In the Gospel today, a lawyer poses the question to Christ: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Christ, knowing that the lawyer is trying to cunningly test Him, answers this question, with another question, and He asks the lawyer: “What does it say in the law? How do you read it?” And the lawyer responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” And Christ says: “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
But the lawyer presses the issue, and still wishing to test Christ, he asks: “Well, then, who is my neighbor?” And it is here that Jesus begins His parable.
A man was leaving Jerusalem and going to Jericho. On the way the man is attacked, stripped of his cloths and beaten. Helpless and forlorn, he lay wounded on the side of the road, left for dead. A priest and a Levite, both outwardly observant in their religious faith and obligations, who would be identified and considered “religious men” in Jesus’ time, see the man on the side of the road, yet they pass him by as if they didn’t even notice him. They can’t be bothered. They even cross the road and walk on the other side so that they doesn’t even have any contact with him.
Yet the Samaritan, who in Jesus’ time would have been recognized as a person outwardly lacking in the true faith, is moved in his heart for this man lying by the road, and he stops to help him. The Samaritan had compassion on the man. And so he bandaged his wounds and took care of him, sparing no expense or effort to make sure that this man was okay.
And Christ asked this cunning lawyer: “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And the lawyer answered: “He who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.”
These words of Christ – “Go and do likewise” – ring out to us as a direct command. Not a suggestion. Not nice words of wisdom to ponder. But these are the words Christ gives us “so that we might live.” And Christ’s admonition to this lawyer, and to all of us, could be summed up in the words of the prophet Micah: He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8).
We live in an age of self-preoccupation and self-obsession. Everywhere one looks, we see evidence of this in our obsession with self-interest, self-image, self-development, self-satisfaction, self-love, self-expression, self-confidence, self-help, self-acceptance, and so on. Best-selling Christian books have titles like: Becoming Myself: Embracing God’s Dream of You, or Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, and so on. We are preoccupied with “my” rights, “my” choice, “my” opinions. Our very language and technology reflect this focus on the “self”: iPods, iPads,Myspace, facebook, youtube – places in which a person can spend hours and hours promoting themselves, perfecting their online profile, cataloguing their likes and dislikes and uploading endless photos for the world to see. Noting this trend, the Oxford English Dictionary chose the word “selfie” as 2013’s “Word of the Year.”
Though our technology promises to connect us better than ever before, our sense of true connection and true responsibility for our neighbor, for our families, for those in our community has somehow been lost along the way. Communities have become fragmented, families have disintegrated, churches are losing members, and in recent statistics, charitable giving has dropped 20% overall.
It is all very well to list a litany of these collective social & moral issues. These are certainly major problems that can’t be ignored. Yet it is not simply enough to start a self-righteous crusade against these problems thinking they will go away by this external effort alone. Instead, we ourselves must become holy. And how do we do that? Our beloved St. Porphyrios said: “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” We cannot do the great things before first doing the small things. And if we ourselves try, with God’s help, to change ourselves and to love others around us, then the world will begin to change.
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov stressed in The Arena: “A Christian’s love for God is love for Christ (I John 2:23), and love for our neighbor is love for Christ in our neighbor. By loving our neighbor – by loving him in the Lord, that is, as the Lord commands us – we acquire love for Christ, and love for Christ is love for God.” The Scriptures and the Church Fathers consistently tell us that love for God and love for our brother – our neighbor – cannot be separated. In the First Epistle of John we read: If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also. (1 John 4:20,21)
The Apostle Paul tells us: Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2) And St. Anthony has said: “Our life and death is in our brother. If we have gained our brother, than we have gained God.”
And so we have heard the Lord’s rule for the lawyer and for us: Go, and do likewise. Christ gives us an example in the Samaritan, and He says: Forget about yourself and your ego, and put that person who needs your help, whether material or spiritual, at the center of your life. Put whoever needs a neighbor at the center of your life, and become his neighbor. For you truly are his neighbor.
This is the test of our spiritual maturity – whether or not we can fullfill this commandment of love. And this parable at once is an indictment on myself, and I know this for sure. How many times have I ignored someone in need just for my own paltry and selfish purposes? How many times have I walked past or ignored somebody who it seemed may have needed my help, simply because I was in a hurry to get somewhere, or because I thought somebody else would help them, or because I was tired, or simply because I didn’t want to be bothered? Sometimes (and very many times) it is not as dramatic as somebody lying, left for dead on the side of the road, but it may be somebody who needs just some small kindness, a warm word, an attentive gesture or even a simple acknowledgement – small things which many not seem like much, but which may make all the difference in the world to somebody. We must be prepared to love our neighbor as Christ has loved us: with the readiness to lay down our lives for him. We may not be called to give our life for our brother in the literal sense of being killed. Rather, it’s a question of giving day in and day out our concern to all those who are in need of concern; those in need of consolation; those who are lost who are in need of strength and support; those who are hungry need food; those who are destitute may need clothes; and those who are in spiritual disarray may need a word that streams from the very faith which we receive in church – our faith in Christ, which is our life.
Our love as Christians is not the superficial love of the world, which is very shallow and based on sentiment, feelings and emotions. Our love is to suffer and take up the Cross, just as Christ had done in the supreme example of God’s love for mankind at his crucifixion. As St. Porphyrios said: “[To be a Christian] you must suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love.” To love someone is to help them carry their cross, and even to be with them on the cross. This is how we fulfill the law of God, and it is the culmination and summation of all the law and the commandments.
On this Sunday, and on everyday, and as we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving this Thursday, let us keep this parable in mind. We must give thanks to God for all the good things in our life – a warm bed, comfortable clothes, food on our table and a roof on over our heads. Indeed, we have it very good. Yet we must never forget our brothers and sisters – our neighbors – that need our love and our help. Let us not follow the poor examples of the priest and the Levite in this parable, who are outwardly religious, but who are inwardly spiritually dead and cold. Rather, may God help us to be like the good Samaritan and to do good from the depths of our heart. To do good in God’s name to all of our brethren in God – even to our enemies and to those who hate and wrong us. For in this way we fulfill the commandment of love which brings us closer to God. Through this love, we fulfill Christ’s law and thus find our salvation. Amen.