Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 30:10-14 | Colossians 1:15-20 | Luke 10:25-37
Oh, God, who showed the light of your truth to those who go astray so that they may return to the right path, give all, who for the faith they profess are accounted Christians, the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ to strive after all that does it honor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
Every time we gather as a community in liturgy in our tradition, we think about our sins, and we say or sing what you just heard being sung, a plea, a prayer, a request. “Lord, have mercy on me please. Please have mercy on me.” Why we begin every gathering of Christians celebrating the Eucharist with that particular action is because we sin. It’s part of who we are as human beings. It’s part of the plan. A lot of us have tried to figure out God’s plan and try to make it better, easier, and one of the things, I remember, I used to think about a lot was, “Why didn’t you just take away sin? You told us it no longer has power over us, but you didn’t take it away. We still experience it over and over again.” It’s taken me a long time to understand what he’s really doing. He’s allowing sin to be there, because it has a purpose. It has a role to play. It’ll always be there, and the shadow of sin is, when it is not understood in the way God intends us to participate in a sinful world, it tends to cause separation, worse, revenge, retaliation, anger. “How could someone do that to me?”
It’s interesting. What we hear in the first reading is a description of law, the law that God has given us. Human beings will always come up with laws and rules if they live together. It’s essential. We have to have all kinds of rules and laws to govern the way we act, the way we drive, the way we treat each other. Those aren’t the laws of God so much. They’re the laws of human beings, created to protect human beings from abuse, and they’re affective, and they’re important. And they always go back to something called punishment, fines, imprisonment, even death. So the law that God has given is quite different than that, and it’s so interesting to me that, in the Old Testament, we have a story of God’s people so longing for the law that, when God gave us his laws, Ten Commandments, he made a statement about it. It’s so fascinating, and he’s talking about in relationship with God. Don’t make any other rules and laws, and for goodness sake, don’t exclude any of these. How more direct and simple could that be? Yet there developed in the Israelite community over 603 more rules that had to do with your relationship with God, and so many of them, you look back, were kind of laws that would make great sense, in terms of hygiene and health and all that. But somehow, all rules that are attached to God seem to come across as equally important and valuable, and that’s what’s so dangerous. No, there are ten, three that deal with our relationship with God, one, our relationship with those who have given us life, and the others about how we treat each other, how we deal with each other’s weaknesses and faults. But the most beautiful thing in that first reading is the way God is saying to us, “The reason I gave you these laws is because these laws are your nature. This is who you are. This is who I’ve made you to be. These aren’t laws that have to be imposed upon you. If you would sit and think on your own and come up with the rules that you felt were the most advantageous for you, if you were a healthy, whole human being, you would come up with these very ten. It’s the way we relate to God and to each other, and it’s not something you have to go figure out or wonder why that law’s here or others aren’t. There is such a beautiful summary of what it means to be in relationship with other people and to be in that relationship in a way that you are both receiving and giving life. So don’t cheat. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t kill. Don’t want what other people have. Connect with divinity. Honor everyone who’s there giving you life. It’s so beautiful.
Yet sin continues to be a major, major problem for human beings, still is and even, perhaps, more today, because there’s so much emphasis, it seems to me, at least in our Catholic Church, that the rules and laws that we have to govern people’s relationships with others have gone way beyond these laws that were in the Ten Commandments. But they’re very specific about very specific actions that you can and cannot do, and I know the church is doing that because it sees these things that we do that are dangerous and potentially destructive, and so it says, “Okay, whenever these things happen, you are seriously sinning.” And then you add to that the notion of sin separating people from one another, from God, from the institution called the church. In the hands of the church, with that kind of situation, what you have is a church that’s demanding that certain actions never happen, and if they do happen, you’re cut out, you’re separated.
It’s interesting. In the Old Testament, sin had a very interesting dimension to it when it came to temple worship. If you were a Levite — and then among the Levites, there were priests. If you were, in order for you to be close to God, be involved with anything with the temple, whether it was moving furniture or doing sacrifices or cleaning the floor, whatever, you could not walk in there if you had any sin in you or on you, and you had to cleanse yourself, because sin, in the Old Testament, equated to being somehow polluted yourself, sinful, and you couldn’t be in the presence of God with that in you. Couldn’t. It would be a blasphemy. So what do you feel from that? The God who created us can’t stand the fact that we do bad things or we fail, like it’s disgusting, and it’s not only disgusting, but somehow it makes impossible the kind of relationship God promises with us, intimacy. It can’t happen.
