Saturday, November 11, 2006

On Good Samaritans and Great Commandments

Here’s a homily for you, on Luke 10:25-37 and Ephesians 2:1-10. There are two important teachings in this Gospel: the primary one is that of an essential teaching of the Christian faith, the “two great commandments,” love of God and love of neighbor—and the second one is an application thereof, the message of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can perhaps understand these teachings in light of St Paul’s word to us in the Epistle to the Ephesians.

First of all, he says that we were spiritually dead through our sins—this puts us in a similar situation to that of the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. This is how Paul describes the sin which is unto death: “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air” [that is, the devil], whom he further describes as “the spirit that is now at work among the sons of disobedience.” He’s not finished yet. Sin is also living “in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind,” and thus sin makes us “children of wrath.”

We see what sin does to us, both through Paul’s description and the image of the half-dead man. But sin is also at work in the image of the priest and the levite who refused to help the half-dead man. They too were following the ways of this world and the spirit of disobedience. Therefore we learn that the devil, by seducing us to sin, not only weakens us to death, but also tries to keep us from realizing our misery and sickness by making us arrogant and self-centered, giving us the illusion of strength or well-being. Thus we are not only sick unto death, we refuse to help others who are similarly sick.

What is Paul’s answer to this sorry state of affairs? He says: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ…that He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” God, like the Good Samaritan in the parable, took pity on us in our self-inflicted misery and woundedness, raised us up, healed us, granted us his mercy, so we would know that it is by his grace that we are saved—not our doing, but the gift of God, as Paul emphasizes, so that we may not boast but rather give thanks. Finally, he says that God has done this for us because He has created and prepared us for a life of good works in the name of the Lord Jesus.

So let us look at the great commandments which are to govern the life which God has given to us, or rather returned to us made new after having forgiven our sins. The scholar of the law asked Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus didn’t answer him directly, but wanted to see if the man had grasped the essential point of the whole law—which he did, for he responded by saying: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus approved of this answer and simply said, “Do this and you will live.”

Desiring a practical application of the general principle, as we all might so desire, he asked Jesus what it meant to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’ response. And just in case the legal scholar might have been content to admire this teaching merely in theory, Jesus hastened to add: “Now you go and do likewise.” There may be a temptation for those who merely study the word of God to settle for the insights they have gained and perhaps even to marvel at the wisdom of God, without actually putting his words into practice in daily life. That is why Christ never said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and admire it,” but rather, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it,” that is, do it, put in into practice with the real people you meet every day.

We have in the two great commandments, in summary form, all we need to live a life that is pleasing to God and hence, as the original question was formulated, to inherit eternal life. That is the only thing that ultimately matters, and henceforth should always be in our consciousness, always form and influence how we think, speak and act, how we regard others and treat them. If eternal life is our goal, we will begin by loving God with all of our faculties and powers, and thus having grown in his likeness we will be able to look with compassion on those in need and bring God’s love to them, so that all might have the opportunity to experience the forgiveness and love of God, and begin to live this same life of faith, love, and good works that God has granted to all who will turn to Him.

But how many of us really love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength? Do we not reserve something for ourselves, even for sinful attachments and other selfish pursuits? The Christian life is a constant purification, a sifting out of the evil from the good; it is an ongoing process of growth, leaving behind immature and selfish ways and embracing the values of the Gospel in imitation of and communion with Christ. Even if at the present moment we cannot honestly say that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, we must allow this humble admission to spur us on to greater growth and progress, to purifying and refining our intentions and desires, to strengthening our “no” to what displeases God and our “yes” to what pleases Him. For no one will be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven who does not love God wholly, entirely, 100%. If we die without having made it to the point of loving with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; if we haven’t learned fully the lessons of the Gospel, then we have to go to summer school in purgatory—and the summers there are really hot, so I would advise all to learn your lessons now, allow divine grace to perfect you now, desire with all your heart to be wholly in love with the Lord, and thus wholly obedient to his will, which means you will not only love God but will love others with the love of Jesus.

We may still feel beaten up and half-dead because of our passions and sins, but let us to turn to the Lord, who is rich in mercy, who will heal our wounds through forgiveness and grace, who will nurse us back to spiritual health by feeding us with his own Body and Blood, who will care for us and teach us the ways of his wisdom, that we may learn to love him wholly, and our neighbors as ourselves. In order to do this, however, we have to give up following the course of this world and our own passions, cast out that evil spirit that makes us children of disobedience, and decide that we want to embrace the life, the salvation that God mercifully offers to us.

I’ve been reading lately about the angels, and the way God sends them as mystical Good Samaritans to help many people in serious need. It is a common testimony of those who have received these angelic visitations that their lives have subsequently changed—they are more grateful, more loving and faithful to the Lord, more compassionate and helpful to others. They have heard the word of the Lord and they are putting it into practice.

We may not have had extraordinary angelic experiences, but the Lord is with us always, especially in the Holy Eucharist. We are saved by his grace. It is meant to change our lives, make them more like his own. What He gives us is his everlasting love and compassion, along with this word: “Go now and do likewise.”