The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
We say in the Creed that through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, “all things are made”. For God’s Word is ever-creative, bringing life and vigour to God’s creation. We see the creative power of God’s Word in today’s Gospel, for Jesus only has to speak the word, and the official’s child is healed. Hence, new life and healing is effective by God’s all-creative Word.
The English Dominican theologian, fr. Herbert McCabe OP says that the sacraments are “signs of the Word of God in history”. Following St Thomas Aquinas, he says that the sacraments reveal God’s eternal Word at work in our whole human history. As such, they point to the past, when God’s creative Word was at work in the Old Testament or in the Gospels, as we hear in today’s reading. And they also point to the future, when God will “create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17) and Man will have vigorous health, as Isaiah promises. This promise comes to pass when Christ returns in glory. But the sacraments are especially, in McCabe’s words, “the ways in which the Word of God is present to us in our present era”.
Hence, the sacraments are the means in this time, in our lives, by which God’s Word is at work, bringing about a new creation through his grace. In the sacraments, God’s Word brings healing and new life, as he did in the past. And in the sacraments, God’s Word promises a perfection that will be fulfilled at the end of time. And because God’s Word is truth, his promises can be relied upon. Therefore, the sacraments are the means by which God’s grace transforms and renews the heavens and the earth, and this new creation by God’s Word begins with you and me.
For the grace of God given to us in the sacraments makes you and me a new creation. God’s Word is spoken into our lives through the sacraments, so that we are made anew. But not as new creatures. Rather, as McCabe says, “it is extremely important to realize that a creature with grace is not just a higher kind of creature - in the sense, for example, that a creature with intelligence is a higher kind of creature than one without. Grace does not make man a better kind of creature, it raises him beyond creaturehood, it makes him share in divinity. This share in divinity is first of all expressed by the fact that we are not merely things created, we are creatures who are on speaking terms with God”.
So, the Word of God is spoken in us, through the sacraments, so that we can speak to God as his friends. This is the joyful thing that those who will receive the Easter sacraments long for, and it is what already belongs to us as Christians. Thus we rejoiced yesterday on Lætare Sunday, and today’s first reading calls us to rejoice again; we’re called to marvel in the new creation that God’s Word is making. As today’s Collect says, God renews the world “through mysteries beyond all telling”, that is to say, as the Latin text has it, through the sacraments.
Indeed, through our participation in the Mass now, we believe that God’s Word is at work, renewing us and sanctifying us, and hence, the heavens and the earth too.
The word law which comes from ‘lex’ in Latin is derived from ‘ligare’, meaning ‘to bind’. Hence, it is not surprising that laws are often regarded as constraining us. Laws seem to bind us and oblige us to do things we would not necessarily want to do otherwise. St Thomas thus notes that laws induce us to act or restrain us from acting.
However, the Law of God, which Moses receives and hands on to Israel, is binding in another way. Its purpose is to bind God to his people, and them to their God. More specifically, through the Law, God reveals his wisdom and goodness to Man, so that by observing the Law, Man can partake in God’s wisdom and goodness. The gift of the Law to Israel, then, is a sign of a privileged closeness and intimacy between God and his people. Hence, Moses says: “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us” (Deut 4:7). As such, the observance of the Law is a mark of belonging and being so near to the good and wise God. Through the living out of the Law, the people of Israel are being bound to God, united to his goodness and wisdom and life.
But this binding of God to Man and of Man to God reaches its perfection in the person of Jesus Christ. As we recalled in yesterday’s great feast, the eternal Word, God himself, took human flesh in the womb of Mary. Thus, in the person of Jesus Christ the Law is fulfilled. For in him God and Man are inseparably bound together; in him is God’s goodness, wisdom, and life. But it is not enough, of course, for Jesus alone to fulfill the Law and thus be united to God. God’s desire, in coming so near to humanity, is for all peoples and not just the Jewish nation to be united to God, too. So, Mankind is no longer to be bound to God by the Law of Moses but by Jesus Christ. Through the Incarnation, God has bound himself to Man so that we, Mankind, can come near to God, and be united to him. And we do this by co-operating with the grace of Christ given to us so that we keep Jesus’ Law, the law of love. In this way we are bound more closely to God. As Jesus says: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).
