At first glance, it all seems so simple, doesn’t it? “Go and do likewise.” Easy enough. But when a command like “go and do likewise” comes at the end of one of Jesus’ parables, we really ought to suspect it’s going to stretch us a little bit, and today is no exception.
So let’s take a step back and look at today’s first reading to get some background for what’s happening in today’s Gospel. Moses is exhorting the people to keep the commandments of God. But which ones? The Ten Commandments? Perhaps. But the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus give the fullness of the Jewish law. There you can read over six hundred laws pertaining to everything from hospitality to the treatment of slaves. I often think the people were overwhelmed when they thought about that many laws. They may even have been fearful that they would have accidentally broken one of those laws in the course of daily life. But Moses is telling them that they don’t have to be reaching to find the laws they need to follow. Those laws aren’t remote or mysterious. They don’t have to cross the sea or search the sky. Because the law they need to follow is very near to them: on their lips and in their heart. They have only to carry it out.
This is almost exactly the same thing Jesus is saying in the Gospel today. The scholar of the law who approaches Jesus today isn’t really seeking further knowledge. Rather, he is showing off and testing Jesus to see what he would say. He wants to know what it takes to inherit eternal life. Which is the right question, but for the wrong reason. In other words, he really isn’t concerned about his salvation – he probably thinks that a scholar of the law like him has that all wrapped up anyway – instead he is trying to trap Jesus and make him look foolish.
As Jesus often does, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law?” The scholar feels on good, solid, comfortable ground with that question, and responds pretty well: Love God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor. Loving God and neighbor is the crux of the Law and the Prophets. So Jesus commends him, and says that if he does this he will live. But the man wants to justify himself a little more, and so he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” And this is the ten-thousand-dollar question of the day.
There are three Greek words used to translate “neighbor.” Two of them deal with what you might think: friends, family, and those living near to a person. For most people, a neighbor meant people living in close proximity. For the Jews, it went a little further, meaning all fellow Jews. But the word that is used in this Gospel reading, the word for “neighbor” that Jesus chose, is very particularly something else, something a little higher. The word for “neighbor” here is almost a verb. It’s not just someone nearby, but instead the dynamic of coming near to another, of approaching and drawing close.
I think we all have an idea in mind when we hear the word “neighbor.” I remember the neighborhood where I grew up, the neighborhood in which my mother continues to live. I had friends who went to school with me, and even to our Church. When we were growing up, we would spend hot summer nights together outside, playing “kick the can” and other kids’ games. Later, we attended our youth group together. Our parents kept an eye not just on their own kids, but on all the kids in the neighborhood. When my sister was little, she used to like to climb trees, and as soon as she did, the neighbor would call to let my mother know so she wouldn’t fall out of the tree and break her neck (she never did, thank God!). When someone had a death in the family, there would be food brought to the house. If there was work to be done, someone would always lend a hand. We were neighbors to each other.
But again, as nice as this picture of “neighbor” is, Jesus is calling us to go deeper. He is asking us to step outside ourselves, and to see a person in need and respond, no matter where that person is, no matter his or her race, color or creed. This is a real challenge in every time and place. The person in need is always our neighbor. Listen to that statement again, because it’s crucial to what we’re hearing today and I don’t want you to leave this holy place without coming to understand it: the person in need is always, always, always our neighbor.
Before we come down too hard on the priest and the Levite in the story, let’s give them a bit of a break. In telling the story, Jesus doesn’t condemn the priest and the Levite. They were doing what people in their position would probably do, because they had to be concerned about remaining ritually pure so that they could lead worship. But Jesus says to them that they cannot be so concerned about the finer points of the law that they miss responding to the needs of a neighbor among them.
And we have to hear that too. Because we too can get so caught up in our own laws that we end up as self-righteous as that scholar of the law. We may claim to respect life if we have never been involved in an abortion. And that’s a great start, but respecting life also demands that we care for the poor and needy, that we care for the health of every person, that we honor our elderly brothers and sisters, and that we repent of our racism and refuse to honor stereotypes that are an affront to human dignity. We may claim to honor the sixth commandment if we have never committed adultery. But honoring that commandment also means that we live pure lives and strive always to purify our hearts. It means we don’t take part in off-color jokes and that we refrain from watching television or movies, or visiting internet sites that lead us down the wrong path. We may claim to be thankful for our daily bread when we say grace before meals. But being thankful for our blessings means also that we share them with those who are hungry. Because Jesus is leading us to a deeper reality today, we can no longer get caught up in the self-righteousness that the scholar of the law brings to his encounter with Jesus.