Divinity and humanity are radically disengaged, or at least the part of humanity that sins, it’s completely — they can’t get anywhere near each other. And when you think about that, you understand more importantly the radical experience of Jesus’ teaching. It’s summarized by Paul so beautifully in the next reading. He just says, “This Jesus, he’s everything. He’s all power. He can do anything. He’s the fullness of everything.” And he came into the world to do one thing, to reconcile sinners, to bring people who stray away and fail and become, if you want to follow the Old Testament image, polluted, evil. He did one action, hanging on a cross, stripped naked, blood dripping, and that action, he said, “That takes care of every single thing in you that God would ever look at and think, ‘This is intolerable, disappointing. I can’t be with this person.’” It’s so radical. It’s so completely different. Wait a minute. You mean God loves sinners, that he prefers them to self-righteous people who are following the letter of the law? How more radical could you be in your teaching if you came into the world to proclaim that to a group of people? No wonder they killed him. No wonder it was intolerable to think that the business of the temple, which was to purify people so they could get to God, were already purified. In a way, it simply took away their power.
So now we go to the gospel, and we see this radical change being challenged and questioned. The interesting thing about this story is the man that comes forward is not asking Jesus because he wants to know. He’s wanting to challenge him — challenge him. So chances are he could have well have been a Levite, a priest in the Levite tribe, but whatever it was, he’s going to say, “Let’s see if we can trip him up.” So he basically says, “What’s at the heart of this whole thing you’re teaching? What are you doing?” And the most fascinating part of this is that the one challenging comes up with the right answer. “Yes, I know I’m supposed to love God, love my neighbor, love myself. I know all that.” So it’s like, “Okay, I know I’m supposed to love.” But the question, “Who is my neighbor,” is so set in this man’s intention. I think he wants to say, “Let me hear if you’re really saying I’m supposed to love sinners, because that is blasphemy.” So who is this person we’re supposed to take care of? Who is my brother that I’m supposed to love? Not a sinner of course, and Jesus in his genius tells this story. I love that he tells stories. This man, he was robbed of something dear to him. He’s stripped. He’s beaten. Who does that sound like? What did these Pharisees, scribes, Levites, priests want to do and did do to Jesus? Took his ministry away from him, they thought, in this world and humiliated him and beat him, killed him. So I don't know whether the man that is listening to this story caught that part, but then he goes on to say, “There’s a priest that comes along and a Levite.” Now, the reason they walked to the other side of the street is because that was the law. That’s what they had to do, and so he’s talking to these people who are living that life, and he’s saying, “See, they just didn’t have any interest in this man who was unattractive and broken.” And he said, but a Samaritan, somebody not following the law at all, would come and do exactly what Jesus came to do to every sinner, bind his wounds, pour oil — that’s to empower, anoint — and blood, forgiveness, healing. He’s looking at this man, saying, “You know, the problem with the institution you guys are following and living, you won’t do that. You don’t care about somebody. In fact, it probably makes your life pretty easy, because all you’ve got to do is sit back and wait for some rich sinner to come and have enough money to get out of the situation of alienation from God.”
It’s amazing how simple the message is. You’re here to have compassion and empathy —that’s the law — to everyone who’s in need, who’s hungry, who is broken. That’s the work, and you know what? It’s the most natural thing for a human being to do. It’s the most pleasing thing. It just feels so right. That’s all. “Do what I’ve called you to do by following the nature that is in you, and it’s a reflection of me. And if you look at my story, you’ll see that’s the life I want you to live, maybe not as radical or dramatic, but get out of this sickness of sin as separation and get into it as an opportunity to love.”
Father, it’s confusing to live in a church that has so many demands and rules that can’t be broken, even when they seem to create great hardships for people, and yet you tell us that the basic, fundamental responsibility of the church is to have compassion and understanding on all of us that haven’t reached the fullness that they would like us to have in terms of living the gospel. So bless the church. Bless each of us in the church with compassion for those and never condemn, never separate, never write them off, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.