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Responding to God’s Word by Transcending Legalism

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An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time,

Year C, Luke 10:25-37, July 14, 2013

 

By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD

HOW CAN ONE achieve the good life?  In a secular society where people value wealth more than any other, it might be said that it is important that one has to be included in the small circle of friends who have access to the corridors of Malacañang, owns a mansion in a beach resort, is in possession of a good number of dollar accounts in several banks both here and in Switzerland, has investments abroad, and has a beautiful wife and kids studying in Boston or in London.  That would probably be heaven on earth.

But first-century Jews did not have that outlook.  In the Jewish social world at the time of Jesus, what was most important was to be included in the new age, when the Messiah would come to establish a reign of justice and love; in other words, to be part of God’s people. That is the sense of the lawyer’s question in today’s Gospel (Luke 10:25 -27): “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v 25).  In answer, Jesus pointed to him what was contained in the Law.  (The law was the Five Books of Moses.)  Of course, Jesus and the lawyer were familiar with the Torah, and there was nothing in their conversation about it that was unknown to them.  For the Jews, the Torah was the fundamental law of existence.  It was the foundation of the entire Jewish social and legal system, and of the way of life of the individual and society.  Understandably enough, Josephus, the well-known Jewish historian, said that the whole life of every Jew was dominated by law.  The Torah defined his Jewishness, gave him a system of values, and a sense of integrity.  It is not surprising, therefore, that in the Gospel, Jesus referred the lawyer to some injunctions in the law: “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 your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18 ; Deut 6:5).

But is the observance of the Torah sufficient for one to be part of the new age of the Messiah?  From the point of view of Luke’s community, such a claim cannot be sustained.  Following the Law is not enough for the new age.  To stress this point, Luke tells us the vignette on the Good Samaritan.  The Jews would have found the story stunning because the hero is their hated enemy.  The Samaritans, who had bitter tension with the Jews, were descendants of a mixed population occupying the land after its conquest by the Assyrians in 722 BC. They opposed the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem , and set up their own temple on Mount Gerizim .  The Jews considered them as ceremonially unclean, social outcasts and religious heretics.  They were the exact opposite of the lawyers who were known for being knowledgeable about the Torah.

But Jesus told the story about a certain man who, on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, was stripped, beaten and left half dead by bandits (Luke 10:30) precisely to bring to the fore the insufficiency of merely knowing and obeying what the Law commanded.  He likely wanted to stress that the priest and the Levite, who were religious and knew the Law, did nothing for the man not because they were heartless or insensitive to human misery, but because they were following the injunction that says: “Everyone who touches a dead person, whether he was slain by the sword or died naturally or who touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean for several days” (Num 19:16).  They probably thought that the poor man was dead, and the law, which required ritual purity of priests, forbade them to touch a corpse, if they were to take part in the temple service.  In other words, these privileged members of the Jewish society were observing the law by having nothing to do with the man lying on the road.

With this parable Jesus says to us in effect that the Law is not enough for one to be part of the new age.  Only God’s word is.  Though the Torah is a concretization of the word of God in which the Law finds its roots, yet the word is not exhausted by or confined to the law.  To obey the word of God, there are times when one has to transcend the law.  God’s word—hearing and doing which constitutes one’s real happiness (cf Luke 11:28 )—is present in the events of our life, in women and men in the world.  It is also present in the man in need. Hence, one’s acceptance or rejection of the needy is also his acceptance or rejection of the word of God.

The parable of the Good Samaritan gives us an example of what it means to go beyond what the law says.  Though he was regarded as a person who does not properly observe the law, and for that very reason was despised and ridiculed, yet his action on behalf of the man in need—dressing his wounds, hoisting him on a beast, bringing him to an inn and caring for him (Luke 10:34)—was a loving response to God’s word.  He proved to be the neighbor of the man in need.  Unlike the lawyer who wanted to know who, from the point of view of the Torah, was his neighbor, the Samaritan was not interested in the fine points—the minutiae—of the law; he was more interested in responding to God’s word in the man in need, which is the spirit of the law.  He went beyond the narrow legal definition of neighbor.  Luke is thus giving us the impression that the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” is entirely wrong.  For a man who listens to the word of God, the correct question should be, “To whom can I be a neighbor?”, for every man in need is a neighbor, and God’s word to him.  As D. Bonhoeffer puts it, “neighborliness is not a quality in other people; it is simply their claim on ourselves.  We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor nor not.  We must get into action and obey; we must behave like a neighbor to him.”  Thus, this despised Samaritan is presented as a moral paradigm of one who lives the word of God and, hence, who is truly part of God’s people.

In effect, contrary to the thinking of many Christians that following rules will ensure one’s place in God’s kingdom, achieving eternal life—which Christian religion is concerned with—is far from being all about laws.  God’s word cannot be wholly identified with them. God’s word is rather about life, about people in need who are our neighbors because God’s word is uncomfortably present in them.  People in need—those who are wounded psychologically, who have no power to lean on, who are forgotten by the dominant society, or who are even our enemies—they are God’s word to us, inviting our response that does not issue from the pressure of law’s demand.  We must therefore go beyond legalism.  We must transcend the thinking of our law-oriented institutions.  If not, then we will feel comfortable even in face of uncomfortable situation, because we rest on the mantle of law.  If not, we can always assure ourselves that we remain respectable and good people without doing anything concretely commendable simply because we do not transgress any law at all.  That is why the word of God challenges us to look beyond the system we are confined to by seeing the word of God in other people, places and things.  Like the person in need we encounter in the ordinary event of our lives.

