The law of love

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” This is the Commandment that Moses imparted to his people before they left him to build their lives in the promised land of Israel. These words are so important that the people were to enshrine them in their homes, write them on the door posts of their houses, drill them into their children, and talk about them day and night. As simple as this command is, the people continued to be confused. 

In the Scripture readings for this Sunday Moses has to remind his people yet again of this great Commandment. It seems that they didn’t quite grasp it the first time and thought it was too simple to be true. He basically tells them that this Commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you; it’s not out of your reach. You don’t need experts to explain it before you can live it. “The Commandment is very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you only have to carry it out.” 

As time went by this simple Commandment became encrusted by laws and regulations that made it nearly impossible to follow. This set the scene for Jesus in the Gospel. A scholar of the law wants Jesus to give him a complex strategy for gaining eternal life. Jesus simply went back to the command given by Moses that every Jew hung on the door post of their homes: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” When this is paired with the second Commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we have Jesus’ blueprint for eternal life.

That second Commandment seems to be a stumbling block for the religious legalists, then and now. Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to challenge the religious leaders whose concern for following a complex set of regulations blinded them from the real path to loving God. The characters in the parable all had a significance that would not be lost on Jesus’ audience. The priest and the Levite were no doubt traveling on that road to Jerusalem to serve their duty in the temple. Some might find it ironic that men who serve God in the temple were cast as unsympathetic characters, but the legal-minded would admire the fact that they did not defile themselves by coming into contact with the wounds of an injured man. 

Using a Samaritan to play the role of the hero in the story really threw the lawyer into a knot. Since the Samaritan obviously did the right thing by helping the man, it basically tore apart the legal system that extolled the purity laws. The whole idea that a Samaritan comes out looking so good in this story cut right to the heart of the lawyer’s misunderstanding of God’s Commandment. He can’t even say the word Samaritan when asked by Jesus which person was neighbor to the man attacked. Instead he says, “The one who showed mercy.” 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is as shocking to us today as it was to Jesus’ audience. Look at the way many in the Church trip over themselves during this Year of Mercy as they channel their inner “scholar of the law” and look for ways to convolute the simple message that God is love and therefore we must give that love back to God directly and through our neighbors. The Year of Mercy is not about slamming the truth over the heads of people who live outside of the margins of the Church. The Year of Mercy is about love, which is the way we are to inherit eternal life. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan does not identify the people whom we should care for; neither does it clarify a point of Jewish law. Jesus takes the law and turns it into Gospel. How do we inherit eternal life? Be merciful. Love the Samaritans in our lives; the people who could not possibly be our neighbors because their existence is so abhorrent to us. Show compassion the way the Samaritan did, even though it means tending to a person who might be our arch enemy. Mercy has no political agenda, nor is it an opportunity to show our superiority. Mercy is the Face of the living God. Write that on your heart and place it on your door posts, for this is your ticket to eternal life.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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