15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
Deuteronomy 30:10-14 Colossians 1:15-20 Luke 10:25-37
Modern people have lost much appreciation for metaphor, that rhetorical tool by which to describe the indescribable, to convey that which is impossible to convey in measurable terms, to dwell upon and to imagine that which is truly mysterious. God is mysterious. Metaphor is a necessary tool for theological reflection, for prayer, love and for engaging the mysterious aspects of life. Metaphor involves narrative, poetry, irony, sarcasm, satire, hyperbole, understatement, repetition, . . . and all the other tools of sophisticated, intelligent communication. Sadly, modern people tend to like metaphor when it lifts them up and makes them feel good, but we same people reduce metaphor to concretized oversimplifications when metaphor challenges us to engage the mysterious with courage, compassion, hope, risk, wisdom and generosity.
Today’s text from Deuteronomy purports to be from the final speech Moses delivered to the Israelites as they concluded their epic desert journey of “forty years.” By reading the fuller context of the couple of chapters just before today’s lesson, we hear Moses challenge the Israelites to remember the difficult circumstances from which their God had provided salvation in spite of their own, numerous human failings. Now, they stood at the threshold of the Land of Promise and Moses was trying to help them appreciate the magnitude of the event. Humans, both ancient and modern, tend to focus chiefly on the task and situation at hand. Only the more gifted individuals step back and appreciate reality from a larger frame of reference, or better, from a variety of different frames of reference. Moses wanted them to not merely move in to a new neighborhood. He wanted them to appreciate that they had entered into a covenant with a holy God, who had provided them with a distinct (i.e., holy) religious identity, who had led them to the entrance of a holy land, and who expected them to become a holy people as an attractive example to all the other not-so-holy Gentile nations. It was Moses’ greatest challenge: to help his people see, appreciate, think and reflect, so as to be a free, responsible, and noble people. Sadly, they would degenerate in every way humanly possible. Indeed, they would frequently forget the very God who had saved them. But, that God would be faithful even if they would not. That God would reclaim their attention and tease them into renewing their covenant. One of the greatest of all renewal moments occurred in the reign of King Josiah of Judah during the 620s BC. Circumstances were that the scroll of Deuteronomy had been stored in a closet in the Jerusalem Temple and essentially forgotten for generations. During the 620s BC, the scroll was rediscovered and re-proclaimed, which initiated a tremendous renewal of Jewish Temple cult practice and Jewish spiritual life. King Josiah, the priests, the prophets, and all the southern tribes – everyone began a concerted effort at religious renewal. Alas, it was too late. King Josiah died in 609 BC. The royal and priestly leadership quickly tired of the hard work of renewal and resorted to their former lazy and familiar ways, including superstition and conniving compromise. By 598 BC, the Babylonian Empire had laid siege to Jerusalem and conquered it. The Kingdom of Judah had fallen and had become a puppet kingdom of the Gentiles, as had the Kingdom of Israel a century and a third before. Never again would Israel and Judah be sovereign kingdoms. But, today’s text’s origins are found in the birth-era of Israel and Judah centuries before. In a time of profound hope in Judaism’s history parallel to the era in which the American founders crafted a Constitution, Moses was exhorting the Israelites to embrace all that was noble, good, virtuous, true and faithful from the God who bestowed freedom and compassion. In a word, he preached all that was “holy.” All they had to do was to freely and responsibly embrace holiness and conscientiously live it. It was neither impossible nor difficult. It required the work of remembering and thinking, being generous and kind. These are the components of healthy, loving and wise theological reflection: perceive and remember what the loving God has done for us and with us, and think about and respond to that loving God on a daily basis.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, and if our image of God (as our Jewish and Christian Traditions have often done and often still do) is that of a tribal chieftain or oriental emperor, then we ought to imitate God horizontally (among ourselves) and vertically (us to God) and be as loving, generous and gracious as we have perceived God to ever have been to us! That was the message with which Jesus concluded his lesson using the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Go and do likewise.” He didn’t exhort them to merely consider doing likewise. He did not prompt his Jewish audience to discuss doing likewise. He commanded that they act: “Go! Do likewise!” In the parable, Jesus had seduced his very law-abiding Jewish audience into unpredictable characterizations: a Levite (a Jew who had hereditary religious tasks to perform), a temple priest (a Jew who had to maintain ritual purity or he could not perform his temple tasks), and a Samaritan (a cultural adversary looked down upon by Jews as a traitor to the God of Israel and who was held in contempt and avoided). The “good Jews” neglected the man in danger of his life. The enemy, however, demonstrated compassion and went out of his way to act in kind, loving and just ways. To act! Not to rationalize! Not to postpone! Not to figure out what else might be done at a lesser cost, or at greater convenience. The Samaritan – the presumed scoundrel, the unwelcome foreigner, the religious heretic, the traitor – embodied and practiced the wise, loving, God-like virtue of compassion. He loved and he acted upon his love with all good sense and wisdom, regardless of what any rule or law, cultural taboo or practice might have expected! He was counter-cultural.
The text from Colossians is very lyrical. It uses those rhetorical tools to describe the mystery of God and God’s goodness. “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God ...” How would you follow this line? The author of Colossians provides words appropriate to the 1st Christian Century. What words in your time and place are appropriate by which to effectively describe Jesus Christ in your life and locale? What would you say to an educated, sophisticated and genuinely enquiring person who approached you in order to begin to embrace Jesus Christ and his Gospel? Could you wax eloquent, in appealing and convincing manner? Could you (would you!?!) give witness to others in a one-to-one situation? In fact, Christ and the Gospel DO depend precisely upon you! Is your lived faith visible? Do you appreciate the importance of the present moment in the rest of your life? Is the Real Presence of Christ Jesus visible and effective in how you live your life daily? Here? Now?
Each day you step anew into the metaphorical waters of the Jordan River in order to cross into that Land of Promise which we each claim to want to reach someday. You are inches from it. Do you know what you are doing? Are you happy to be doing it? Are you entering the Land alone or with neighbors? Who is your neighbor? Remember and think on all the good that God has done for you!