15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (July 10, 2016)

In my academic work, I look for the theology contained in literature thatisn’t specifically religious – mostly novels. Close and careful reading is myprimary tool. My working assumption is that there is more going on in atext than is immediately evident. I’m alert for patterns in a story. WhenI think I’ve found one, I reflect upon its possible meaning. I might askmyself, for example, why so many characters in a particular novel aredescribed as having trouble with their eyes, or why they always eat alone,or why so much of the language and imagery has to do with horses. Itake it for granted that the surface meaning of a narrative isn’t the wholestory. Sometimes, when I meet the authors of books I have studied, Ishare my discoveries with them. I lay out for them the patterns I havefound, and suggest what they might mean. The authors oftenacknowledge that the deeper meaning was intended. But, occasionallythey will remark that they had no intention of conveying a deepermeaning. They were just telling a story. As far as they are concerned, itsimply means what it says.

Historically, literary criticism has its roots in the study of scripture.Over the centuries, methods developed in the interpretation of the Biblewere carried over to the study of secular texts. So perhaps it isn’tsurprising that in our First Reading this week, Moses sounds a bit like oneof the authors I’ve described. The text he is discussing is the book of thelaw. He insists that its meaning is not remote. It is not up in the skysomewhere so that it needs to be explained. “No, it is something verynear to youyou only have to carry it out.” Don’t wait around forsomeone to explain its hidden meaning. Just do what it tells you to do.

Jesus makes a similar point in our Gospel, when a scholar of the lawasks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Our Lord asks him what iswritten in the law. The scholar responds, “You shall love the Lord, yourGod, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, with allyour mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies, in effect,”That’s right, so go do it.” But the scholar won’t let it rest. He insists ona definition of who, exactly, is our neighbor. Jesus answers the questionwith the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, a man has beenbeaten by robbers and left for dead. A priest and a Levite see the man inthe road, but pass by without coming to his aid. Presumably they do sobecause they are on their way to the temple in Jerusalem to carry outtheir priestly duties. If they were to touch a bloodied man they would bemade ritually impure and unable to carry out their liturgical role. Then, aSamaritan comes along and looks after the injured man. It is clear thatJesus believes the duty of the priest and Levite was perfectly plain. Theyshould have abandoned their subtle interpretation of the law and helpedthe poor man lying in the road right in front of them.

And so, of course, should we. Jesus Christ is the perfect selfrevelationof God. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is a mystery thatunfolds in time, but which can never be exhausted. The reverent, lovingexploration of that mystery is a profound privilege and deep joy that wereadily embrace. But while God is a mystery, what God wants us to do isnot. In the words of our psalm, our neighbor is “afflicted and in pain.”We need to do something about it. It’s time we got our hands dirty.

Fr. Charles Gordon, C.S.C.

Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”

More Related Articles