The Eucharist, of course, is the sacrament which signifies and strengthens this loving union with God. Hence we find that the text of Deuteronomy 4:7, which referred to the Law, was often used by the Church to refer to the Eucharist. “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?”, whenever we call upon him in the Mass. For here is the sacramental presence of Christ who is the Law-made-flesh, as it were; here, God is bound to Man and Man to God in a holy communion. Thus, the Mass brings the Law to fulfillment in our lives. And this great sacrament will remain and not pass away “until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:18), that is, until we have been made holy by its grace, and are lovingly bound to God in the kingdom of heaven.
Solomon says: “I have built… a place for thee to dwell in for ever” (1 Kgs 8:13) but as he acknowledges a few verses later, God cannot be restricted to places nor contained (cf 1 Kgs 8:27ff) because he is infinite. Nevertheless, God chooses and promises to be present in certain defined places and objects such as the Temple that Solomon built. Certain things, then, are set aside for God’s use; dedicated as the Temple was in today’s reading, so that they become instruments of God’s grace and his “dwelling place” where he is present for us.
Why? Because we human beings are finite, and we are confined to certain places and things. So St Thomas explains that the sacraments are “necessary” because they suit our “human condition” which is to be bodily and to know things through the senses (cf ST III 61 1). So, because we are bound by time, place and matter, God also ‘binds’ himself to certain times, places and things through which he can be assuredly with us, and definitively communicate his grace to us. So, the sacramental order are a mark of God’s love for us, that he should come to us through material things, and guarantee to make himself, his grace, available for us.
We get a sense of this in today’s Gospel, where Jesus goes to the market places, to “villages, cities or country”, to where people are. In a broader sense, God goes to where we are, that is, in the created material order, and he gives us his grace through the bodily, sensate and material signs of the sacraments – bread, wine, oil, water, anointing, consecration, and so on. Thus, in today’s Gospel we hear that people longed to touch “even the fringe of his garment”; even something material. For it is precisely through material means that Jesus acts to heal those who go to him. Hence “as many as touched it [his garment] were made well” (Mk 5:56).
So it is that the realities of heaven are bound up in the things of earth. For by his Incarnation, Jesus has united God and Man, and the divine works alongside the human. So through material signs and human agents, through the sacraments of his Church, Jesus faithfully works to heal us, and he promises to always give us God’s saving grace.
But notice, it is not that human beings have restricted and contained God to the sacraments. For as Solomon rightly noted, God cannot be contained. Hence the Catechism says, God “himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). However, Christ is faithful to his promises, to the seven sacraments he has established, and we know for sure that God is always active and present in them. So the Catechism also says that it is we human beings who are bound by the sacraments, meaning that if we desire to touch the fringe of Jesus’ garments, if we desire his healing and grace, then we need to go to him, to use the sacramental means he has established in his Mystical Body, the Church. For here he has chosen to dwell for ever (cf Ps 132:14).
St Mark clearly wants us to understand that very many people came to Jesus and from all directions, from almost every region surrounding Galilee, and even from great cities outside Israel in Syria. Twice Mark says that a “great multitude” (Mk 3:7f) came to Jesus and trailed after him. So, one gets a sense that Jesus is quite the centre of attention, and he has to keep a boat ready so he can escape to the sea! But one also gets a sense that people are not just curious but desperate. The evangelist says that “all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him” (Mk 3:10); they long for healing. So, there is no preaching as such, or at least, no words are said by the divine Word. Rather, he speaks through his healing touch which tell a sermon of God’s indiscriminate love.
