The 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Deuteronomy 30:10-14  +  Colossians 1:15-20  +  Luke 10:25-37
July 10, 2016

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

My father loves to tell stories, especially about his children.  One of his favorites concerns Angela, my oldest sibling.  On her very first day of school, her class was led to the cafeteria at lunch time, and the entrée was (this will tell you how long ago it was) the entrée was liver.  This did not please my six-year old sister at all, and she promptly explained to the cook:  “My dad doesn’t eat liver, and I don’t either!”

From what young parents have told me over the years, the chore of getting children to eat healthful foods is among the more exasperating that they face.  Parents might try different strategies:  for example, they might try the percentage strategy, where if the child eats seventy-five percent of his spinach, he gets released from the dinner table for good behavior.

Regardless, many parents have that one child who, despite their best efforts, will not eat what’s good for them.  No strategy is successful in getting that one stubborn child to co-operate.  But parents should take solace in today’s Gospel passage, because here we see Jesus facing a similar situation.

The “scholar of the law” is Jesus’ stubborn child.  He doesn’t want to partake of the Law that God has set before him.  Unfortunately for Jesus and the scholar, because this stubborn child is trained in the law, he has some tricks up his sleeve.

Of course, each of us is like this scholar.  Against our parents and against God, when we’re little we try to argue our way out of doing what we’re supposed to do.  It’s amazing how thoroughly even little children can argue on behalf of what they don’t want to do.  Sometimes an exasperated parent might say, “When you grow up, you could be a lawyer!”  (That’s never meant as a compliment, is it?)

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus squares off against this scholar of the law.  As you reflect on this scholar’s tricks, be honest about whether you are ever like him.  At the same time, reflect on how Jesus responds to this scholar of the law, because how Jesus speaks and act is a model for us in our own dealing with others, little children or big ones.

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Our narrator, St. Luke the Evangelist, tells us very plainly what this scholar of the law is up to.  In my copy of the Bible and in our parish’s missalette, today’s Gospel passage is divided into two paragraphs.  St. Luke tells us at the beginning of each of these paragraphs what’s motivating the scholar of the law.

At the beginning of the first paragraph, St. Luke says that there “was a scholar of the law who stood up to testJesus by asking Him a question.  In and of itself, this question that he puts to Jesus could possibly have been motivated by something good and sincere, although the fact that he’s a lawyer puts us on our guard.  As it turns out, our skepticism is justified.  At the beginning of the second paragraph, St. Luke explains that the scholar of the law “wished to justify himself”, and that it’s because of this that he asks Jesus a second question.

But let’s back up to the scholar’s first question and reflect more attentively on what happens between him and Jesus.  The “scholar of the law… stood up to test Jesus and asked, “‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”  That’s a pretty straightforward and very important question.  If you were to ask that question, you might imagine getting in response a laundry list of hundreds or even thousands of actions that a person might have to do to inherit eternal life.  Many Jewish people in Jesus’ day thought of their faith in that way.

However, Jesus must have known that He was talking with a lawyer, because in response to the lawyer’s question, Jesus asks a question.  It’s easy to imagine Jesus being nonchalant as He rhetorically asks, “‘What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?’”  Jesus is throwing the lawyer’s question back at him.  Or perhaps Jesus is acting like a good teacher, who at the beginning of a term gives a pre-test, to see how much his student does and does not already understand, so that he might build from there.

The scholar of the law, like any good lawyer, has his own answer to his own question all wrapped up and ready to present.  He doesn’t give a laundry list of hundreds of acts that a faithful person would have to carry out to inherit eternal life.  Instead, he quotes from two books of the Old Testament:  Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[1]  The two passages he quotes sum up the Law in two simple commands:  #1: love your God; and #2: love your neighbor.  Bite-sized pieces, you might say:  the whole of what we must do, summed up in just two commands:  #1: love your God; and #2: love your neighbor.  What’s interesting is that in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, when “a scholar of the law” asks Jesus which commandment in the Law is the greatest, Jesus quotes exactly these same two verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[2]

But back here in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus and the scholar of the Law seem to be on the same page.  Of course, we’re know that in fact the two of them are not on the same page.  Today’s Gospel passage clearly illustrates that two persons can quote the very same Bible passages and still believe very different things.  The Bible does not interpret itself, and being able to quote Bible verses does not make someone a believer.  After all, when the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, even he quoted Sacred Scripture.

Unfortunately for the scholar of the law, believing oneself to have a clear conscience doesn’t mean that one has a clean soul:  one’s conscience may be ignorant, even to the point of what the Church technically calls “invincibly ignorant”.  One’s conscience is not always a clear guide to the Truth.

Even Saint Paul the Apostle spoke to this truth from his own experience as a sinner.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul  wrote:  “It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord.”[3]  Unfortunately for the scholar of the law, he doesn’t seem to realize that he is conversing with the Lord Himself in the flesh.

