First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Response: Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-20; Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
The title of the Book of Deuteronomy means “second law.” At times it is a revision of laws found earlier in the other books of the Torah (Pentateuch). It is the fifth and last of the five scrolls (books?) that form the Torah. Much of it is in the form of an address (sermon) of Moses to the Israelites in the wilderness. The authors: probably Levites, men of priestly stock who were not directly attached to the temple, a lower class of priests. Their purpose: to bring unity into the laws and customs of Israel and form a holy People of God. In summary, they promote unity, especially that which comes from the worship of the one, true God. Therefore the profession of faith in Deut. 6:4-5, “Hear, Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, with all your strength.” The collections of law that follow instruct how to accomplish this command.
After the promulgation of the laws, one should say simply “the Law,” Moses addresses the people. However, it is not Moses addressing the people, but the Levites addressing them in the name of Moses. Deuteronomy was assembled many centuries after Moses’ death. The authors therefore tell their hearers that the command or precept, (understanding the laws as one corporate body of law), is not too mysterious, (though some of it is mysterious enough), nor too remote, nor beyond one’s strength, nor beyond reach. No need to go up into the sky to find it, nor across the sea. In fact, says Moses, “It is very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts. All you have to do is obey it.” The authors have in mind Deuteronomy 6:6-9, “Let these words be written on your heart. Repeat them to your children, whether they are resting in the house or taking a walk, when you lie down and when you get up. Fasten them on your hand and on your forehead, (phylacteries — pouches on a band or cord, containing copies of these laws). They were worn on the left arm (close to the heart) and forehead. “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house,” (the mezuza — a container with biblical texts attached to a right doorpost of a house).
The Responsorial Psalm 69 seems a strange choice to follow the first reading. It is a song of mourning. There is no evident connection with the first reading. Nevertheless, it is a great Psalm and influenced the formation of our four gospels’ Passion Narratives, but not in the widely scattered verses selected for today’s liturgy. These verses demonstrate the desperation of the Psalmist. For example, “I am afflicted and in pain.” There is a constant turning to the Lord, “In your great kindness answer me with your ongoing help.” The People’s Response advises, “Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.” The Lectionary gives an option, Psalm 19, a far better choice. It picks up the theme of praising the laws of the Lord, just like the first reading.
The second reading: St. Paul to the Colossians. Colossae was a city in southwest Asia Minor (today Turkey). Church documents are often written to correct errors. In this letter the errors seem to be the practice of some kind of religious mixture of Christianity, Judaism and Greek paganism. The part we have as our second reading is a hymn to Christ — “the firstborn of all creation.” If the second verse of this hymn did not explain the meaning of this title, we might have the heretical problem of proclaiming Christ as having been created. However, the second verse makes it clear all things were created in him, through him, for him. This comes close to an opening statement of John’s gospel, “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him was made nothing that has been made.”
There are two parts of today’s gospel. First Luke gives us a friendly encounter between Jesus and a “scholar of the law,” (biblical scholar, lawyer, scribe). The scribes often engaged in debates on points of the Torah (law). He “tests” Jesus. This need not mean anything else than wanting Jesus’ opinion. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” According to custom, one could respond with a counter-question, as Jesus did. Thus he pays a compliment by asking the opinion of the questioner. Jesus asks, “What is written in the Law (the Torah)?” The scholar answers with the chief commandment of Deuteronomy, the Shema, quoted above in the first paragraph of this column. It begins, “Hear, Israel!” The Hebrew word for “Hear!” is Shema, so this basic commandment or profession of faith is known by its first word, just as the first Latin word of our profession of faith is Credo, therefore the name Creed. Note that the scribe adds to the Shema, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus’ response is also from Leviticus 18:5, “Do this and you will live,” though from a different context than 19:18.
The second part of today’s gospel is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke connects the parable with the preceding discussion, “But the scribe wished to justify himself, and said to Jesus, ‘So who is my neighbor?” Recall that Luke is not writing a biography, but a catechism and this is his way of teaching through the dialogue between Jesus and the scholar. Luke is always interested in minorities, especially despised minorities, as Samaritans were despised by many Jews (and surely vice versa). So the hero of the story is a Samaritan. The villains, if one may call them that for the sake of the story, are Jewish clergy, from whom one would expect mercy. The point of the parable can be formed into a question. Are we able to reach across the boundaries set by a dominant society or by powerful individuals in that society, to help those outside that society? Think the poor of all kinds — homeless, fleeing persecution or violence, economic and political refugees, immigrants, victims of discrimination. The Golden Rule, much older than Christianity and quoted by Jesus, is always valid, “So whatever you wish that people do to you, do so to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets,” Matthew 7:12.