Eternal Life, Wrong Questions, and Close Answers

This reflection is based on the Readings for Sunday, July 10th.

When it comes to some of the most difficult questions of our day, the controversial issues, do the simple answers of the Gospel satisfy? In Christ Jesus is all the fullness and through him all things are reconciled. Welcome the stranger! Protect life! Be peacemakers! “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)! Take up your cross! Know the joy of the Gospel!

But what if they are not the kind of strangers that I like…? What if that means my world turned upside down, or my parish reorienting its care…? What if that means that I should undergo suffering…? Why should it cost me…? What if it’s someone else’s fault, they have it coming, they haven’t done their part…? What if they are sinners…? Why should I give up claim to innocence, control, being right…?

In Sunday’s Gospel, we hear of a “scholar of the law” who asked Jesus what he had to do to be saved, “to inherit eternal life.” Jesus ask him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man said:

“You shall love the Lord, your God,

with all your heart,

with all your being,

with all your strength,

and with all your mind,

and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” He knew the right answer (he was, after all, a scholar of the law). He should have quit while he was ahead! But he couldn’t help himself…

“And who is my neighbor?” he asked. This question reflects the kinds of objections listed above. The call to live in the love of the God of Israel and Jesus Christ is great and all, inspirational even, but…let’s get specific…

We cannot have lawlessness. This nation has borders. I have my rights. People need to be responsible. We must look after our own first. What’s in it for me. I’m as compassionate as the next person but let’s be realistic…

This is the context of perhaps the most famous story that Jesus tells, which has come to be known as “The Good Samaritan.” Because the man who finally stops for the victim is named, specifically and intentionally, as a Samaritan (a rival, an enemy of the Jewish people), the assumption is that the victim is a Jew like Jesus and his audience. A rival, an enemy – Who might that be for you or for me: a terrorist, a politician, a welfare recipient, a member of the LGBT community, a Planned Parenthood employee, an leader of the NRA, a Muslim, a white supremacist, a ‘liberal,’ a ‘conservative,’ or some other member of a despised class?

After the priest and the Levite, both religious leaders, ignore the man left for dead, it is the Samaritan – the rival, the despised one, the enemy – who stops and demonstrates compassionate, extravagant, neighborly love.

Let that sink in. Don’t start thinking about all the people you ought to feel guilty about not loving. Think about the love and mercy of God for you made flesh in a rival, an enemy.

This is the mind-blowing turn in Jesus’s story. This is who Jesus is to us, the One who loves us while we are yet sinners, while we resist the love that comes into the world.

There is a challenge here for us and it’s not finding the right answers. It’s knowing the right questions. Not, Who is my neighbor? But rather, Will I be a neighbor? Not, Who does Jesus say I should love? But rather, Who is Jesus and what is his love like?

As Moses reminds us in the reading from Deuteronomy, the answer is not up in the sky or across the sea but “very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you only have to carry it out.”

– Greg Walgenbach, Director of Life, Justice & Peace, Diocese of Orange