Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The story of the Good Samaritan is very familiar – so familiar, in fact, that the phrase “Good Samaritan” has found its way into our vernacular as a title for a stranger who helps someone in need. Luke sets the scene for the parable with a scholar of the law asking Jesus a common rabbinical question: what is necessary to inherit eternal life? The question of how to get to heaven resonates in every human heart, for deep down we know that we were created for an eternity in God’s presence. The things of this world, our daily concerns, and the many challenges of life can make getting to heaven seem impossible, though. Even this great scholar of the law, well-versed as he is in the Scriptures and in the spiritual life, is wondering what is necessary to get to heaven. Notice how Jesus responds with a question: what is written in the law? The scholar knows the law – Jesus calls upon the man’s learning and shows him, gently, that he already knows the answer to the question. Maybe he feels embarrassed that he asked at all, so the scholar asks for more information: who is my neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan follows, shocking insofar as the virtuous character presented to the Jewish scholar of the law is a Samaritan, a member of a people with which the Jews do not associate. But the answer to the question Jesus asks at the end of the story is fairly straightforward and obvious. The victim of the robbers’ brutality found in the Samaritan traveler a true neighbor who treated him with mercy.
This weekend, the Church gives us this Gospel story along with an important passage from the book of Deuteronomy. There, Moses is teaching God’s law to the people of Israel. As he teaches, he reminds them that they are capable of knowing the law, already able to understand it, even if they are hearing it for the first time. “For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” (Dt. 30:11-14). Think of the scholar of the law approaching Jesus to ask his question. In Jesus’ response, we hear an echo of Moses speaking to the people of Israel. But if humanity is already capable of knowing God’s law, if we can already determine who our neighbor is, why do questions still remain?
The Church, reflecting on the way that God’s law is written on the human heart, recognizes a “natural law” which prepares us to receive and obey the divine law. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “[t]he natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie: The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin.” (CCC 1954). While the way this natural law might be applied can vary depending on culture or circumstance, the natural law remains immutable and permanent, regardless of place or culture. For example, theft is wrong in all cultures, though the way to deal with thieves may be different based on location. If the law is so immediate and close to us, why do questions remain, such that it is necessary for Moses to teach the divine law, such that it is necessary for even scholars of the law to ask Jesus for interpretation? “The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known ‘by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.’ The natural law provides revealed law and grace with a foundation prepared by God and in accordance with the work of the Spirit.” (CCC 1960).
The Scriptures we read this weekend serve not only to remind us of the natural law, that which God has already written on our heart from the moment we were created, but also to remind us of the generosity and closeness of God who desires that we might live according to our nature more perfectly each day. The voice of Moses cries out to us that the mysteries of God, complex though they may be, can be understood by our human minds. The gentle way that Jesus teaches in the parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that we are capable of knowing what we ought to do, and of doing the very good we know by nature. Jesus reminds us that humanity is fundamentally capable of knowing God and of living according to God’s law. The written word of God in Scripture is one place we can look to grow in our understanding of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides us with succinct and clear explanations of foundational tenets of our faith (see numbers 1954-1960, for example, for more information about the natural law). The lives of the saints give us biographical catechisms and concrete examples of how people have lived out the Catholic faith for centuries. Living our faith is not something too far away, too hard, or too idealistic. No, as Moses reminds us, it is very near to us, already in our hearts. We have only to live out our Catholic faith, and we are made able to do so by God’s grace.