“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Father Hanly’s beautiful homily for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, looks at Jesus’ answers to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Readings for Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
- First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:10-14
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37
- Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-20
- Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
It’s hard to believe this story is two thousand years old. And, every time you hear it or read it, it seems fresh again.
I think one of the things that we fail to remember when we study the gospel of Luke, he is a wonderful, wonderful storyteller and he just knows how to tell a story. And this, of course, is one of his best.
And we can profit from this by just going into it in a little more detail.
First of all, if you notice, they’re all questions. The scholar, who is probably a scribe, he asks Jesus a question. Jesus doesn’t answer it, he asks a question in answer to it.
This is kind of a way of writing and speaking that certain cultures have.
For instance, when I went to visit my parents in Ireland after they moved back there and we went out to the country and visited Cousin Austin, every time you said something to Cousin Austin like, “Where’s the post office?” he’d say, “Would you like to be buying a stamp?”
Or you would say, “Can you tell me where the local restaurant is?” and he’d say, “Would you be hungry now?” And it would go on.
And I said, “Why do you always ask a question, when I ask a question, answer it with a question?”
He says, “It makes you think. You have to stop and you have to listen.”
“And,” he says, “it’s a way of opening a longer conversation that will lead to understanding better and better, instead of those simple things that you Americans use, yes and no, up or down.”
There’s a lot of truth to it.
So the scholar went up to Jesus. And he’s testing him. And he says to Jesus,
which is a sign of respect,
“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law?”
Now the law doesn’t mean the Ten Commandments. It means the Torah, the five sacred books of the Bible in which all the great stories, as well as the descriptions and bits of law and eloquent parts that lead us to a deeper and better understanding of God, all of this is called the law.
And, of course, in the law there are two very well-known passages, in the Torah, one from Leviticus and the other one from Deuteronomy.
He quotes these two, and they go like this:
“How do you read it?”
He said in reply,
“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 neighbour as yourself.”
And that is the sum and substance of the whole Bible.
And then Jesus says to him, “You have answered your own question, and you have answered it correctly.”
Then he says to him, “If you do this, you will live.”
And, of course, it’s hanging out there, “And if you don’t do it you will die.” Of course, he’s not talking about physical death, he’s talking about spiritual death.
If you love God with your whole heart and soul and mind, it will fill you with new life. It will open your heart to receive Him and, once He is in your heart, then you will have life itself.
The questioner wants to show that he really wanted to justify these questions, because both he and Jesus now know that he knows the answers to these questions.
And so he says to him, “Yes, but who is my neighbour? You have to tell me who is my neighbour.”
And Jesus says, “You still don’t ask the right questions, so it’s very difficult to give you the best answers.”
Because if you say, as he does, who is my neighbour, it means he wants Jesus to pick out the people deserving of his love, you see. Like who is my neighbour that I must love.
And you say, “Well, we’re only talking about Jewish people here, you know, but those outsiders, those foreigners, we’re not talking about them. It’s only us and our thing.”
Or, as we used to say in the Irish neighbourhood of Brooklyn, “We keep it among our own kind.” If you don’t belong to the “own kind”…
Nobody explains the “own kind” but you get it if you live in that kind of a world, you begin to realise who is important and who isn’t important, and then you judge these people because of their colour, their creed, their height, their weight or whatever.
We have to label them, you see. And we’re very careful: these are not to be trusted and these are. It’s such a laborious way of living.
And what Jesus says, he says to the man, and I’ll quote this now:
to justify himself, he said to Jesus,
“And who is my neighbour?”
What he does is he tells him a story. He doesn’t reply, he tells him a story. And how does the story go? It’s the story of the Good Samaritan.
And Jesus talks to him and he says:
“A man fell victim to robbers
as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”
Now, that’s about a twenty-five mile walk from the city of Jericho up to the city of Jerusalem.
As you remember, Jesus is leading his disciples into the Holy City where he will suffer and die. So everything in Luke has a two- or three-layered meaning.
So it’s on this road which was known for bandits and thieves because some of the path was windy and it led through mountains that were four hundred feet tall and with twisty bends.
So it was a dangerous place and probably everybody felt that this man who got waylaid in this area should have been travelling, like everybody else does, with a large crowd so that the robbers will not be so arrogant.
Anyhow, he fell victim to robbers and
“They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.”
Well, that’s understandable.
So, here’s a man laying and, all of a sudden, a priest happens to be going down that road, but, when he saw him, he crossed the road and hurried on to the other side.
Where was he going? He was going to Jerusalem.
And what was he going to do in Jerusalem?
He had to be in the temple and, if he thought the man was dead, if he touched him, just touched him, he wouldn’t be able to, for seven days, he would not be able to perform any of the ceremonies that the priest must perform.
So he had an excuse. He had a rationalisation.
We know what rationalisations are. It’s always to figure out an excuse not to do what we really should do, yes? But we justify it to ourselves. Well, I have to serve the people, I have to do this, I have to do that.
