus when he saw the grief of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:13) and the father when he saw his prodigal son returning (Luke 15:20).

The Samaritan responded out of love, a love that encompassed all the powers of his being.

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 lawyer asked about works and was told to love.  The Samaritan loves and demonstrates it through works.  He goes out of his way to care for this stranger: he cleans the wounds with the alcohol in the wine, soothes them with the oil, and puts the man on his own animal and walks him to the nearest inn.

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.’

The care from the despised stranger continues: he pays for the care provided by another, with a sum equivalent of two days’ wages.  Because of the danger of robbers, it’s likely that he did not have much money with him and therefore gave most or all of what he had.

Jesus’ choice of a Samaritan as the hero of his story would have made the audience wince.  The man knew the secret to eternal life, but he had reached this insight without the lawyer’s education, without priestly or levitical concern for purity, and without status.

Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”

Jesus’ question turns the lawyer’s question on its head: Don’t ask about who belongs to God’s people and thus deserves neighborly attention, but rather ask about the conduct incumbent upon a member of God’s chosen people.

The focus shifts from the other to oneself.

He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”

When Jesus recasts the question this way, the lawyer is caught in his own snare.  The lawyer is obviously a very intelligent person.  He understands that Jesus is teaching him that the answer is that even Samaritans are his neighbor.  But he cannot even bring himself to say “Samaritan,” and instead answers with “the one who treated him with mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Because he lived out the law, the outcast Samaritan shows that he is a neighbor, a member of God’s people, one who inherits eternal life.  Jesus is teaching the lawyer that he cannot use the law to justify his exclusion of certain people from the commandment to love.

The final admonition is striking: Go and do likewise!  Put aside all racial or religious prejudices in order to meet the needs of others!  Put aside all other responsibilities in order to love the other!

This teaching was unlike any religious teaching in history.  Everyone in the world, without exception, is our neighbor.  Every path we take is the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Connections and Themes

It is not enough to want to follow Jesus and to be committed to him.  Discipleship also demands a certain ability to make the necessary shifts in understanding in order to recognize what following Jesus requires.  Jesus did not merely repeat the religious tradition in which he had been formed; he reinterpreted it.  Today, we face a similar challenge.  We too are called to understand the religious meaning of the words and deeds of Jesus, but we must also know how these words and deeds themselves called for adjustments of understanding on the part of those who first heard and witnessed them.

Open to the unexpected.  Perhaps one of the most exciting and simultaneously unnerving aspects of our religious tradition is its nonconforming nature.  We think we finally understand the way God is working in our lives, and then something happens that seems to turn our understanding inside out.  We extol Christ as the exalted image of the invisible God, as the firstborn of all creation, the one in whom all else was created, and then we stand at the foot of the cross seeing the blood flow from his crucified body.  The exalted one is humiliated, and it is precisely through his humiliation that he is exalted.

We are told to love our neighbor, and when we ask who that might be, we are told a story that turns the question around.  “Who is my neighbor?” or “Whom should I love?” becomes “Who acts as a neighbor?” or “Who shows love?”  Attention shifts from the object of our love to loving without deciding who is deserving.  The respectable person asks about righteous living, and the genuinely righteous person turns out to be the one who was not respected.  The ways of God are indeed paradoxical.

Love of the law.  The same Sunday that we reflect on the paradoxical nature of the ways of God, we are told that the law of God, which appears to be so lofty, is really very close to us, in our mouths and in our hearts.  This too is an unusual claim.  Yet if we understand ourselves to be part of the body of Christ, as depicted in the epistle, and if we love the Lord our God as totally as the gospel exhorts us to love, we will allow the law to take hold of us in such a way that we will esteem it.  This is not to promote a kind of legalism. Rather, it is a way of living inspired and informed by love, love of God and love of others, even, and perhaps especially, those whom we are not inclined to love.

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