Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 15, 2007

St. Martin DePorres, Cincinnati

(Based on Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Psalm 69; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37)

Each Sunday in Ordinary Time we are learning a little bit more about the mind and heart of Jesus. What was important to him? How did he go about his mission?

It’s all meant to help us to grasp what’s involved in our mission on earth as disciples. What does discipleship entail?

And today it is no ordinary bit of wisdom we are invited to ponder. It’s the very core of Jesus’ approach. What was that?

To prepare ourselves for that reflection we need to appreciate the mind set of the people that Moses was trying to convert in the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy. This section is part of Moses’ final address to the Israelites as they are assembled at the bank of the Jordan, ready finally to cross over into the promised land after all those years of wandering in the desert. It’s really Moses’ last will and testament.

For many, many chapters in Deuteronomy he’s been laying out for them all the precepts and commandments in the Law, as well as the blessings they can anticipate if they follow the Lord.

But it’s all so much! There are 612 things to keep in mind, from ritual prescriptions to what to eat and what to avoid. They perceive God as remote and demanding and forbidding. How could we possibly live up to this vision?

So Moses has to challenge their view of God. No, God is not remote. God is not way up there in the skies, beyond the reach of our strongest rocket. God is not out there across the ocean where we couldn’t possibly reach the divine. (Remember, they couldn’t imagine an end to the ocean; you simply fell off.) No, God is not “far” at all. In spite of all those obligations it all comes down to what’s in your heart. Because that is where the Lord dwells. Get down deep inside yourself and be true to your deepest instinct (we call is conscience today) and you will discover what God wants, you will know what you have to do. Our God is near — living closer to us than we are to ourselves.

And God is there, not as a judge but as a friend. Remember, Moses had had that incredible experience of talking to God face-to-face on the mountain. The common religious sentiment of that time was that if a person confronted God directly they would die. Moses comes back from the experience and calls God his “friend” — a difficult friend, as Moses puts it, but a friend nonetheless.

I have often wondered what our world would be like if the very first word given to a young boy or girl about God were “God is your friend.” Not someone remote and to be feared. (Of course, that would depend on the parents themselves being able to be convincing because they themselves had had the grace of experiencing God that way.)

So now we may be ready to turn our attention and ponder in a new way the story we’ve heard so many times from the Gospel of Luke, the “Good Samaritan.”

First we meet the lawyer. You know, he’s not really a bad guy. It’s just that he’s coming at his question from the mind set of his occupation. It’s a mind set that has to get everything down in black and white, crossing every ‘T’ and dotting every ‘I’ before going into action. He knows what’s in the covenant; that’s not the issue. In fact, when Jesus challenges him to name what’s at the heart of it all, he nails the question. No matter how many specifics the Law contains, they all come down to love of God and love of our neighbor.

He’s not lost in the minutiae, all the details of ritual and purity. But he can’t just trust his best instincts and go out to do it. So what is missing?

To help him get to the next level, Jesus tells that most moving story, a story that has become an essential piece of our world’s literary heritage.

There are many elements we might profitably meditate on. There are the religious leaders, the priest and Levite, who are supposed to lead the community in the ways of the Lord — but who, even though they see what is right in front of them, just don’t get it. What’s that all about? There is that touching bit about the Samaritan pouring soothing wine and oil into the wounds of the guy lying there in pain. There is the added touch of generosity when he tells the innkeeper, “Don’t worry, my credit card will cover whatever is needed. Just do whatever it takes.”

But the heart of the story is what is in the Samaritan’s heart. Frequently the translation says that “he was moved with pity for the man.” But that is really a weak substitute for what’s really at play. The best translation we can come up with is that he had compassion. He suffered with the man. But even that doesn’t capture all the power in the original Greek word. Scholars tell us that it actually describes a physical experience of discomfort. His empathy reaches down into the heart, the innards, the bowels of the Samaritan. We say sometimes “it hit me in the gut.”

Compassion is not ‘pity.’ You can pity someone from a stance of superiority: “Oh, look what happened to that poor guy.” Someone who is moved with compassion has to act. The compassionate person is deeply pained. There’s no time to wait for definitions.

You know, there was a question in the air among the Israelites. It’s the question the lawyer poses. Just how far does neighborliness extend? Does it stop with my family? Or the people in our village as opposed to those people down the road? Maybe it ends with our clan or our tribe.

The Samaritan isn’t burdened with those distinctions. He doesn’t wonder whether the guy had invited the robbery by carrying his purse in too public a way. He doesn’t ask for his ID or his green card or his insurance card. He identifies with the man, and the guy is in pain. And notice that he doesn’t ask what mountain the man worships on or what God he follows. It’s simply: I’ve got to act!

But that’s not all that’s going on here. Jesus’ parables are not just edifying stories about the right way to behave. Sometimes I think people view Jesus as some sort of Israelite Abe Lincoln. A guy who could sit by the stove and slap his knee as he wowed them with folksy stories one after the other.

No, there’s more than ethics or morality going on here, it’s not merely about ‘the right thing to do.’ Jesus’ parables are revelation. They’re about who his Father is and therefore who he is. It’s not ‘this is what a moral person should do,’ it’s “this is who Jesus is, not what it means to respond to some abstraction called ‘God’ but to the One Jesus calls Father.” Really, when you come down to it, it’s not about ‘a certain Samaritan.’ Jesus is the Samaritan!

You know, in one of the formulas that are used to introduce the ‘Our Father’ in the liturgy we read:


      Jesus taught us to call God our Father, and so we have the courage to say . . .”

We have the courage to say. Apparently it takes courage to move beyond the fear that characterizes so much of our religious indoctrination and really relate to God as our Father.

And so we return to the lawyer. He had begun by wondering who his neighbor was — a fellow Israelite, a keeper of the Law? Gotta get that right, you know.

By the end of the story Jesus has shown that the lawyer was asking the wrong question. His question is a dead-end, a way of forever procrastinating and avoiding the issue. Jesus doesn’t tell him who his neighbor might be. He asks “who was neighbor to the man?” Neighboring is not a matter of physical or tribal nearness, of living next door or down the street. It’s a matter of an attitude of heart, of identifying with the person right next to me who is in pain. As our Father identifies with us in our struggles and pain.

As we come to the table of the Lord — a Lord who calls us not servants but friends — let’s ask for our hearts to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus, that we may extend his compassion — the very compassion of God our Father — to every person we meet.