The Priority of Listening to the Word of God

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 10:38-42, July 21, 2013

 

OURS IS A society that values doers. We award the fastest runner, give plaques and pin medals to the contingent that overruns an Abu-Sayyaf camp, take picture of the local politician who inaugurates infrastructural projects, and idealize the parish priest who builds a new church, rectory and multi-purpose hall.  We applaud the achiever—The Outstanding Entrepreneur, The Outstanding Farmer, The Outstanding Congressman, etc.  In today’s Gospel (Luke 10:38 -42), Luke presents us two women of different temperaments: one is a doer named Martha, and the other a listener called Mary.  When Jesus came to their village (Bethany?), Martha welcomed him at her home, and being a doer, she became busy with the details of hospitality.  Just as, in the 1st Reading (Gen 18:1-10), Abraham entertained his guests with all the virtues expected of Bedouin hospitality, so Martha displayed her best in meeting the rules that hospitality required.  It is most likely that she, for example, provided water for the physical comfort of Jesus, aside from preparing the meal.  Luke does not say it, but if some disciples accompanied him, she would have to prepare not just a simple meal; and one who values people who really work can sympathize with her for voicing out her feelings, “Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me to do the household tasks all alone?  Tell her to help me” (Luke 10:40b).

To Martha’s complaint that Mary merely seated herself as his feet, while she was distracted with so much serving, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required.  Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it” (Luke 10:41b-42).  At first blush, it would seem that Jesus’ comment is baffling.  After all, Mary never lent a hand in doing the household chores.  That one sympathizes with Martha is understandable.  Since he was their guest, it was natural for Martha to fret about the demands of hospitality.  “If Martha had imitated Mary, Christ would have gone without dinner,” says St Theresa.  Moreover, did not Jesus tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan who was concerned with the details of taking care of the victim ( 10:33 -35)?  Did not he speak of being of service to others ( 22:27 )?  What exactly was Jesus trying to convey?

The pericope should be understood in the light of Luke’s theology of discipleship.  For him, to hear and act on the word of God in Jesus constitutes the foundation of discipleship:  “Any man who desires to come to me will hear my words and put them into practice” ( 6:47 ).  And as we noted in the story of the Good Samaritan ( 10:25 -37), God’s word is not confined to the Law; among others, it is present in the person in need, and to respond to his need is to act upon the word.  But more fundamental than doing the word is listening to it.  In the story about Martha and Mary, it seems that Luke does not portray Martha as hostess, despite the impression given and Luke’s description that she was busy with the demands of hospitality.  Rather, as in the story of Zaccheus (19:1-10) and the two men from Emmaus (24:13-32), Jesus himself is the host.  (After all, Jesus did not come to be served [ 22:27 ]).  And central to the story is not Martha offering a table of material food but Jesus offering a table of the word.  While Martha offers food for daily sustenance, Jesus offers food for eternal life: the word of God.

Small wonder, then, that Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it” ( 10:42 ).  More basic than acting on the word is, as we noted, hearing it.  Mary chose to listen to the word of God in Jesus. That Jesus praised her—this is meant to underline that action, like Martha’s or the Good Samaritan’s, should ultimately spring from listening to God’s word.  This is the proper response to God’s offer in Jesus—one’s personal adherence to his person and words.  If doing were enough—well, even Communists can take care of people in need; one need not be a Christian to do it.  In fact, that is the rallying slogan of activists, revolutionaries and rebels: action for the poor!  But that is the heresy of action.  The story, then, is not intended to praise Mary at the expense of Martha, but to point out that in discipleship, our action should issue from God’s word and an embodiment of it.  Here true discipleship begins.  Lending support to this interpretation is the depiction of Mary as seating herself at the Lord’s feet.  “To seat at a person’s feet” is actually a New Testament expression for being a disciple of that person.  Luke, for example, describes Paul’s education as being seated at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

For centuries, the story has been used to argue that contemplative life, which Mary supposedly represents, is better than active life, which Martha is said to symbolize, or that religious life is better than the life of the lay person who is involved in the world.  That interpretation, however, is very much wide of the mark.  The pericope is really about discipleship, which brings true beatitude: “Blest are they who hear the word of God and keep it” ( 11:28 ).  Hearing and doing the word of God cannot be separated, however.  Martha is no less important than Mary, since one cannot exist without the other.  Discipleship needs both of them.  Which is why Luke gives us portraits of two temperaments; they may be different, but they need one another.  Action, however, must result from listening.  It is not enough to be like the Samaritan; of more primary is that one first listens to, and is guided by the word of God in Jesus.  This point is even accented in the liturgy.  Before we partake of the Eucharistic Food (Liturgy of the Eucharist), and before we are sent on mission (“go, the mass is ended,”), we are first served with the word of God (Liturgy of the Word).  For how can our life proclaim the gospel if it has not been nourished first by the word?

This recalls what John Paul II says in his apostolic letter, Novo millennio ineunte concerning the priority of listening to the word of God for the Church’s work in the new millennium: “It is above all the work of evangelization and catechesis which is drawing new life from attentiveness to the word of God.  Dear brothers and sisters, this development [in devout listening to Sacred Scripture and attentive study of it] needs to be consolidated and deepened, also by making sure that every family has a Bible.  It is especially necessary that listening to the word of God should become a life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of lectio divina, which drawns from the biblical text the living word which questions, directs and shapes our lives.  To nourish ourselves with the word in order to be ‘servants of the word’ in the work of evangelization: this is surely a priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium.”


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