It seems that this busy but wordless scenario sets the scene for what happens next in Mark’s Gospel: Jesus appoints the Twelve, that is, he forms the Church, and he sends them out as apostles. But interestingly, it is they who are sent to preach. Christ’s Church is to speak of the One they have witnessed and lived with, and so, attract the multitudes from all corners of the world to him, the Living Word whose healing touch mediates God’s love and mercy.
So it is that many who come to the Church today by the preaching of Christ’s ministers are touched by Jesus in the sacraments. Here, beneath sacramental signs, the Word of God remains wordless but he is powerfully present and active. The sacred actions of the Liturgy and the Church’s sacraments, her symbols and signs, preach a sermon too, if we are attentive to them. For the Liturgy and sacraments are Christ’s action – not ours. If we are attentive to them, and allow them to speak for themselves, they not only heal us by conferring grace but they preach God’s Word of love, of mercy, of beauty.
But there is something else that is rather striking about this passage from Mark’s Gospel – a certain dramatic irony. Although very many people come to Christ, and a good many are healed, none of them acknowledge who he is. Or at least, no one is said to acclaim him as “Son of God” or to fall down before him in fear or worship. Rather, they just press in on him, even to the point of backing him up against the sea. They make their demands, and then seem to go away when satisfied. We do not hear anything of thanks, or of discipleship as such. In contrast, it is the “unclean spirits” who, ironically, recognize Jesus to be God’s Son, and they fall down before him in fear.
Let it not be so for us who come to Christ and demand and receive so much from him, even his own Body and Blood. As we go to him, here in the Eucharist especially, let us do so with full awareness that the Eucharist we receive is truly “the Son of God”. And therefore, let us fall down before him – but not in fear, as the demons do, nor in servitude. Rather, we kneel and adore the Eucharist in humility, in gratitude, and above all, because we love him. We love him because he has first loved us, humbling himself to take flesh, and be present for us in the Blessed Sacrament. Hence St Augustine said: “No one eats that flesh, without first adoring it… for we sin if we do not adore”.
The next time St Matthew tells of a voice from heaven, it declares: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (17:5). We hear the exact same declaration today, but there is an interesting difference. Today, we’re not explicitly being told to listen to Christ. Rather, we’re presented today with Christ, our God, who comes to listen to us.
For at Christmas, we celebrated the Incarnation of Christ; God’s eternal Word taking flesh, being born as a baby. And as such, the Word is helpless, needy, and wordless if not silent. Thus, God humbled himself to share in our humanity; he comes to listen to us. And today, on the last day of Christmas, we see the depths to which Christ shares in our humanity. By descending into the waters, a symbol of death, we see a prefiguration of the death that Jesus will choose to undergo in order to ‘listen’ to what it is to be mortal. And also, in humbling himself even to accepting John’s baptism of repentance, Christ shows that he chooses to identify himself with sinful humanity. So, our God chooses to humble himself to become Man, and not just to stand apart from us as a perfect human being, but to stand alongside us sinners; standing with sinful humanity in the Jordan, joining us in the waters of repentance.
Hence St Paul says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). For our sake. So, it seems that Christ is “made to be sin”, descending into the waters of baptism with sinners, so that he can listen to us as sinners; to understand our weakness, see our struggles, and to experience the strong allure of sin. So, Christ identifies with sinners for our sake, in order to do justice to our common human experience. But he also does this in order to save us from sin. For as St Gregory Nazianzen says: “What has not been assumed has not been healed”.
However, we note that Jesus also says to John, more specifically, that he comes to be baptised in order to “fulfil all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). So, it is for God’s sake, for the sake of his justice, in other words, that he comes to the Jordan. For the just Judge wishes to know just what it is we undergo as human beings who struggle with sin and who are victims of sin. Thus, right after his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted, and throughout his ministry he associates with notorious sinners, and at last he suffers the effects and reality of sin by dying on the Cross, crucified by sinful Man. Thus God listens so attentively to sinful humanity, to all that afflicts us, and in doing so Jesus reveals the depths of God’s saving love. For by being born and dying for our sake, Jesus also does justice to who God is. He bears witness to the fact that God is love – a love that is “patient and kind”, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” as St Paul put it (1 Cor 13:4-7).