The person in need is always our neighbor. We don’t need to search far and wide to figure out what to do for that person. We have only to see the generous and self-giving response of the Samaritan in today’s Gospel and, as Jesus commands us, to “go and do likewise.” The Law and the Prophets are as near to us as that.
Our God never promises that the life of faith and discipleship will be an easy one; only that it will be blessed. One thing is certain: that life will certainly entail hardship, even suffering. That’s pretty evident in today’s Gospel reading. Faithful disciples have to worry about being betrayed by even their closest family members.
None of this is a surprise to anyone who has tried to live the faith. Perhaps at times the hardest people to evangelize are the members of one’s own family. I’m sure we all can think of people close to us who have abandoned the faith or practice it rarely. Maybe the ones who receive the Church’s teachings least are those we would hope would get it and be partners with us as we journey to the kingdom. It happens all the time – in your family and in mine.
These are trying times. It is hard to give witness to the Truth when the culture around us wants to make its own truth. And it’s painful to see our brothers and sisters fall for the lie hook, line and sinker. So how do we stand for the Truth when our loved ones tune it out? What do we do when our loved ones reject what we’ve tried to give them to bring them to eternal life?
Our Gospel tells us that what we do is persevere: we continue to live the Truth and witness to our faith. If those close to us tune out our words, then we have to be all the more attentive to our actions, to our lived witness, so that they can see that we live what we preach and believe. We have to depend on God to give us the right words and help us to do the right things so that we won’t be a stumbling block. And then we have to trust in God to work it all out in his time.
None of this is going to be easy, but Jesus tells us that the one who endures to the end will be saved.
In today’s readings, God proves himself trustworthy, yet again. He appears to Jacob in a dream and promises that he will be with him wherever he goes, protecting him, and bringing him back to the land, which he would also give to Jacob’s descendants. In his joy, Jacob reacts by consecrating the land to the Lord.
In the Gospel, Jesus heals not one, but two people: he stops the hemorrhage of a women who had suffered from the malady for twelve years, and then he raises the daughter of one of the local officials. In their joy, news of Jesus’ mighty deeds spread all throughout the land.
The Psalmist prays today, “In you, my God, I place my trust.” It’s a call for us to do the same today. We certainly don’t know how God will answer our prayers or even when he will do so. He might bring healing, but maybe in a way we don’t expect. But his promise to Jacob is one in which we can trust as well: he will be with us wherever we go, and he will protect us.
Some of us on the Liturgy staff were reflecting in the last couple of weeks that it’s nice to be in Ordinary Time. The wonderful feast days and solemnities of the year are great, and we love them, but while we take care to celebrate them with festivity, they can take a lot of our energy and leave us with little time to really pray them. So we look forward to these days of Ordinary Time, and that’s good, because during this time of the year, Holy Mother Church gives us some great tools for living the Christian life of discipleship. Today’s Gospel is a great example of that.
So Jesus’ ministry is ramping up into full gear. In order to prepare the places he intends to visit, he sends out seventy-two disciples, in pairs, to prepare the way. They are going to do some of the same things he will do: curing the sick, healing the broken, and preaching the Kingdom of God, with its call to repentance. This is the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary. They have great success because Jesus prepares them in advance and gives them advice about how to be good disciples.
And we need to pay careful attention to that advice because, as you may have guessed, this story, nice as it is, is not about just those seventy-two. It is about all of us. At our baptism, we too have been sent out on mission. We too are called to bring healing to a broken world, and to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is here and now, and it is urgent that people come to enter into it.
We might protest, I think, saying that we’re not ready, not equipped to be evangelizers and preachers and healers. Well, news flash: neither were those seventy-two. In fact, they came back amazed that they were able to accomplish the mighty deeds they did. And they were able to do those things because Jesus had prepared them in advance. He gave them several rules for mission, and of them, three really stand out. I think we are supposed to hear and appropriate these things as well.
So the first tool he gives us is the wisdom not to rely on ourselves. Listen to the instructions Jesus gives the seventy-two before they leave: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals…” Now that all seems pretty impractical to those of us who have to travel in the twenty-first century, doesn’t it? We need a wallet or purse to carry what we’d need to pay tolls and buy fuel and pay for what we need on the journey, and certainly we’d need a sack to carry identification as well as just basic things we’d need along the way. I’m a compulsive over-packer, and I like to have all the details of a journey mapped out pretty precisely before I set out, so this advice gives me agita. Here’s the point, though: If we were able to foresee every possibility and pack for every possible need, we would certainly not need Jesus, would we? Jesus is telling the seventy-two, and us as well, to stop worrying and start following. Rely on Jesus because he is trustworthy. Experience the joy of letting Jesus worry about the small stuff while he is doing big things in us and through us.
