Why is it so hard for us to do the right thing? Sure, there are occasionally situations where we’re faced with some moral ambiguity, but most of the time, we make it harder than it is. If you ever listen to those founts of all modern wisdom, Dr. Laura Schlesinger on the radio or Judge Judy on TV, you know what I mean. Dr. Laura and Judge Judy take no prisoners. People will call up Dr. Laura, or appear befor Judge Judy, and explain their problems, and Dr. Laura of Judge Judy will say, “This is your mess, clean it up.” Or, “you promised to do this, now do it.” These people are complicating their own lives, because they either don’t take responsibility for their own lives and choices, or they’re not honest with themselves or their partners. It’s not moral complexity that trips people up most of the time, it’s our own sinfulness and weakness.
This is what Moses is trying to explain to his people in our first reading from Deuteronomy. He has told them in plain terms what God wants them to do, and not to do. There are no secrets. There’s no mystery. God himself has revealed the Law, and it’s as plain as can be. It’s easy. Of course, we know the history. The Israelites found that they couldn’t keep the Law. They followed other gods. They murdered the prophets. They build idols. Was there some nuanced moral argument that let them believe that these things were OK? I don’t think so. They knew it was wrong. And they did it anyway.
St. Paul wrote about this. He said, “the good that I intend to do, I don’t do, and the evil that I don’t intend, I do.” It’s human sinfulness, and we all suffer from it. We all suffer because of it. So, it’s not really surprising that Jesus had to confront it when he was teaching.
It starts with this lawyer. Insert lawyer joke here. He asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by saying, “You know what’s in the Law. Do that.” It’s perfectly clear. Love God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. It’s that simple. But wait! The lawyer wants to make it more complicated. Let’s narrow down who’s a neighbor.
And look at the response Jesus makes! It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. Does this literary form sound at all familiar? Take off the pious glasses for a moment, and what is the parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s a joke! It’s one of the oldest joke forms in the world. You know: A priest, a minister, and a rabbi are out playing golf. An American, a Frenchman, and a Polish guy are up in an airplane with only one parachute. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are walking down the road. You know how the joke’s gonna end, even before the punch line. And all of Jesus’ listeners know how it’s going to end, too. The point of the joke is to make the Samaritan look foolish. The Jews of that time hated the Samaritans. They wanted nothing to do with them. And you can bet that they used ethnic jokes to poke at them, just as people do today.
But what happens? The same thing that happens in all the parables. Jesus turns their expectations upside down. Remember, this began with the question, “Who is my neighbor.” Everybody seems to think that the poor guy by the side of the road is the “neighbor.” So when Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor to him,” and the answer came back, “the one who showed compassion.” There’s the real answer: The Samaritan is your neighbor. It’s not about the guy who was robbed. It’s about the hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.
This is the point that Jesus is making. “My neighbor” cannot any longer be limited to my family, my ethnic group, my country, my sexual orientation, or my anything. If there’s anyone we’re still feuding with, or excluding, or reserving just a little hatred for, then we haven’t heard the message of the Gospel, and brought it into our hearts. As St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “It pleased God [by means of Christ] to reconcile everything in his person—everything, I say, both on earth and in heaven.” If there is anyone we’re willing to leave unreconciled, then we are still not loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
The difficulty, of course, is that we want to make this complicated. We have very good reasons for hating, or excluding, or avoiding the people that we do. We can construct elaborate rationalizations, and find arguments for extending God’s reconciling love to less than everyone. Most of those reasons and rationalizations have to do with our own perceived victimization, our fears, or our need for revenge. But where does that get us? Ask the good Christians of Kosovo, or Northern Ireland, or Rwanda. or Sudan. No, it’s really simple. God’s love is unbounded. God’s desire for reconciliation isn’t limited. And our responsibility as followers of Christ is to love in the same way. Do this and you shall live.