No Greater Love

Originally Appeared in : 9723-11/9/17

Saint Luke’s Gospel presents much of the same material as those of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew. And yet Saint Luke, who was a remarkable writer and artist with words, as well as that “dear and glorious physician” mentioned by Saint Paul, often presents that material in a new and refreshing way, sometimes adding material unique to his Gospel. For example, both Matthew and Mark contain the lawyer’s question that we find in Luke 10:25: “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But whereas in Matthew and Mark, Jesus answers this question himself, in Luke the Lord throws the question back at the lawyer: “What is written in the Law of Moses, how you read it?” Luke’s Greek is very good—it was his native language—and it is no accident that he reports the lawyer’s question using a verb tense unique to Greek (the aorist) that implies a single, one-time action: “What must I do, once only, and then I’ll have eternal life.” But there is no one thing that we can do once only to inherit eternal life. That is why, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus throws the question back to the lawyer, who then answers correctly, saying the words that Mark and Matthew attribute to Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” (quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5) “and your neighbor as yourself” (quoting from Leviticus 19:8). Jesus approves this answer: “You have answered correctly,” adding significantly: “Do this”—in a tense that implies “always”—”and you will live.”  


The lawyer understands immediately what is at stake—not a “one time” or “one shot” love of God and neighbor, but a lifetime of love of both God and all others—and so he tries to get Jesus to limit this demanding Great Commandment by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” The traditional, rabbinical answer would have been, “Your fellow Jew.” But this is not the answer of the Rabbi Jesus, who instead tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what love of neighbor really entails. 


In this great parable, a Jewish man goes down the treacherous road winding through the Judean Hills from Jerusalem to Jericho. This rugged road, surrounded by hills with caves, is still very dangerous, as thieves and brigands continue to haunt it. Robbers beat the Jewish man, leaving him half dead by the side of the road. It is precisely because he appears to be dead that the temple priest and Levite (assistant priest) cross to the other side of the road, for they were forbidden by the law of Moses to have any contact with the dead outside of the action of offering sacrifice. It is an unlikely Samaritan who is the “hero” of this story, the one who shows love to his neighbor. He is unlikely because, as a “heretic half-breed,” he would have been regarded as outside the Chosen People, and therefore not a “neighbor” in the understanding of most Orthodox Jews. Yet this outsider provides for the Jewish man’s needs, pouring wine and oil on his wounds and carrying him on his own beast to an inn, where he gives the innkeeper two silver denarii (days' wages) for the man’s care and promises more support if needed.


The “bottom line” of this wonderful story is that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help—no matter what race or religion—and we are to “love” him or her with whatever is needed. This love is agape, the self-sacrificing love that knows no boundaries of race or creed, the kind of love that Jesus Christ showed on the cross as he offered his life for you and me and all of mankind. Christian love is a kind of active love that is especially attuned to those in need. This Christ-like love is active—and dangerous, for the Lord asks us to forgive those who have hurt us and to love even our enemies. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima, in "The Brothers Karamosov," says that “active love is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” 


If anyone in need is our neighbor, to what extent must we love him or her—actively, yes, but “dangerously” as well? Some years ago, when I was still the editor of the Southern Cross, the late Father Robert Girardeau, Michael Johnson (now the editor) and I were talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Michael asked Father Robert what would have happened if the parable had told of the Samaritan coming upon the robbery and the beating of the innocent Jew while it was in progress. Would he have intervened to stop the assault? Robert answered that if the Samaritan had done so, “He probably would have gotten the snot beaten out him!” We all laughed, but his answer posed some real and difficult questions for us as Christians who try to emulate the Good Samaritan.


Does prudence (human providence), which urges us to protect ourselves from danger, surpass the Lord’s commandment to treat others as we would have them treat us? Are we always, sometimes, or never called to act in aid of another human being even if it places our life and well-being in peril? Jesus commanded us to love one another as he has loved us, but he not only said, “No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends,” but actually did so. 


Most of us, I hope, would render first aid – as did the Samaritan to the Jews on the road to Jericho—as long as there was no real risk to our own health and well-being. And most would give what we could to meet the immediate needs of an individual in need—as did the Samaritan—even if it might temporarily lower our own standard of living.


But would we take the risk of picking up a hitchhiker on a dark, rainy night? Or would we stop to help a stranded motorist in a beaten-up clunker of a vehicle? Would we allow ourselves to be taxed a bit more to meet the needs of those we cannot see with our own eyes?


The question that we might ask ourselves is this: How do we balance our prudent self-preservation (a virtue) with the Lord’s invitation to practice courage of our faith? Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable of the Good Samaritan what the Samaritan might have done had he come upon the scene earlier than he did and he did not command us all and at all times to act heroically to prevent harm to another, but he surely summons some of us, some of the time, to emulate him in laying down our lives for his friends.


Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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