The second discipleship tool is to “greet no one along the way.” That sounds pretty unfriendly, doesn’t it? We would think he’d want us to greet everyone we can, but that’s not the point here. The point is, along the way, we can easily be derailed from the mission. Other things can seem to be important, other people can try to get us off track, Satan can make so many other things seem important along the way. The point here is that there is urgency to the mission. People have to hear that Jesus is Lord and that God loves them now, not later, when it may be too late. We have to get the show on the road, and the time is now.
The final tool is this: do not move from one house to another, to eat and drink what is set before us. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to spread the Good News. The discipline Jesus is teaching here is that we have to be focused in our ministry. Once we have been given the mission, we have to stay with it, and not be blown about like the wind. Eating and drinking what is set before them meant that if they were given ministry that is difficult, they needed to stay with it, because that’s what was set before them. We, too, are called to stay with a person or a situation until what God wants to happen happens. We too have to know that our mission may not be easy, but we have to accept the mission we have. We are called to accept people and situations as they are and trust God to perfect our efforts. When it’s time to move on, God will let us know, and we will come to know that time through prayer and discernment.
So we’ve received pretty large task as we come here for worship today. In just a while, we will be fed on the most excellent Body and Blood of our Lord which will give us strength to tend to the piece of the Kingdom that God has entrusted to us. We have been instructed with some basic tools for doing the work of God. If we use these tools and are faithful to the mission, I think we’ll be as overjoyed as were those disciples. And then, we can rejoice with them that our names are written in heaven.
Today’s readings are, well, interesting. It’s hard to know in today’s first reading if the Lord is blessing dishonest conduct, or if it’s the providence of God that is working its way out. All of us must surely bristle a bit when we see Esau cheated out of his father’s blessing, and Jacob and Rebekah’s dishonest conduct blessed. Secretly we all must have been waiting for the wrath of God to come down upon the two of them and turn them into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife. But that’s not what happens here. And we know that Jacob is blessed as the father of a nation. What the message seems to be here is that God does not let an accident of birth order stand in the way of blessing one he has chosen.
If our Gospel reading today could shed any light on this conundrum, perhaps it is that we cannot put new wine into old wineskins. The new wine of God’s justice and omnipotence just won’t be contained in the old wineskins of our understanding. Instead, that new wine bursts forth from those wineskins and saturates the earth with mercy and justice.
That new wine is well represented in the blood of the martyrs. Like the blood of their Savior, martyrs like Saint Maria Goretti have saturated and refreshed the earth, calling the world to new holiness and bringing the world to Christ. Maria was stabbed to death in 1902, preferring to die rather than be raped. In the hours before her death, she forgave her murderer, a neighbor named Alessandro. He was unrepentant for years, until one night he had a vision of Maria gathering flowers and offering them to him. Forgiveness is a powerful instrument to bring people to Christ.
Today, may we rejoice with our bridegroom that God’s mercy and compassion never end and that our limited understandings cannot be the containers of God’s ways, and that forgiveness is always the doorway to Christ.
Today’s readings: Isaiah 57:15-19 | Psalm 85:9-14 | Philippians 4:6-9 | John 14:23-29
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Famously begins the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the American colonies on July 4, 1776. Sometimes, I think, it seems we have strayed pretty far from the ideals found in this wonderful document. Just that first sentence says a lot about who our forefathers wanted us to be: it acknowledges the Creator God who gives people a dignity and rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights must still be vigorously defended today.
The right to life seems like a no-brainer. But as our society has become more complex, the right to life has been somewhat blurred. When does life begin? What lives need to be protected? The Church, of course, calls for a vigorous defense of life at every stage from conception to natural death. That means abortion is wrong, embryonic stem-cell research is wrong, euthanasia is wrong. These convictions make for difficult conversations, but life is and always will be a basic human right.
The right to liberty is similarly blurred in today’s society. Nobody wants anything to infringe on their freedoms. And nothing should. But being free people doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want. Our freedom cannot, for example, impinge on the freedom of another person. Our freedom cannot allow us to harm another person. Saint Paul says that “for freedom, Christ has set us free.” Our freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is that we can then freely choose Christ, freely choose God, freely choose love. None of that happens in a coerced way. Freely choosing God means that we must be willing to freely choose all that that choice entails, without threat of harm from another.
