We are told in the gospel that the scribe wanted “to disconcert Jesus” and so engaged in an intellectual religious debate with Jesus regarding His attitude to non-Jews. In response to the question of what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus referred to the Law of Moses which is simply this: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself.” Of course, the answer of Jesus is well known to every Jew, not least to the scribe who was a professional lawyer of the Torah.
Yet, the fact remains that the Jews knew that deep in their hearts they had not totally fulfilled this commandment, especially the last segment of the commandment. The problem lies in the fact that for the Jews, their religion and nationalistic pride restricted them from reaching out beyond their own kind. As far as the Jews were concerned, non-Jews were unclean and pagans had no hope for salvation. We can understand that such a mentality existed during the time when the book of Jonah was written. In the first reading, Jonah disobeyed God because just like his fellow Hebrews, they could not accept that God wanted the salvation of pagans. Thus, Jonah left for Tarshish deliberately, hoping that God would punish the pagans for their wickedness. He had no pity, compassion or love for them. He only wished their destruction. The irony of it all is that by wanting them to be exterminated, the sailors in the boat sacrificed him to save themselves saying, “’O Lord, do not let us perish for taking this man’s life; do not hold us guilty of innocent blood; for you, Lord, have acted as you thought right.’ And taking hold of Jonah they threw him into the sea; and the sea grew calm again.
Within this context, we can understand why the lawyer was “anxious to justify himself”. He questioned Jesus further, “And who is my neighbour?” It should be noted that this scribe wanted to engage in an intellectual discourse with Jesus by posing this question in such a way that was directed towards others. The question was not “Am I a neighbour to others?”, but rather, “Who is my neighbour?” Yes, the scribe was not really interested in examining himself, but rather in proving that his alienating attitude towards pagans and non-Jews was justified, namely, that non-Jews and sinners do not deserve our love and mercy.
Of course Jesus could see the self-righteousness of the scribe. He knew clearly that ‘neighbours’ for the Jews could only refer to fellow Jews. Thus, instead of responding in an academic manner, He discussed the problem existentially by relating the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus challenged him to rethink and adjust his mindset by asking him, “Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands’ hands?” Take note of the response of the scribe. He said, “The one who took pity on him”. He did not say explicitly that it was the Samaritan traveller, because it would be too difficult for him to admit that the one who really proved himself to be a neighbour was his enemy!
We too are just like the scribe. We ask questions in order to justify ourselves. We do not really want to know the truth about ourselves. For like the scribe, we restrict our neighbours to our loved ones, our friends, those whom we like and those whom we can get something back in return. We do not go beyond our circle of friends. This was the attitude of the priest and the Levite in the story. They were more concerned about their self-interest, their salvation, by not getting themselves ritually contaminated by either a dead man or worse still, by a non-Jew! Similarly when our love is restricted to our loved ones and friends, such love is not truly divine love since to love our loved ones is not just for their sakes but ours. Love for friends has mutual benefits unlike our love for strangers and those who cannot repay us in any way. Helping those who do not even know that we help them is a true participation in God’s love, as Jesus tells us in the gospel, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others … But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”. (Mt 6:2-4)
But the point of the parable goes beyond even just helping those who cannot repay us but like the Samaritan who reached out to one who was not simply a stranger, but an enemy. He took the risk of helping the injured man by bandaging his wounds and bringing him to an inn to recuperate at his expense without hoping for anything in return; perhaps even risking misunderstanding and condemnation. This Samaritan was moved simply by compassion and love. If that was the case for the Samaritan, then our neighbours should rightfully include strangers, those who are helpless, our enemies and those whom we can get nothing back in recompense.
Jesus says to love only those who love us is to behave like pagans, for they love only in this manner. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Mt 5:43-48)
Indeed, it is easy to love those who love us. The fact of life is that we care and love those who love us more. But if we fail to be a neighbour to our enemies and those who do not like us, then we have not really loved. Jesus did not only teach us but in His very own life, He also died for us whilst we were still sinners. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8)
It does not suffice to simply know who our neighbour is, as we are called to be a neighbour to others. Yes, the command of Jesus is direct, “Go, and do the same yourself … and life is yours.” Be a neighbour to the poor, the unloved and your enemies! This is truly loving God and loving oneself. Without a true love for our enemies and the helpless, we cannot truly claim to have the heart of God. For this same reason too, we cannot inherit eternal life since the life of God and His compassion to all human beings, and even all creatures, is not in us. If we are unable to go beyond our pagan love for others today because we do not have the heart of God, then we must turn once again to Jonah. We are told that God sent a fish to swallow Jonah and he was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before the fish vomited him onto the shore. Following this experience, the rest of the Jonah story tells us how he returned to Nineveh to preach conversion and repentance to the people.
Of course, we are not told in today’s scripture reading what made him change his mind and obey the call of God. This is because almost the entire second chapter has been omitted due to a space constraint. In chapter two, we are told how Jonah reflected on his life, his ingratitude and the love and mercy of God for him when he was in the belly of the fish. It was through prayer and recollection that he came to realize how great a sinner he was and how God has loved him in spite of his unworthiness. It was in the belly that he experienced the merciful and universal salvific love of God. Once he realized that God loves us all in spite of our sinfulness and that He wants the salvation of all, including the pagans and not the Hebrews alone, he decided to prophesy to the Ninevites.
We too must spend time in prayer and recollection so that we will become more conscious of our sinfulness and the lack of love in our lives. We must recognize that if God loves us, then we are called to love others in return, especially those whom we consider undeserving of our love, such as our enemies or difficult people in our lives. When we realize that God also wants these people to come to the knowledge of the truth and experience His love, we would gladly become His messengers of love, be a neighbour, and a good Samaritan to them, without having any thought of reward or appreciation. Such a heart would necessarily mean that we have the life of God in us, now and hereafter, since all human beings and all creatures are our friends and we are one with them in love and unity.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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