Hence we hear in Isaiah that God’s faithful servant comes to fulfill God’s righteousness; to “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). So when Christ comes to the Jordan he does this, not by sitting in judgement, but by lowering himself into the river and listening to us, to our experience.
For, as Isaiah says, the reed has been bruised by sin, the wick burns dimly. And so Christ doesn’t come to break us or extinguish the light. On the contrary, God’s justice and holiness is served when he comes to heal the wounds of sin and to fan our love into a flame. And this, too, is why Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptised.
For Jesus comes, like the doctor, to listen to us and to observe our symptoms. But he also comes to cure our disease; to heal and vivify. And what he prescribes is baptism. Or, to be more, precise, Christ himself is the cure. Today, Christ descends into the waters and dies alongside sinners. But he also rises out of the waters, and we, too, with him to a new life; the sinner becomes a beloved son or daughter of God. Hence when Jesus goes up from the water, St Matthew says that “the heavens were opened”, the Spirit descends, and a divine voice is heard (Mt 3:16f). So, too, in the sacrament of baptism we die with Christ and rise to new life in him; we are healed of sin and filled with the Spirit of God’s love; heaven is opened to us, and we hear this declaration said about each of us individually: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased”. Therefore, when Jesus comes to the Jordan and says “thus it is fitting to for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Mt 3:18), he is speaking of the righteousness he will bring about in us, in all peoples, through baptism and the other sacraments of his Church.
So, although we’re not told explicitly to listen to Christ, in fact, if we’re attentive, there is something we’re being called to listen to today: Christ’s example.
The question asked of Jesus today, really, is “who will be saved”? And Jesus, who in St John’s Gospel says, “I am the door” (Jn 10:9), says in St Luke’s Gospel that he is the “narrow door” (Lk 13:24). Why narrow? Because elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus affirms that “no one comes to the Father except by me” (Jn 14:6). So, Jesus alone is the universal Saviour of Mankind, and today’s Gospel suggests that “many” will seek salvation by some other means, or even by some other religion, but Jesus says they “will not be able” to enter God’s kingdom without going through him, the “narrow door”, indeed, the one and only door to salvation. Ordinarily, entry through this door into the life of Christ is through baptism. Thus the Second Vatican Council said that “through baptism as through a door men enter the Church” (Lumen Gentium, §14), the Mystical Body of Christ. Hence, we believe that “outside the Church there is no salvation” because without Christ, without entering into his life and being united to his Body in some way, one cannot be saved.
But why is it that Jesus then says that “men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God” (Lk 13:29)? Does this not suggest that some people, who are not visibly part of Christ’s Church, who may not even be baptised, may yet find eternal communion with God, and so, be saved? How is this possible? The Second Vatican Council taught that those who “through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will” by following their conscience may possibly “attain salvation” (Lumen Gentium, §16). So, salvation may be broader than the visible membership of the Church. Nevertheless, salvation is granted to the non-baptised only through the grace of Christ, so that such people are somehow still associated with the Church spiritually without visibly and formally being members of the Church. Somehow, “through no fault of their own”, they have not been able to be baptised or are ignorant of the need for baptism, and so, God in his mercy may yet save them if they live good lives. But this is really an extraordinary work of God’s mercy and grace. The ordinary means of salvation is still through baptism, which opens the door to the grace of following Christ, and, through the sacramental life, gives us the most sure access to God’s grace so that we can grow in friendship with Christ, as part of his Body, the Church.