And finally there is the pursuit of happiness. We Christians believe that happiness will never be perfectly obtained in this life. We long for the happiness of the kingdom of God, that place we were made for in the first place. We have the right to pursue reasonable happiness in this life, and we have a right to exercise the means to pursue the most excellent happiness of the world to come.
We Catholics teach that with all these rights come responsibilities. We have a responsibility to protect the rights of others, to keep our nation from harm, to work for lasting peace in the world. Toward that end, we are mindful and grateful of the work so many have done to secure our rights and freedoms, both those who have gone before us and those still fighting wars today. We, of course, know that as we pursue peace and freedom, we will only perfectly attain that in Christ. In our Gospel today, he offers us peace that the world cannot give. In our prayer, then, we long for the day when war will be no more, and the peace that is the presence of Christ will rule over a world still in need of the perfection of life, liberty and happiness.
In the last line of the Declaration, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on these inalienable rights: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.
I want to feel bad for Lot’s wife in today’s first reading. Not only is she not even called by name in the entire reading, but she gets turned into a pillar of salt just for a backward glance. But, sad as it is, this is the whole point of the reading, and it’s not like they weren’t warned – the angel was very clear: “Flee for your life! Don’t look back or stop anywhere on the Plain. Get off to the hills at once, or you will be swept away.” So in some ways, she deserved what she got. But I think the reading is getting at something a little deeper here than a mere glance over one’s shoulder.
Indeed the real issue is, what did that looking back mean? Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed for their wanton evil. They may have once been wonderful cities, but they had become centers of every kind of evil and debased action. And this evil was so pervasive that no other corrective action other than total destruction of the cities would do. In yesterday’s first reading, we heard the famous reading about Abraham and God bargaining to save those cities. At the end of it all, God agrees, at Abraham’s urging, not to destroy the place if just ten righteous people could be found there. Obviously the righteous numbered less than ten, amounting to just Lot, his wife, and his two daughters. That’s a pretty sad indictment of that region.
But, so pervasive was the evil of that place, that it infected even Lot’s wife, who didn’t just glance back to see if she dropped something. No, the backward glance was more likely sorrow for what she left behind; she was not untainted by the scandal of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The lesson is that when God leads us forward, we cannot debase ourselves to look back. The Psalmist has it right today, as always, when he says, “For your mercy is before my eyes, and I walk in your truth.” Your mercy is before my eyes, so I need to look forward, not back. Looking backward leads us to our old sinful ways; looking forward is what leads us to our God. So if God is giving us the chance to move forward, as he did for Lot and his wife and his daughters, then we can do no less than fix our eyes on the path ahead, cutting our ties with everything that is behind us.
“For freedom Christ set us free.” So writes Saint Paul in our second reading today. And it’s a beautiful reflection for this weekend, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations. When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 243 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns. Freedom of religion was of primary importance, and they also held dear freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others. We are the beneficiaries of their hard work. As “they” say, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember with gratitude those who paid that price for us, and those who continue to do so in the military every day.
In that second reading, Saint Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had. This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the myriad of laws that they observed, laws that encouraged people to replace true devotion to the spirit of the law with mere surface-level observance of the letter of the law. Paul reminds them that their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that they, and we, might have life.
For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading. Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is. The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all. Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption. That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains. Anyone struggling with a pattern of sin or addiction will tell you that. The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God. Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.
This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously even in our own day, as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence. Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want. And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. And if you don’t think that’s an issue, just listen to some talk radio or watch some daytime television, or perhaps listen to any of the current campaigning for office, or even the debate of our state legislature’s last session. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord by the way we live and talk. And you know that’s an issue: in the courts, in our places of business and our schools, and in our communities. Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.
This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the would-be disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel. All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now. But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call; that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that.
Certainly the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears. After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they? Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead? But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here. First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead. Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call. Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those exact things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The call was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and business.
What’s at issue here is right relationship. Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness. It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of it all.
It’s important to know that God pretty much always calls people out of the ordinariness of their lives. That was true of Elisha today. He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields. And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor. It must have been an incredibly moving event for Elisha, because he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people. Doing that was a complete break with his former life, and showed the lengths to which he was ready to go in order to do God’s will.
On this Independence Day, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others and ignorant of our relationship with God. I hope we remember that true freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life. Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be caught up in the life of God. True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be. True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath. True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”