Tuesday, December 1, 2009


A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks Him, "What is the greatest commandment of the Law?" Instead of answering directly, our Lord asks him what he thinks, and he replies, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and thy neighbor as thyself." Jesus replies that he has answered correctly, but the lawyer, "seeking to justify himself," asks, "And who is my neighbor?" For the Jews considered only their fellow Israelites to be their neighbors, which provided an exellent loophole for treating all others as outside the pale.

Now Jesus could have simply said, "Your neighbor is anyone in need--not just your fellow Jew." Instead, he tells a parable about a man (no doubt a Jew) who is set upon by thieves. A priest and a Levite both pass by and look upon the unfortunate victim and pass by, offering no help whatsoever. Perhaps they felt some desire to help, but you see, there was the risk of coming into contact with blood, and this would have rendered them ritually unclean, thereby requiring some rather extensive purification rites, which would have been just too inconvenient. Finally a Samaritan, a member of a race despised by the Jews, passes by. He not only offers immediate help, but takes the victim to an inn and takes care of him. Not only so, but when it is time for him to depart, he leaves money with the innkeeper and charges him to spare no expense in his care of the victim.

Finally Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three was neighbor to the man in need, and the lawyer answers rightly, "The one who showed mercy." Then Jesus says simply, "Go and do likewise." For indeed, it is only when we actually show mercy toward another that the relationship of neighbor comes about. Technically, both the priest and the Levite were neighbors to the victim, but only the despised Samaritan proved to be a neighbor in fact.

God says in the Scriptures, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice"--while the priest and the Levite are more concerned with preserving their ritual purity than in fulfilling the commandment of love. And so we all can easily fall into the trap of thinking we are faithful Orthodox Christians because we keep the fasts, say our daily prayers, attend church and receive Holy Communion--all the while neglecting those concrete acts of love that constitute the essence of the Christian life.

It is not enough to be perfectly correct in all of the outward aspects of the Faith if at the same time we neglect the command to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful. For even if we somehow manage to faithfully observe every single canon of the Church--that is, "the letter of the Law"--we are condemned for not keeping the most essential canon of them all, which constitutes the spirit of the Law--love of God and neighbor.

Today we celebrate the memory of the holy apostle Matthew, a former tax collector who (due to his profession) was in flagrant violation of the Jewish Law. Yet when Christ says to him, "Follow me," he gives it all up out of his love of God, while this very same love inspires him to sacrifice his whole life in service to his neighbor. Suffering gladly every hardship in order to preach the Gospel to those who are perishing, he finally dies a martyr's death. So may we all, through the prayers of the holy apostle Matthew, be strengthened in the Faith and inspired to follow his good example.

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