However, today’s Gospel also has a warning for us who are baptised Christians. Jesus says that not all who “ate and drank in [his] presence”, or call him ‘Lord’, will necessarily be admitted into the kingdom of heaven (Lk 13:26f). So, merely being visible members of the Church through baptism and, even receiving the Eucharist, does not guarantee that the Lord will recognise us at the Last Day. Why? Because it is possible for someone to outwardly receive the sacraments but inwardly not be transformed by grace because of a sinful resistance to God’s grace. This is why it is vital that we examine our consciences and ensure that we receive the sacraments worthily, in a state of grace, and that we “strive” (Lk 13:24) to co-operate with grace so that we live loving and good lives. When Jesus says he does not recognise the unrepentant sinner, this is because sin defaces one, whereas sanctifying grace remakes one in Christ’s image so that when Jesus looks at the face of a saint, i.e., someone who has repented of sin and co-operated with grace, Jesus sees himself; he sees love.
But this should not lead us to despair or worry about our salvation. Rather, St Paul counsels us to pray with humility, trusting in the Holy Spirit who “helps us in our weakness” (Rom 8:26). For since God has chosen us and called us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29), he will bring to perfection the good he has put into our hearts. As St Paul says, “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28). So, let us strive to truly love God, and thus, to co-operate with his grace so that we become like Christ, become Love. For this, ultimately, is what saves us: that we should enter into the Trinitarian communion of love through Love, that is, through Jesus Christ. There is no other way, no other door than Love by which one can be saved.
I hate writing Curricula Vitæ (CVs). I hated the pressure of trying to make them stand out, exaggerating the most minor experiences and trumpeting my achievements in a way that would set me apart from the others. So, I wrote my last CV ever and joined a religious Order, and now I just get told to become an assistant Chaplain, or Sub-Prior, without any more need for CVs to get these jobs! But I didn’t realize I’d still need to make posters and announcements to attract people to Dominican Youth Weekends, retreats, Chaplaincy talks etc – and this is almost as hard as writing a CV! And, then, as Vocations Promoter of the Dominicans, I’m often asked what makes us different; what sets our Order apart from others – as though our cool habit wasn’t an obvious enough answer!
Well, you know what I mean, I think. It seems that in our competitive world we constantly have to set ourselves apart from others by raising our game, improving our skill set, boasting of what we’ve done. And if it would help, we may even have to resort to distinguishing ourselves from the competition by putting others down, just to stay ahead and be noticed. None of this is really ideal. Which is why I hated writing CVs.
This kind of dynamic becomes really dangerous if we behave like this in our spiritual life, in our relationship with God. The Pharisee in today’s parable seems to be giving God his CV. He’s not so much praying to God as he is boasting of his achievements and, at the same time, for good measure, putting others down. What the Pharisee has done, which goes well beyond the minimum requirements of the Jewish Law are truly impressive and good, and not to be discouraged in themselves. But the problem is that he raises himself to get himself noticed while at the same time pouring scorn on others like the tax collector.
But God doesn’t need our CV. He certainly doesn’t need us to impress him. We really don’t need to get God’s attention in this way. Because God loves us so much that he just can’t take his eye off us – he’s always watching after us with tender mercy and love, and offering us every grace we need, even his own Self. And we don’t need to tell him all the good we’ve done because God is the cause of all the good we do. His grace prompts, and accompanies, and completes every good act. Insofar as our human freedom is involved, we choose to co-operate with God’s grace, to will the good, and so every good act can be said to be ours too. But it is, essentially, a share in God’s goodness and has its source in his grace. For without God’s grace, Man can do nothing, accomplish no good. So, the Pharisee and the tax collector are fundamentally the same; the Pharisee’s gravest mistake was to forget that all the good he’d done ultimately came from God. Hence Jesus says, people like him “trusted in themselves that they were righteous”. But only God is righteous, and we receive all grace, goodness, righteousness, holiness, life itself from him. Thus, St Gregory of Sinai said: “There are two kinds of humility… [T]o deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions. The first is the beginning, the second the end”.
