We know from reading the Gospels that the Pharisees and Scribes regularly looked for opportunities to test Jesus. Jesus would answer with the truth that originated from God, was expressed in the Scriptures, and was brought to fulfillment by Jesus, the Word made flesh. The antagonist in this Gospel passage is identified as a scholar, possibly a Scribe, with the reputation of being an expert in the law. He asks two with the intent of having Jesus answer in a way that it could be used against him.
The first appears to be a very basic question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life. There are many passages in the Old Testament that Jesus could have referred to, or he could have given his own teaching. Had Jesus done this it was likely that the scholar would have turned his answer around and told the officials that Jesus said that other passages from the Law and Prophets are not important, thus, portraying Jesus as being unfaithful to the Law, and questioning his credibility as a teacher. Jesus’ response is to ask the scholar what he thought; “What is written in the law?” The scholar knows that the foundation of the Mosaic Law is found in the book of Deuteronomy when Moses prepared the Israelites to enter into the Promised Land, and that all the laws can be summed up in Deuteronomy 6:5; “You shall love the Lord, you God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees with him, for it is when we love God fully that we open our hearts to accept the unconditional love that God is pouring out to us, and in doing so we have a desire to do all we can to please God, including following his laws. It is in this relationship of love between God and us that we freely accept the gift of eternal life God desires us to have. From this love we are able, and many times challenged, to love our neighbor. To inherit everlasting life is to see and experience how much God loves us, and to return that love to God, and express it to our neighbor.
The scholar makes a second attempt to trip up Jesus by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” One such rivalry was between the Jews and the Samaritans. Jesus answers the scholar by telling him a parable we know as the “Good Samaritan.” The only one who stopped to help the man who was robbed and beaten and left for dead was a Samaritan. At the time of Jesus Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with one another. When Jesus finishes the parable he asks the Scholar, who was the victims neighbor? The Scholar couldn’t get himself to say, “the Samaritan,” rather he said, “the one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus makes a simple point, neighbor is not defined by geography, race, nationality, or the labels often used to define others. Our neighbor is anyone who is in need. The point is simple, the unconditional love God extends to all is the love we should strive to extend to one another. As simple as this is, we still struggle with accepting his clear teaching on this. It is as though we say; “Everyone is my neighbor, except – and then we list those we have difficulty with. Usually it is those who are poor and dispossessed. Those from different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. The immigrants and refugees that we try to justify in ignoring. Yet, Jesus does not include exceptions with this teaching. Instead, Jesus challenges us to look at people through his eyes, the eyes of unconditional love.
Father Killian Loch, O.S.B.