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In the rest of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tries to move the scholar of the law from quoting the Law of God to living it.  Unfortunately, there’s a large roadblock keeping that scholar from making the move from quoting the Law to living the Law.  Right off the bat, we hear what this roadblock is.

St. Luke the Evangelist begins the second part of today’s Gospel passage by explaining that it was because the scholar of the law “wished to justify himself [that] he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”  The scholar understands that to inherit eternal life, he has to love God and neighbor.  Yet while it’s hard to argue about who God is, the scholar sees an opportunity to define “neighbor” in a way that will make his life easier; that will limit whom he needs to love; in short, that will allow him to justify himself.

This is a major roadblock, and I’m not referring only to restricting the definition of one’s “neighbor” so as to make one’s life easier.  That’s just an example of a larger problem:  the problem of trying to justify oneself.

How many ways are there in which to try to justify oneself?  Practically speaking, there are endless ways to justify oneself.  We might even say that every single sin, or at least the reasoning behind every sin, is an attempt to justify oneself.  Consider three examples.

Before time began, God created the angels.  God created all of the angels good.  But when it was made known to all the angels that God would—in the fullness of time—send His Son to become man, some of those angels rebelled against God, refusing ever to bow down before the Word made Flesh.  In their pride, those angels led by Lucifer tried to justify themselves by saying that creatures of pure spirit such as themselves had no reason to bow before a God made man.  To them, man with his material body was something to be looked down upon with contempt.

The second example takes place “in the beginning” of salvation history, as we hear in the first pages of the Book of Genesis.  It’s worth listening to as a reminder of where the scholar of the law got the idea to try to justify himself:

 

“Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature….  He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat of any tree of the garden”?’  And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’  But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”[4]

 

As Paul Harvey used to say:  you know the rest of the story.  This second example shows that the devil, who before time began had shown his contempt for mankind, taught man in the beginning how to justify himself, making the human self to be god by determining for oneself what is good and evil.

For the third example, jump from the beginning of human history to rather recent history:  the year 1992.  In the case of Planned Parenthood against the pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court made the following declaration:  “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

If you’ve been shaking your heads the past few years as our nation has legalized, endorsed, and promoted one atrocity after another, you might well trace those decisions back to that 1992 majority opinion of the highest court in our nation.  Let me read again what they claimed:  “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  The scholar of the law, and the priest and the Levite in today’s parable, would have been perfectly happy to make this declaration their own.

This description of self-interested liberty explains a lot about the culture that we live in today.  This is the culture that we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren.  This is the culture that each of us participates in, adds to, and fuels every time that one of us sins, believing that each of us has the right to justify oneself, instead of being justified by God.  But Jesus is setting before us a different way, a different culture, and a different civilization:  what Saint John Paul II called “the civilization of love”.

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Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made Flesh.  As the scholar of the law stood up to test Him, Jesus in His divine knowledge knew exactly who this scholar was, and what he was trying to accomplish.  Jesus knew that the scholar standing before Him was wanting to justify himself, instead of allowing Jesus to justify him by a better way:  the Way of the Cross, the journey to Calvary that Jesus Himself was in the midst of making.

The Way of the Cross is the way of mercy.  Jesus illustrates this way of mercy so beautifully through the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite passed by on the opposite way:  the path of self-justification.  But Jesus calls the scholar of the law to imitate the Good Samaritan by walking the way of mercy.

As Christians, you and I are called to show others mercy just as we ourselves have been shown mercy.  My favorite Bible verse is from the first letter of the Apostle John, where he says that “in this is love:  not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us, and given us His Son as an offering for our sins.”[5]  Mercy is the form of love that God poured over the wounds of fallen man.  He did this by becoming Flesh and offering Himself on the Cross so that your sins might be washed away.

But what comes next?  What comes after someone accepts God’s merciful love?  Are you the type of person who’s willing to accept mercy from God, but not willing to turn around and extend it to others?  The sins of your life, forgiven by God’s mercy through Baptism and Confession, were infinite offenses against God’s love for you.  On the Cross, Jesus paid an infinite price to wash away your sins.  In return, God calls you to show mercy to others in 14 simple ways, called the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

If you’re not yet able to list all 14 of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy from memory, make it a summer project to look them up in your catechism at home—or online—and to memorize them.  But more important than being able to name the 14 works of mercy—as the scholar could name the two greatest commandments—is putting them into practice.  When Jesus asked the scholar of the law which of the characters in the parable acted as a neighbor, the scholar knew enough to answer, “The one who treated him with mercy.”  The response Jesus gave him is meant for you, as well:  “Go and do likewise.”


[1] Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18.

[2] Matthew 22:34-40.

[3] 1 Corinthians 4:3-4.

[4] Genesis 3:1-5.

[5] 1 John 4:10.

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