Now, if God were not Love, to think ourselves the lowest would just be humiliation. But because God is pure Love, he desires to give us all that we desperately need, beginning with life itself; Man depends on God for every good. And because God is Love, he even offers us his own divine life for our salvation. This is what happened when we were baptised. Through the sacrament of baptism God has, in effect, given you and me a job, without the need for any CV. God’s called us to be his beloved son or daughter; a citizen of heaven; a co-heir with Christ of all the treasures of his heavenly kingdom. Rather like my jobs and responsibilities as a Dominican friar, the call to be a child of God – made sons of God in the Son of God – is a gift. Our baptism is pure gift, an act of grace upon grace entrusted to you and me because Love takes risks and has faith in us. So, there is no competition in our spiritual life; no scarce resources to fight over since God’s love and grace is infinite; no need to boast, or prove ourselves, or put others down to be noticed. We only need to relax in God’s love and receive his grace.
But why is it that we might still compare ourselves to others?
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you… when the elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Tim 4:14). This practice of laying hands on another, to give a blessing or set something or someone aside for the Lord dates to the Old Testament patriarchs. This practice is continued in the New Testament, particularly when the Holy Spirit is being invoked and given. For the Spirit is, as an ancient hymn put it, the “gift of God Most High”, given to empower us for the Lord’s service.
Hence on Saturday our new archbishop, Mgr Leo Cushley will be ordained a bishop through this same action. Three co-consecrating bishops (followed by other bishops present) will lay hands on his head as a sign of consecration, of setting him apart for service. And then, the gift of the Holy Spirit is invoked to empower him for his “duties”, as St Paul says to St Timothy, namely, the public proclamation of God’s Word, preaching, and teaching the Faith (cf 1 Tim 4:13).
The laying on of hands is most often associated with ordinations, but, in fact, it is done in other sacraments, too. For example, in the Mass, the priests invoke the Holy Spirit and perform this gesture over the bread and wine, setting them aside for God’s service and calling down the Holy Spirit to make them holy; transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood at his Word to give us life.
But hands are also laid on each of us as Christians, as a priestly people. The most notable is Confirmation, when the bishop laid hands on your head, conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this sacrament, we’re also set aside for the Lord’s service, and empowered by the Spirit to be a witness of Christ’s Gospel in the world. For every Christian disciple has been called by the Lord to preach and teach the Gospel “in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity”, as St Paul said to Timothy (1 Tim 4:12).
At the Anointing of the Sick, too, hands are laid on us. This, again, sets the Christian aside for the Lord’s service. Because the sick are united in a special way with the Lord in his suffering on the Cross. Priests are called to “model their lives on the Lord’s cross”, and they are empowered with the gift of the Spirit to do this. So, too, the sick are empowered by the Holy Spirit in their illness so that they, too, can model their lives on the Lord’s cross in such an immediate and powerful way.
Finally, in Confession, the priest extends his hands over the penitent’s head, and calls down the Holy Spirit who has “been sent into the world for the forgiveness of sins”. Once again, through this action, the Christian is being set aside for the Lord’s service, and is given the grace of the Spirit to empower us for our duties as Christians. And our duty is to “love God and love your neighbour”; to love much for we have been forgiven our many sins.
So, as St Paul says, let us “not neglect the gift [we] have, which was given [us] when the [priests] laid their hands upon [us]”, but let us live in the grace of that gift, who is the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit of Love.
At the climax of today’s well-known parable is this sentence: “When he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him” (Lk 10:33). The Greek word translated as ‘compassion’ is splagnizomai, which is more like ‘gut-wrenching’; being so moved by something that you physically feel it in your depths. ‘Compassion’ doesn’t quite capture the bodily impact of the Greek word, although there is in the word ‘com–passio' the literal meaning of suffering-together-with someone. So, we need to hold in mind both these ideas: that compassion involves a suffering-together-with someone, and that compassion has a physical, bodily impact – it affects us deeply and moves us to act.
