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What must I do to inherit eternal life?

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

That question begins today’s gospel reading. It's a good, practical question. It's one that is at the root of the faith of each of us. What do we have to do?

This same question is implied in the first reading, since Moses provides an answer to the question. He says it is simple, not mysterious or hidden.

All we need do is heed the voice of the Lord and keep his commandments. We can do this by going through each chapter and verse of the Bible and identifying the commandments we have been given, or we can go to the heart of the matter and simply fulfill the spirit of the law.

What is the spirit of the law? "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." Notice, this is not said by Jesus but by the legal expert. He is quoting the summary of the law given by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, something every Jewish school child knew.

I can understand loving my neighbor as myself, as that simply involves doing to or for my neighbor what I would want my neighbor to do to or for me. The difficult question is how do I love God with all my heart, being, strength and mind? What is love? How do I love?

A favorite quote of mine is 1 John 4:8 because it answers these questions. God is love. Ok, how do I God? Well, how does God "God"? John gives us some examples. "God’s love for us was revealed when God sent into the world his only Son so that we could have life through him." So, how does God love? God loves in action.

Feelings are not love. You can have overwhelming feelings of revulsion, anger, unhappiness, frustration or even boredom about a person but still deeply love them because in your actions you do what is best for that person. On the flip-side, you can have overwhelming feelings of attraction, affection, desire, and passion for another person but not love them because in your actions your benefit comes before the other person.

How do I love God? My mind boggles when I even try to think of God. God is beyond my comprehension. How can I fit the ocean into a thimble? St. Paul helps us answer this question in the second reading. "Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God". Ok, so I can perceive God and love God in the person of Jesus Christ. So, how can I love Jesus Christ? Jesus makes this an easy question to answer. In the gospel of John (14:23), Jesus says, "if anyone loves me he will keep my word." What is the word that we must keep? In John (13:34) Jesus explains, "love one another; just as I have love you, you must love one another. By this love for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples." So, we find ourselves right back to the easy part of the law—love your neighbor as yourself. Our love for God and for our neighbor is bound up in this one reality. We can attend mass daily, say the rosary twice daily, have visions of heaven, and feel the greatest affection for everyone we meet… but if these things do not bear fruit in loving action, then we love neither God nor our neighbor.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is meant to be shocking and a bit frightening if we take it seriously. We tend to think of the priest and levite as symbolic of a corrupt religious structure but that is not the case in this parable. They are returning from Jerusalem to Jericho. They both have just spent several weeks in service at the temple. They have lead people in worship. They have taught and preached the word of God. They may have counseled people struggling with problems. They made plans with other Temple officials to carry on the work of God in their home communities during the months between now and their next period of Temple service.

They were good people who prayed, avoided sin, were knowledgeable of their faith and thought they loved God. Yet, when they encountered a person in need they failed to act on the love they thought they had. They may have had good reasons for not helping the man who was half-dead. If the man died in their arms, which he looked ready to do, they both would be ritually impure and unable to perform their ministerial duties back in Jericho for several days. They had a responsibility to the living and to their community. This was also a very dangerous road that was plagued with bandits. This might be a set up and the man only pretending to be hurt, so he and his friends could rob them. Even if he was not a bandit, the rabbi and levite were on foot, how could they be of any serious help to the man? They had good reasons not to stop and help, many of these reasons are the same ones we tell ourselves when we fail to help someone in need.

Who is the one who stops and helps the man in need? A Samaritan! In the eyes of the Jews of Jesus time Samaritans were idol worshipers, heretics and apostates, people who had rejected Jewish law and tradition and blended paganism into their faith. It is difficult to imagine today how despicable Samaritans were from the perspective of Jews of the day. If Jesus were telling this parable today he might use the image of a terrorist on his way to bomb a school or a drug dealer on his way to a sell. Jesus gives us an image of a person who has no personal redeeming value or virtue. He is the dregs of the earth and a sure candidate for the bottommost pit in hell. Yet, it is the Samaritan who stops and aids the man in need.

In the end, the only place love—and therefore, God—is present in the story is in the action of the Samaritan. It is this that counts the most and Jesus tells us to be like the Samaritan in his act of love for the man lying half-dead in the road by putting the needs of this man before his own benefit or fears.

We began with the question, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" We learned that in order to inherit eternal life we must love one another. To love one another has no particular relationship to our feelings toward one another but has everything to do with how we act toward one another, what we do when we see our neighbor in need.

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Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.