2004—Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time—C
Christian love-its foundation and consequences.
The central expectations of a Christian life, spelled out in today's gospel, are very familiar to all of us. As the scholar of the Jewish law expresses them: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." The two great commandments of love for God and for our neighbor are close to the heart of Christianity. But what do these commandments mean? Let's reflect this morning on the foundation of the two commandments (why they are central to our lives as Christians) and on their consequences (what living in accord with them really looks like).
On the most obvious level, we can answer the why question by saying we should love God and our neighbor because God tells us to. These are, after all, the two great commandments. But how can "love" be commanded? How does one legislate "love"? In fact, the command to love God quoted by the lawyer is from a liturgical sermon by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. In this sermon, Moses is urging Israel to recommit itself to the covenant initiated by God with the people of Israel when they were enslaved in Egypt. In this original covenant, God promised to be with Israel, free them from bondage, lead them into the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The condition was that the people say yes-they should accept the promise of God and the gift of freedom God was offering them.
The command to love God is in effect, a call to say yes to this gift.
It is not some strange requirement that God lays on us arbitrarily. Following it will lead us into freedom and fulfillment. The foundation of the great commandment is God's extraordinary love for us-a love that promises to bring us freedom and fulfillment. That is why our first reading tells us that the first great commandment is not "mysterious and remote" or "across the sea" but it is "something very near to you, already in your hearts." So the scholar of the law in the gospel rightly speaks to Jesus about of "inheriting" the blessing God has promised. In Deuteronomy this blessing is understood as life in the Promised Land. Jesus echoes this when he says to the lawyer, "Do this and you will live." But in Jesus the foundation of the commandment is an even more extraordinary promise: do this and you will have eternal life. We are called to live in a way that enables us to receive the gift of God's own life that enables us to live with God and one another forever. So our love is based on an extraordinary foundation-the unconditional gift of God's love and God's life to us.
The call to love not only has an extraordinary foundation; it also has extraordinary consequences. There is a second commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. There can be no love of God that does not express itself in love of neighbor. The man talking with Jesus in the gospel knows this. But he asks a further question that shows the extraordinary consequences of Christian love-"who is my neighbor?" This is the springboard for Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor to the man who has been thrown into the ditch by robbers is neither a priest nor a Levite. It is a Samaritan-a person whom the Jews of Jesus' time saw as enemy; like some Christians might regard Muslims today.
Notice that Jesus does not really answer the question "who is my neighbor?" He reverses the question: Which of the three proved neighbor to the man in the ditch? This reversal is the main point. We are commanded to become neighbor to whoever is in need, even "foreigners," just like the Samaritan did. I should become neighbor to anyone who needs help. This won't always be a person bleeding by the road. We are called to become a neighbor where another's sickness confronts our health, when another's poverty confronts our wealth, when another's ignorance confronts our education, anywhere another's slavery confronts our freedom. Even when we have no abundance of wealth or wisdom to bestow, Jesus calls all needy persons to help one another. After telling the story of a Samaritan become a neighbor, Jesus says to us, go and do likewise. Do this and you will live.
Christian love has the amazing foundation of God's radical love for us. Let's thank God for this love. It has amazing consequences, creating neighbors where there used to be only strangers. As we seek to love this way, let us help each other by praying for one another other.
David Hollenbach, S.J.
St. Ignatius Church
July 11, 2004