The readings for this Sunday are overwhelming, three of the richest passages in Scripture. We cannot possibly do them justice. But we can try to pick out a thread that ties them together.
The first reading is from the end of Deuteronomy, the end of Moses giving the law. He says, “if only you would heed . . . . Keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law.”
He then says the command is not up in the sky or across the sea, but “very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.”
Now, as with everything in the Old Testament, there is a double meaning here. What Moses meant was, the law has been given. God has spoken through the Old Law. Once it’s written down, there’s no need to be confused: just do what God has told you.
But Christians believe in the New Law, written not on stone but on our hearts. For us, it is even more “near to you,” because now the Holy Spirit, the very love of God, the supreme law of God, is poured into our hearts. We don’t even have to look it up in a book.
We need only add: as the “scholar of the law” in our Gospel will say, even the Old Law, the Jewish Law, the Old Testament, is summed up in love of God and love of neighbor. It’s that simple. The Old Law spells it out: if you love God, come to the Temple and worship; if you love your neighbor, don’t steal his donkey, etc. But what the Old Law is spelling out is simple: it is no more than the love of God.
In our Epistle, we begin Colossians, with the canticle for Wednesday Evening Prayer: “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation . . . . He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The riches are overwhelming. But we can get a little help from the context.
Colossians is one of the “captivity epistles,” written after Paul was taken prisoner. In the very last verse of the letter, he says, “Remember my bonds.” Scholars notice a change in these letters – so much that some of them claim they must be written by someone else, later. But the change is this: Paul’s Christology gets very “high.” Jesus is God. (Interesting: all the scholars agree that the Gospels, which portray Jesus in a more human way, were written well after Paul’s letters, which speak of him as God. His humanity is really interesting once you discover he is God.)
Why would Paul emphasize Jesus’s divinity more once in captivity? Well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? The weaker Paul gets, the closer to death, the more he gazes into the divinity of Christ. His earlier letters are mystical enough – but it seems like prison wrought a real deepening of his faith in, and devotion to, the divinity of Christ.
And he shares the same idea with his friends. The context of our high-Christology canticle this Sunday is his greeting to them. He is praying for them, underlining their love for one another and their faith in Christ, that they may be “empowered with all power, according to the might of his glory.” It is in this context, of talking about how Christ strengthens us, that he launches into his praise of Christ’s divinity.
The Gospel is the Good Samaritan. As in Deuteronomy, which this parable begins by summarizing, the message is very simple and very powerful: love your neighbor. “Which one of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’s victim,” Jesus asks at the end. “The one who treated him with mercy.” “Go and do likewise.”
In fact, it’s even simpler. The failures in the story are a priest and a Levite, the hero is a Samaritan.
We’re in the midst of a debate. Priests and Levites are heroes of people (the Sadduccees) who think it’s all about the fancy things we do at worship. The Samaritans – not exactly Jesus’s friends – are the bad guys, because they don’t hang out in Jerusalem.
Now, Jesus loves Jerusalem – his face is set on it. But here he says, look, it all comes down to love. This is Luke’s expansion of Matthew’s line in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you offer your gift on the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” First, love.
What does this have to do with Colossians? It’s the same thing as the Christian rereading of Deuteronomy. We can love, love all the way to the end, because Christ has given us his Holy Spirit; the love of God is poured into our hearts. We can be Good Samaritans because he was the Good Samaritan, who found us bleeding in a ditch and had mercy and healed us. We can love to the end because he does. Only the power of Christ, the love of Christ, makes us able to fulfill the law and the prophets.
Where do you need to ask for the grace to love?