So far, this strange year continues with even more challenging and disturbing events that are far beyond unsettling. The ghastly shootings in Highland Park on the Fourth of July were followed by the brutal assassination of Shinzo Abe, the former prime minster of Japan, but also with other shootings that did not cause as much a ripple in the news media, so inured we have become to weekly shocks and disasters. Governments have toppled, war rages on horribly in Ukraine, and even the climate seems to worsen weekly.
We manage to distract ourselves by sports and amusements, but even our popular superhero films are filled with catastrophes and the longing for a savior. Life goes on, but in the meantime we may be changing, growing less friendly and helpful to strangers and even to our neighbors in need. And so today’s gospel speaks to our hearts at a crucial moment.
Today’s second reading, a glorious excerpt from the Letter to Colossians, proclaims that even for the very earliest Christians, Jesus was not only a historical figure, not just our leader and teacher for all times, but the very embodiment of the unseen and unknowable God who fills the universe with his presence and power. This remarkable passage is most likely from an earlier hymn used to introduce the letter. It is especially important for its exalted Christological affirmations, one of several hymns cited in the letters ascribed to St. Paul, but likely written by disciples in the years following his martyrdom. (The others appear in Philippians 2:6-11 and Ephesians 1:2-10.)
With this great affirmation as prelude, today’s gospel reading calls us to learn from Jesus, especially to attend to the needs of those around us — all of them, but especially those neglected and often despised as outsiders, aliens, or even enemies, a radical advance on ancient morality that must startled Jesus’ hearers considerably:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).
In today’s gospel, Jesus picks up on the scripture verse cited by the Doctor of the Law challenging him on this point. Found near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah, it includes part of Moses’ final discourse, from which our first reading is taken. It contains the beloved verses that the doctor of the Law cites in his exchange with Jesus:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:5-9).
To this is customarily added the injunction from Leviticus 9:18 — “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.”
Deuteronomy frequently enjoins duties and obligations to our neighbor, that curious English word that originally meant “nigh” or “near boor,” our “bower-mate,” our fellow countryman. But in what is probably the most well-known of all Jesus’ parables, he is about to broaden the notion considerably and, to the ears of some (even today), alarmingly.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks, “wishing to justify himself,” to push the point. Jesus responds with what is the most well-known of all his parables, the tale of how the despised Samaritan rescued his Jewish enemy, a merchant beaten and robbed on his way to Jericho.
Who was his neighbor? Not the priest, not the Levite, but “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replied. And Jesus said, simply, to him and to us, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).