By Father Donald Dilger
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Response: Ps. 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-20; Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
Deuteronomy is the fifth scroll (book) of the Torah, the technical Hebrew or English name of the first five books of the Bible. Torah means “teaching, law,” in reference to the laws contained within these five books. Thus “the Law of Moses.” Tradition assigned authorship of the Torah to Moses. Christians usually refer to these five scrolls/books as the Pentateuch, a Greek noun meaning five scrolls or the five containers in which the scrolls were stored. The name “Deuteronomy” is derived from two Greek words, deutero, meaning “second,” and nomos, meaning law. This word is found in the Greek version of Deut. 17:18. The passage in English: “When the king sits on the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself this copy of the law (deutero-nomion) into a book by the hands . . . of the Levites.” The Hebrew name for this book or scroll is taken from its first Hebrew words, which translates into English, “These (are) the words.” The rest of the sentence: “which Moses spoke to all Israel, etc.” Moses was long dead by the time Deuteronomy was assembled by scribes in the 6th century B.C. to foster unity of worship, law and conduct for Israelites. A major literary form of Deuteronomy is a series of addresses to Israelites by Moses.
Our first reading of this Sunday is at the end of the third such address. Moses has completed the review and narration of the laws. He makes a final appeal, “If only you would listen to the voice of the Lord, your God, and keep his commandments . . . that are written in this book . . . with your heart and your whole soul . . . .” He notes how easy it is to observe this command. Nothing mysterious about it. No one has to search for it in the sky, nor across the sea. Concluding: “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts. All you have to do is carry it out.” One may wonder if the editors of these words had in mind the Phylacteries. These were leather pouches on a band or cord worn on the left arm (close to the heart) and on the forehead. They contained copies of certain laws of the Torah.
The Lectionary gives us Psalm 69 as the first option for the Response Psalm. This psalm is, however, a song of mourning and does not really respond to the first reading. The second option is Psalm 19, a better choice. It carries some themes from the first reading. The ease of carrying out the laws expressed in the first reading becomes in this psalm a series of praises for the law of the Lord. The law of the Lord is, “perfect, refreshing the soul, trustworthy, giving wisdom, bringing joy to the heart. It is clear, brightens the eye, true, just, more precious than gold, sweeter than syrup or honey from the honeycomb.”
The second reading is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Colossae was a city in southwest Asia Minor, which is Turkey today. One purpose of Church documents then and now is to correct errors. This is also true of Paul’s letters to the various churches — those he founded and/or visited, or hoped to visit. In this letter, an error seems to be some kind of religious mixture of Christianity, Judaism and Greek paganism. The author incorporates a hymn to Christ, which is our second reading. The first line of the hymn: “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” This sets the theme of the hymn — the role of Christ in creation. A problem can arise from the words “firstborn of all creation” if they are understood that Christ himself was created. But these words are an allusion to Proverbs 8:22 describing wisdom as God’s first creation. The second line helps us out of this dilemma. It speaks of Christ as a kind of blueprint for creation, “For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth . . . .” This is stated more clearly in John 1:1-4a.
Our gospel reading begins with a friendly encounter between Jesus and a biblical scholar. These men who made themselves experts in the Scriptures were also known as scribes or lawyers because they were professional scholars of the Torah. The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is how the scribes debated questions among themselves. For them, at least in this case, it was an honor to extend to Jesus the courtesy of asking a question of someone who was not a trained scribe. It was also accepted custom for the one questioned to ask a counter-question. Jesus responds, “What is written in the Torah? An answer from the Torah was expected and was given. The answer was a basic Creed of believing Jews. It is called the Shema from its first word, “Hear, O Israel! You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole being, all your strength, and with your whole mind . . . .” This is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. The lawyer adds a quote from Leviticus 19:18, “. . . and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The context in Leviticus tells us that “a neighbor” meant a fellow-Jew. Jesus is about to reinterpret that law – and that noun – extending it even to supposed enemies.
He accomplishes this through a story — the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man enroute from Jerusalem to the city of Jericho was waylaid by robbers. They left him stripped, beaten and half-dead. A priest passed by, then a Levite. They were the victim’s clergy. They saw him, crossed to the other side of the road and moved on. A Samaritan came by, saw the victim, approached him, treated his wounds, set him on his own ride, took him to an inn and cared for him. The Samaritan had to move on, so he paid the innkeeper to take care of the stricken victim. What is so remarkable about this? The victim was a Jew. The Samaritan, though also of Semitic stock, was supposed to be an enemy of Jews. Samaritans and Jews had been hostile to each other for 700 years. The Samaritan reached across the boundaries set by society to help a man who should have been his enemy. Jesus had made his point. Love of neighbor must be extended even to enemies. Jesus asks the scribe who was the true neighbor to the victim, his clergy or the hated outsider? The lawyer admitted it was the Samaritan. Jesus gets the last word: “Go and do likewise.” Who are the victims in our society? Who of us dares to be the Good Samaritan?