The kind of action that compassion elicits is risky, charged with danger, even and, so, reveals a willingness to sacrifice, to suffer with and for the sake of another. Hence, we see the Samaritan sacrificing all the resources available to him to help the wounded man. He uses up oil, wine, cloth, his own riding animal, time, energy and money. But, in addition, the Samaritan risks and endangers his own life. Because, if one’s community is in a vengeful feud with another’s, one is expected (even today in the Middle East) to leave the wounded at the city limits. To enter the city of one’s enemy was to court death even if you’re doing an errand of mercy. But what the compassionate Samaritan does is to take the stranger to an inn in Jericho and spend a night there caring for him. Jesus actually ends the parable with a cliff-hanger because we do not know what happens to the Samaritan after he pays and leaves the inn – there might have been a mob waiting outside to kill him! But it is this very possibility, this real risk of death that shows us the costliness of compassion. It entails being willing to even lay down one’s life for the other, and as Jesus says elsewhere, there is no greater love than this. (cf Jn 15:13).
In comparison, there are many who are unwilling to pay this cost; they just cannot stomach the price of love and mercy, and so, they ignore or avoid the pangs of gut-wrenching compassion. Thus, the priest and Levite both saw the man – just as the Samaritan had – but they both “passed by on the other side”, unwilling to come alongside and suffer-with the wounded man. In the case of the priest, he risked becoming ritually unclean if the man on the street had in fact been dead. Then he would have, at the very least, had to suffer the inconvenience (and waste-of-time) of going back to Jerusalem for a week-long purification ritual, which would, of course, have meant being unable to fulfill other appointments and duties. And had he tried to serve at the altar without being cleansed first, he would have punished by being beaten to death with clubs! In other words, he could have suffered the same fate as the man on the street. Thus, quite literally not wanting to suffer with him, the priest decided to keep a wide berth and hurried past the wounded man.
The Levite, who followed him, was probably the Temple priest’s assistant and follower. And so, he chose also to just follow the latter’s example. Thus the Levite abdicated the role of his own conscience to another and let his ‘superior’ or the ‘expert’ make the hard decisions. As such, he was personally untouched by the wounded man’s plight, not even having had to grapple with his conscience and make an active decision. But this kind of indifference to injustice is something we may be in danger of today. As Pope Francis said recently: “In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others – it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business”. And with just such an excuse the Levite felt justified to pass by on the other side.
But we, Christians, cannot be like the priest or the Levite; not if we are Christians. For the Christian is one who has experienced and knows the compassion of the invisible God, made visible in Christ (cf Col 1:15).
James and John do not know what they’re asking for because, of course, the Lord’s glory is not manifest on a golden throne or even in heavenly splendour, as the apostles might be thinking, but, rather, in what he’s just described to them: his Passion (cf Jn 12:23). As such, the apostles are unknowingly asking to be seated on either side of Christ when he reigns from the Cross. But those places, as we know, have already been granted to the two thieves. Hence Jesus says: “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (Mk 10:40).
Instead, what Jesus grants to his apostles, and indeed, to each of us, is another way of sharing in his Passion: we are baptized into Christ’s death, and we drink the Eucharistic chalice of his blood. Just as Christ asked his apostles if they are “able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mk 10:38), so, too Christ asks us this. And each time we enter the church, and make the sign of the Cross with the holy water, and say “Amen” before receiving Holy Communion, we are saying “Yes” to Christ’s invitation to share in his glorious Passion.
This sacramental sharing in Christ’s Passion, which leads us to final glory, when our bodies are raised with Christ to reign with him in heaven, is God’s great act of mercy towards us. For in the First Reading, God’s people ask him for mercy (cf Sir 36:1). Hence, God, in response, spares us the bloody anguish of the Cross, and institutes a sacramental means by which we too can, like the good thief, stand on either side of Christ in his glory. For this is what we do when we approach the Altar of the Eucharist, this most sacred banquet in which, as St Thomas Aquinas put it, “the memory of Christ’s Passion is renewed”.