Friday, July 12, 2013

Responding to God's Word by Transcending Legalism

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 10:25-37, July 14, 2013

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 MalacaƱang, 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.

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