The familiar parable of the Good Samaritan given us by the Lord in today’s gospel is an illustration of the equally familiar words, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” In Saint Luke’s account of this episode these words are uttered by a lawyer who, seeking to justify himself – that is, to show himself in a good light before others – goes on to ask to ask the Lord, “And who is my neighbour?” In both Saint Mark and Saint Matthew’s account of the same scene, it is the Lord who pronounces these familiar words in response to the lawyers’ enquiry as to the most important commandment in the law. What then can we learn from Saint Luke’s unique presentation? In essence it is this: that the lawyer or scribe, a master of the Mosaic law either way, understood the words of the law, but not their true meaning and application. And that, secondly, Christ truly comes (as he says elsewhere in the scriptures) not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it (Mt. 5:17).
First, then, the meaning of the law. In Cicero’s De Legibus we find the popular legal maxim Salus populi suprema lex esto; the wellbeing of the people is the supreme law. In the Christian Church’s adoption of the Roman law this salus or health has become linked not just to subjective wellbeing but to the true happiness that comes from perfect union with Christ in the beatitude of heaven: “Blessed are the eyes that see the things which you see,” as we hear in the gospel. Thus for the Christian, wellbeing is salvation. The last canon of the Code of Canon Law renders this maxim in a new way: Salus animarum suprema lex; the salvation of souls is the supreme law.
The action of Christ on the Cross, the supreme act of divine charity, is the means by which that salvation enters into our lives. Through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ our sickness through sin is healed; salvation is offered to us. The perfect charity of Christ in his saving sacrifice calls us first to love of God, but through that also to love of neighbour. This is not some abstract social action. It is rather a divine command that comes to us as a result of our union with Christ in his saving sacrifice, with each other in our shared communion in his mystical body the Church, and in the bonds we share with our brothers and sisters who by virtue of their humanity, if not baptism, come to be our neighbours in and through Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Secondly the response of the lawyer, though given in order to challenge the Lord, is word-perfect but nevertheless unfulfilled until it is adopted by Christ and placed in the context of his saving work. We have already seen how it is through the action of Christ’s sacrifice that the obligation to love God and neighbour takes on a new and more profound meaning. This understanding of the law in relation to divine charity is an extension or fulfilment of what came before. The act of loving God becomes, through our union in Christ, an act that has an altogether new quality. No longer is God remote or distant, an object of worship from afar. Instead in the incarnate Christ he has become close, and has invited us into a personal-passionate relationship with himself. Similarly no longer is our love of neighbour a sterile act of doing good, but rather an extension of the divine charity of the Cross that is poured into our hearts in grace, in order to conform our lives more closely to that of the Lord.
Acts of authentic charity, then, are always joined to the divine action of Christ’s sacrifice and the result of it. We are bound to act in love of our neighbour because we first love God. The two go hand in hand, dispelling the myth, pervasive in our society, that social action and divine truth are somehow distinct realities. This is not so. To live the Christian life demands not just faithfulness in our love toward God, but also faithfulness in our love toward neighbour and especially those on the margins of our society: the unborn, the homeless, the elderly, the vulnerable, and God’s beloved poor. May the love of God that has brought us this day to his divine worship send us from this place infused with his grace, that we may be equipped to share that love with our brothers and sisters, and to become truly the disciples we are called to be.