He walked on.
Then a Levite came. Now a Levite is like a sacristan. It’s someone who works within the temple, and he helps the priest in carrying out and ensuring that everything is clean and orderly, and he is highly respected as well. He himself can touch the dead and not cause impurification.
Now this is liturgical impurity. It’s not impurity of the heart or something like that.
But he’s kind of wondering, if he goes over and he touches this guy, who might or might not be dead, he doesn’t know what to do after that. What am I going to do with him? You see?
Or he’s saying, maybe, as is the custom in that area, maybe he’s just been put out there by the robbers so that someone else will come, an innocent person, and they will be able to waylay him while he’s doing this task.
So he crosses over and goes away as well.
Then, Luke tells us, a Samaritan traveller…
Now you know they’re from Samaria, they are from the north, and they would be travelling in heavily Jewish territory, and sacred territory as well, and so he would have to watch his step because there was deep hatred between these two peoples.
Even though both of them were children of Abraham, the Samaritans were not accepted by the more pure Jews after they returned from Babylonian captivity and settled back in Judea, and there was very great rancour between them.
Now he comes along and then Jesus says he “was moved with compassion.”
This is a very important word: compassion. The Jewish word is hesed. Hesed is not just compassion, it’s mercy. (Inaudible) It is a pain and discomfort on the inside when you want to reach out and heal someone who is suffering so that you both suffer.
Now we say that when God shows His mercy, it is God reaching out, seeing our pain, experiencing it as Jesus does on the cross, and wanting to heal it.
So it’s a very deep kind of feeling, you see.
It’s not, “Oh, I think if I do this, I do my one deed daily, you know, my one good deed,” or “Everybody will think I’m very good for being ethical,” and all that.
It’s a searing of the heart, seeing the condition of a fellow human being who needs help and is helpless.
And what does he do?
He goes over to him. He wraps his arms around him. He puts oil on his wounds, he cleans him, and then he picks him up and puts him on his own horse and he takes him to an inn, God knows how far away.
And he says to the innkeeper…
And he stays with him all night long. And he’s awake all night long caring for him.
And in the morning he says to the innkeeper, who probably knew him from previous journeys, he says, “Now you take very good care of this man. And I give you these two pieces of silver. And I’ll be back on the same road and, when I come back, if he has spent more or you have spent more, then you can tell me what that is and I’ll repay that as well.”
This is very remarkable. Why?
Because his heart goes out to this man.
Is he Jewish? Is he not Jewish? Is he a Samaritan? It doesn’t matter.
It matters that his heart touches this man’s tragedy and that’s the only thing that matters.
He’s a carer: one who cares. A carer is somebody who doesn’t say, “Ooh, I think I’m going to do a good deed and be kind to somebody.” The carer means in his heart he cares.
We think of God as our carer. He cares for us. Caring is not just loving us. Caring is going out of His way to help us and heal us and make us feel, once again, joyful and belonging and happy.
This is what the Samaritan stands for.
And so then Jesus turns to the questioner. The original question was,
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus is saying nobody inherits eternal life. It’s a gift. You don’t earn it. You don’t do things to get it. It’s a gift of God. All you have to do is open your heart and you have it. For the loving is in the living, and the living is in the loving, and there is no separation.
And it’s gift for gift: God’s gift to us and our gift of ourselves to Him.
And that’s the beginning of eternal life.
So Jesus is saying, “You already have it.”
“Who is my neighbour?”
“Who is my neighbour?”
Jesus says: “The question is not ‘Who is my neighbour?’” He changes it. He changes the perspective. The question is not “Who is my neighbour?”
The question is, “In your opinion, who was neighbour to the victim?” Not “Who is my neighbour?” but “Who was neighbour to the victim?”
This is not a question of deciding who is worthy to be assisted by me, but it’s an attitude which says all human beings deserve my attention, for they are all children of God and, when in need, I reach out to them. And I reach out to them, because, when I reach out to them, I touch God Himself.
This is the meaning of the Good Samaritan.
The man is right. He says the one who shows hesed, the one who shows compassion, the one who shows he cares, the one who reaches out to heal and help.
And, of course, he’s describing Jesus himself. Because that is why Jesus has come: that he might become the Good Shepherd and he might be also the Good Samaritan.
And that is why he asks us, as we walk towards Jerusalem, that we are to be Good Samaritans, because we are one with him and he is one with us.
I’d like to read a final to this little talk and it goes like this (this is all material stolen from the best places):
Who is the Good Samaritan?
A human being who reaches out to help those in need.
And why does this man reach out to help them?
Because they are in need.
These are people who care. They care because their hearts will not allow them to do otherwise.
To Jesus there is no other form of love worthy of God.
We are to love with the Samaritan’s love. We are to love with Jesus’ love. We are to love with his Father’s love.
For in God’s all-seeing eyes, the wounded man left bleeding and helpless by the roadside is the crucified Christ, His only Son.