From Here to Eternity
(Readings: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37)
Introduction to Mass
This Sunday's gospel reading is one of the best-known passages in Luke's gospel: the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus what he has to do to make sure that he will share God's life in the future. Jesus' answer is that that future life starts now, by carrying out, in straightforward and practical terms, the commandment to love God and to love our neighbour.
We begin Mass by thinking about the ways we haven't been influenced deeply enough, perhaps, either by our belief about our eternal destiny, or by our commitment to Christian love and service. We ask God for pardon and for new strength.
At the time of Christ, Jewish culture was completely saturated with the ideas and the images of the Jewish faith, and there was always a lively debate going on among the various rabbis and teachers about different aspects of the faith and different points of the Law of Moses. That's the general background to the discussion in today's gospel passage, which is one of the most familiar passages in Luke's gospel and one that we've all heard hundreds of times before.
What happens, not for the first time, is that one of the religious pundits of the day tries to draw Jesus into a debate. The subject for debate on this particular occasion is the commandment which was at the centre of the Jewish Law, which applied to all faithful and practicing Jews, to love God with all their mind and heart and soul and strength, and also to love their neighbour as themselves.
To begin with, the lawyer puts his question in terms of one of the disputes that was going on at the time: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" In other words: "what do I have to do now to make sure that I will go on living in God's company, after my life on earth has come to an end?"
Several centuries before, the beliefs of the Hebrew people about life after death had been more primitive and vague. They believed that there was some kind of misty underworld, which they called sheol, where the ghosts of people's departed spirits wandered around more or less aimlessly, and not all that happily.
By the time of Jesus, Jewish beliefs about life after death had become more refined. Partly due to their own reflections and debates among themselves, and partly due to the impact of other religions, they had reached the conclusion that it's part of God's plan for the human race that we should share his company and his life fully when our time on earth is over.
In the New Testament that's what the expression 'eternal life' means: the share in God's life that we're intended to have in the future. All the different aspects of our life in the present - our personal relationships, the structures and institutions in our society - are marked in all sorts of ways by injustice and lies and suffering - by sin, in other words. Whereas our life with God in the future will be free from all those distortions. And it's that future life which is the object of our Christian hope.
In our own time, the situation is very different. The majority of people don't believe in any kind of afterlife, at least not in a way that makes any difference to their moral behaviour. Most men and women in our society believe that when we die, we just cease to exist. So of course any goals and ambitions they have, any plans for the future, are concentrated totally on this life. Our modern obsessions with material pleasure, with physical health and appearance and so on, only make sense where people's general attitude is "you only live once". They feel they have to grab as much as they can, while they can.
Christian ideas about these things are supposed to be a bit different. Our belief about eternal life, if we're earnest about it, means that we don't place a final an ultimate value on material things, however good they might be in themselves. In fact, the more real our faith is in the life we're heading towards with God in the future, the more we'll tend to be detached from those kinds of things, the less of a hold they'll have on us, and the easier we'll find it to do without them. We put our trust in God and not in the things of this world.
But having said all that, it would be wrong to believe that our Christian hope for eternal life means that we're supposed to adopt a purely spiritualized attitude towards our lives in the present. Hope for the future isn't meant to be an escape from the anxieties and the dilemmas and responsibilities that come up in the present.
And that's clear, surely, from the story that Christ tells in the second part of today's gospel. Because as always for Christ, salvation isn't an abstract idea or a theory, it's a summons to concrete decisions and a practical way of life, now, in the present.
Christ illustrates his point first of all in a negative way, or with negative examples. The priest and the Levite, in the story, were both men who would have had a sound knowledge of their faith. They would have known all about this central commandment in the Law to love God and to love their neighbour. But when they find themselves confronted with a situation where they might be expected to put it into practice, they both find reasons for exempting themselves.
It takes the Samaritan, who was an outcast and a heretic in the eyes of the Jews, to put the commandment into practice properly. And what's more, the Samaritan carries out the commandment of love in a few straightforward gestures and actions. There isn't the flurry of theatrical concern that we've come to associate with the do-gooding campaigns of our modern celebrities. The Samaritan tends to the man's physical wounds and puts out some money to make sure he gets looked after for a few days at the inn. He doesn't even seem to make himself known. And Christ's point is: if you want to be sure of inheriting eternal life, in the lawyer's language, that's how to go about it in practical terms.
Finally, before finishing, there's another angle of the story that's worth highlighting, briefly.
Martin Luther King, the black civil rights leader in the nineteen-sixties, pointed out on one occasion when he was preaching about the parable of the Good Samaritan, that Christian love shouldn't stop at the point of helping and comforting those who are suffering. "To begin with," he said, "we must be the Good Samaritan to those who have fallen away".
"But this is only the beginning," he said. "Then, some day, we will have to realise that the road to Jericho must be made in such a way that men and women are not constantly beaten and robbed while they are travelling along the path of life".
It was a way of pointing out that the commandment to love our neighbour should never be a purely palliative measure - picking up the pieces when people's lives have been damaged by a lack of love. It also commits us to identifying the ways that a lack of love - all forms of disrespect for persons, of cruelty and indignity - are enshrined in the ideas and practices of society, and it commits us to working to change them and remove them.
So there are three things I think that we can take from today's gospel reading.
Our belief in eternal life gives us a particular perspective on where we should look for fulfilment or happiness, and it stops us from putting an ultimate value on material things and material aspirations. But our life with God in the future starts now, in living the commandment of love in our own personal lives, and also by creating, as far as we can, to an ethos of respect and fraternity and mutual care in society at large.
That's part of the lesson I'd take from this gospel reading about the central commandment in the Jewish Law and Jesus' very familiar parable about the Good Samaritan.