Robert J. Karris, OFM, Th.D.
The responsorial psalm provides a short and apt commentary on today's readings. Our gracious and merciful Lord God has given us his commandments, especially the commands to love God and our neighbor. These commandments "are already on our lips and in our hearts. We have only to carry them out," (first reading from Deuteronomy and Gospel). As we strive today to figure out what earthly "principalities and powers" need unmasking and reconciliation (second reading from Colossians), we pray: "In your great kindness answer me with your constant help. Answer me, O Lord Jesus Christ, for bounteous is your kindness. Turn to me in your great mercy."With all the vulnerable of the world who need compassionate care (Gospel) we cry out: "I am afflicted and in pain. Let your saving power, O God, protect me. "In our deep faith we confess: "The Lord hears the poor and does not reject his own who are in thralldom" to earthly "principalities and powers."
Let us now take a deeper look at the second reading from Colossians 1:15-20 and at the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel.
If you would open up a copy of the New American Bible, you would notice that Colossians 1:15-20 is set off as poetry. It is technically called a hymn and provides a good example of what Paul has in mind when he says in Colossians 3:16: "… in all wisdom teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs … to God. "I single out two aspects of this hymn. Its two stanzas balance one another. For example, Christ Jesus is not only "the first born of all creation," he is also "the firstborn from the dead. "The theme of universality pulses through and unites both stanzas: "the firstborn of all creation"; "all things in heaven and on earth"; "all things were created through him and for him"; "he is before all things"; "and in him all things hold together"; "that in all things he himself might be preeminent"; "for in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell"; "and through him to reconcile all things for him."
The refrain of "all" or universality celebrates in hymnic fashion what may be called the absolute primacy of Christ. While "the absolute primacy of Christ" may be unfamiliar to many of you, it is a centuries-old Catholic tradition that was given wonderful expression by Blessed John Duns Scotus (d. 1308). It insists on the priority of God's will and grace and puts sin in a secondary position in salvation history. Thus, even if women and men had not sinned, God would still have expressed his love for humanity through the self-communication of the Incarnation. God's love in Christ for us men and women has the primacy, not sin.
According to this hymn creation is not only good, but is also Christic since it bears the imprint of the one in whose image it was created, namely, Christ. Perhaps it is easy to see Christ in our fellow human beings, whether they be rich and healthy or poor and sick. It may be more difficult to see Christ in creation. St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), whom Pope John Paul II proclaimed patron of ecologists in 1979, shows the way to see Christ in creation in his "Canticle of Brother Son" where he calls the elements "Brother" and "Sister," for example, Brother Sun and Sisters Earth and Water. Statues that depict a "birdbath Francis" give a glimpse of Francis' profound insight into Christ's image in creation.
The second stanza of the hymn introduces us to something new. Verse 20 proclaims: "And through him to reconcile all things in him, making peace through the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven. "Nowhere in the hymn is mention made of why there is need for reconciliation and peacemaking, but verse 20 does insist that that reconciliation and peacemaking are universally needed "on earth … in heaven." "Principalities and powers" (verse 16) also need this reconciliation and peacemaking. From Luke 12:11 it is clear that "principalities and powers" refer not just to heavenly entities: "When they haul you before synagogues and before principalities and powers, do not worry about … what your defense will be or about what you are to say. "Thus, "principalities and powers" also include human agents, social structures and systems. In Paul's day these principalities and powers included the way Roman society divided itself into slave and free, the way Gentiles hated Jews, the way men dominated women, the way the elite rich who comprised five percent of the population ignored the needs of the other ninety-five percent of the population. In contemporary terms human "principalities and powers" may include the socialization processes by which we become men and women, the "old boys' network," and policies that cast millions upon millions of the sick on the sidelines of good health.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is so familiar that sometimes questions asked by little children jar us adults and force us to find an answer. Little Joshua asks: "Why didn't the Samaritan call 9-1-1? "Marina chimes in: "Why didn't he take him to the ER?"I respond to Joshua and Marina: these two realities didn't exist in Jesus' time. As a matter of fact, only the rich had access to what little health care existed. Life expectancy was a mere 30 years, and the general advice to people was: Stay healthy! Home remedies were the norm and were usually administered by the head of a household or by the owner of a large estate. In Book IV of his treatise "On Medicine," Celsus (ca. 30 AD) gives one such home remedy which includes olive oil and wine: "It sometimes happens also that this disorder (diarrhea), having been neglected for several days, is more difficult to relieve. Such a patient should commence with something to induce vomiting. Then the following day at evening he should be anointed with olive oil in a warm room, take food in moderation, and drink the sourest wine undiluted. A wax-salve with rue should be applied to the abdomen."
With this introduction under our belts I remind my listeners that parables have multiple possible meanings. I share with you three possible interpretations of Luke 10:25-37. For century upon century the Good Samaritan was interpreted to be the all-loving and compassionate Christ who came to us men and women who were beaten up and left half-dead. Christ now takes care of us through the healing remedies of his sacraments. This interpretation is strengthened by John 8:48 where Jesus is called a Samaritan: "The Jews answered and said to him: Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed?" A most appealing version of this allegorical interpretation can be found in the commentary on Luke by St. Bonaventure (d. 1274).
The most common interpretation of this parable takes it as an example story: Don't ask who is my neighbor? Rather be a neighbor to the person in need. Be a Good Samaritan to the most fragile in our society whether it be to give them adequate medical attention or to provide care and life for those not yet born. I recently came across a child's book of Bible stories from 1882. In essence it interpreted Luke 10:25-37 in this manner: "Don't ask, who's my neighbor? Be a neighbor to people, especially the ordinary, the ugly, the poor, and the sick."
The final interpretation separates away the frame of the double love commandment that Luke has provided. Once this frame is eliminated, the verses that remain are no longer an example story, but a parable of God's Kingdom. What is God's Kingdom like? It is like a Samaritan merchant, who is hated by the Jews. He is so foolish that he stops to aid a Jew, thus risking being attacked by bandits who may be hiding. He is so foolish that he goes to an inn, which is a nasty place at best, for in antiquity the saying was true: If you have to stay at an inn, make out your will. The foolish Samaritan hands over money for three-week's sustenance and then foolhardily gives the innkeeper a blank check to cover any other expenses he might incur in caring for a very sick foreigner. People might ask: Why should the Samaritan care for someone who is not his own kin and a Jew to boot? Why should he so lavishly give of his own hard earned money for someone who is already half-dead? Why is he so foolish? Why does he act so outlandishly? Jesus smiles and answers: That's the way God acts towards us in his reign.
Indeed, God's twofold love commandment is already on our lips and in our hearts. May God give us insight and courage to carry it out, even if we have to unmask, name, and even defy today's "principalities and powers" to do so.