In last weekend’s readings, when our Lord taught the Pharisees and the Herodians that the People of God should be able to fulfill their civic duties and their duties to God at the same time, they marveled at his teaching and went away. Before our Gospel reading today, the Sadducees who denied the Resurrection, tried to stump Jesus, but they too “were astonished at his teaching.” Now the Pharisees will try one last time. Infuriated that he was able to silence the Sadducees, they gathered around Jesus and, putting forward their most clever scribe, they asked him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” By calling him “Teacher” they pretended to be humble and respectful, but really, they thought they already knew it all.
With this question they again hoped to stump him. In the old Jewish Law there were 613 laws which the scribes and Pharisees rigidly imposed on God’s people. Although these 613 laws were divided into light and grave offenses – with the grave ones being punishable by death – and further divided into small and great offenses, the Pharisees followed all 613 with equal force. So when the scribe asks Jesus which one is the greatest, he is trying to test Jesus’ faithfulness to the law. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he asked.
To this Jesus gave a two-part answer, the first part easily recognizable to any faithful Jew. It was no surprise: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” This is a direct reference to Deut 6:5: “Hear, O Israel,” it says, “The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Faithful Jews prayed this prayer three times a day, every day.
It is the second part of our Lord’s response, though, that would have been the most surprising to his audience. Jesus continues, “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Here, in an unprecedented way, He formally joins love of God to love of neighbor by quoting Lev 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Such a combination of texts is nowhere to be found in the writings of the rabbis down through the centuries. They did not connect love of God to love of neighbor. The prevailing Jewish attitude toward non-Jews at the time was of bitter contempt.
In this episode, Jesus again answers the question they should have asked. Earlier when they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” he answered with what should be paid to Caesar and to God. Here they ask him which commandment in the law is the greatest and he gives them the greatest and the second-greatest! The reason he does this is because he understands the true spirit of the Old Law and he does not wish to separate love of God from love of our neighbor. These two commandments summarize the spirit of the entire Old Testament and of all 613 of its laws. They even summarize the 10 commandments we all know and love today.
True love of God leads us to love our neighbor. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “When man is loved, God is loved, for man is the image of God.” This is also echoed elsewhere in Scripture. The first letter of St. John tells us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also” (1 Jn 4:20-21). But who is our brother or our neighbor?
The Jews, before and during the time of Christ, had a strict interpretation of the term “neighbor.” They had a strong national identity and a bond with each other as the chosen Sons of God, his people set-apart to bring the entire world to Him. Therefore, naturally, “neighbor” was a fellow Jew. But, just as Jesus was the first to formally join the two texts of the Old Testament together, love of God in Deuteronomy to love of neighbor in Leviticus, so was he the first to expand the notion of neighbor beyond their national identity. So who then is our neighbor? A scribe in Luke’s Gospel asked our Lord this very question and he answered with the story of the Good Samaritan.
We all know the story, right? There, a Jew is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. When the Jewish priests and Levites, who were trained in the law and thus more responsible for it, passed him by, finally a hated Samaritan stopped to help. But, he doesn’t just bandage him up and run away even though he could have because there was such hatred between the Jews and Samaritans. No, he poured water and wine on the man’s wounds, took him to an inn, cared for him, and paid for everything. In this story the Samaritan teaches us that our neighbor is everyone in need, friend or enemy. Every person is my neighbor, more particularly the one in need.
This story of the Good Samaritan also teaches what love is and how to love. Christ is the Good Samaritan, the wounded man is the human race robbed and beaten by sin and the devil, the oil and wine are the sacraments and the inn is the Church where we are cared for and where our wounds are healed. Looking at it this way, we see that love is more than how it is popularly portrayed; it is more than just a feeling. Our feelings come and go, but love is constant. It is an act of the will; to choose the good of another whether it feels good or not; to put another’s good before our own.
Imagine what it felt like to be the Samaritan. He knew the Jews hated his people and he was in their land. He probably was afraid and wanted to journey as quickly as he could. But, knowing the true spirit of the Old Law himself, and loving God first, he was moved to love his wounded neighbor despite the fact that he was a Jew. And this love had no mushy, buddy-buddy feelings to it. It was probably expensive to use his oil and wine on the man’s wounds but he did it anyway. It was probably difficult and dirty and tiring to dress up his wounds on the side of the road. It probably didn’t feel good and probably took a lot of energy to pick up the man and place him on his horse and then slowly ride him back into town despite the jeers of other priests and Levites who passed by. Then the Samaritan cared for the man all through the night and paid two days wages to ensure that he would be taken care of at the inn while he was gone. This is true love, a love centered on love of God and self-sacrifice. The Samaritan’s love for the wounded Jew was true love because it came from the overflow of his love for God first. Plus, if the Samaritan had waited to feel love before he showed it, then he may not have showed it at all. Now, certainly, when great feelings come with love then they are good and can bring much Joy. But, remember: Love is not a feeling, it is an act of the will, a choice.
How do you love God? How do you love your spouse? Your family? Your coworkers? Your friends? Your neighbor? Love God first and you will love the rest. But if you love your spouse first or your family first then your love is out of order, and that person becomes an obstacle to your love of God. When you love God first and most of all, then you will be able to love others as He does, as Christ does, with patience and sacrifice. Then you will care for what matters most: the salvation of the souls God has placed in your path. Then like Christ, you will be their Good Samaritan.
As you journey through life, go to where your family, your friends, your coworkers are and bring them to the Inn of the Church where they can be saved and refreshed by the “oil and wine” of our holy sacraments, a salvation paid for not by two days wages, but with the priceless grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, whom our psalm called our rock, our fortress, our shield, our strength. Let your love be self-sacrificial, a love of God and a love of your neighbor, and God’s law will always be a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.