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Homily for Sunday, July 15th

Fr. Michael J. Dodds, O.P. 

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"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

This central question of today's gospel is pivotal for human life, Christian life, and especially Dominican life, since our Constitutions tell us that our Order was founded for preaching and the salvation of souls.

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Perhaps our ears perk up a bit as we hear this key question asked, with the promise that Jesus himself is going to give us the answer.

But then (as so often happens), Jesus doesn't give an answer Instead, he asks a question of his own: "What is written in the law? How do you read it?"

It's as if Jesus were alluding to the teaching of today's first reading from Deuteronomy: God's command is not something mysterious or remote, that one would have to climb the skies or cross the seas to find it. No, it is near, "on your lips and in your heart."

And, sure enough, the one who asked the question does already know the answer: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus confirms his answer very simply: "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."

Is it really that simple? Such a profound question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?". Can the answer be that easy?

Down through the centuries of our Dominican history, the brothers and sisters we admire, the saints whom we venerate, are those who were able to articulate an answer to this question both through the words they spoke and (especially) through the lives they lived.

We might think of St. Dominic arguing with innkeeper deep into the night. It was no abstract theological discussion. It was a matter of life and death-- of communicating God's life-saving word of truth, hope and love to one who was so earnestly searching. Dominic was showing him nothing less than the way to everlasting life.

A few centuries later, we have the words and example of Bartolome de Las Casas. It was a time of conquest, of the brutal subjugation of the new world that Columbus had so recently discovered-- an age when wealth was quickly achieved through injustices, massacres, and enslavements.

In that context, Las Casas formulated his answer to the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?".

He had been asked by his Dominican brothers, who were preaching against the injustices of the conquest, how to deal with those who had perpetrated such horrors. Some of these had been conquistadors. Others were merchants who had profited from the sale of arms. Still others were owners of encomiendas who had grown rich from the enslavement of the native population. Many were now seeking the grace and consolation of absolution in the sacrament of confession. The Dominicans wanted to know how they should answer them when they asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Bartolome's answer took the form of a document, his Advisos y reglas para confesores (Advice and rules for confessors). In twelve short rules he explained how the Dominican confessors were to deal with their penitents.

For each type of penitent, whether conquistador, merchant or land owner, he insisted on full restitution or at least a legal, binding pledge of full restitution before absolution could be given, even when the penitent was in danger of death. All the unjust wealth must be restored, even if that meant that the children of the penitents would be left with no inheritance.

Some criticized his rules as overly harsh, lacking in compassion and charity. Bartolome responded that his rules sprang not from severity, but from love. He quoted the gospel that we've heard today: "Love your neighbor as yourself." He then added the familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount: "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you." Finally, he asked his critics, if they were in the same state of soul as those who had inflicted such miseries upon the native populations, would they not want someone to show them clearly what was necessary to find the way to life. Would they not want a true answer, no matter how demanding, if they were to ask, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" To give such an answer is an act of love.

In our own time, the question is still with us, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?". I wonder sometimes what rules Las Casas might formulate for the people of our time and, more especially, what he might say to us who participate, by our very presence in wealthier countries of the world, in the exploitation of the poor which is so much a part of the very structure of our global economy. What rules would he give? What rules should we give to those who come to us, seeking the way to life?

It is a complex question with no simple answers. And yet, I think we find a clue, the glimmer of an answer, in the second part of the gospel today.

We're told that, having heard Jesus' instruction, the man goes on to ask another question: "Who is my neighbor?" This time, however, he asks the wrong question.

He wants some sort of definition of the term "neighbor," and any such definition will inevitably turn the flesh and blood neighbor at his side into a mere abstraction. Armed with such a definition, he could then wander through the world in pious search of a neighbor to love. But he would probably find few if any to fit the pristine parameters of his definition.

He would soon find himself in the position of the person who seems able to say with unabashed sincerity, "I love humanity; it's just people I can't stand."

So, Jesus does not answer his question. Instead, he tells a parable that turns the question around and seems designed to turn the questioner (and us) around as well.

"A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side."

We ask ourselves, "How could they just pass by?" These were men learned in the law; they knew their Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They knew the command to "love your neighbor as yourself."

Why didn't they stop? Could it have been that the man whom they saw beaten and bleeding by the roadside simply didn't fit their abstract understanding of what a "neighbor" should be? That wretched man was not a neighbor, but something else. Perhaps a sinner, a victim of God's righteous judgment-- so better stay away; don't interfere; don't get involved. Don't associate with such an outcast.

"But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.'"

Jesus finishes his story, but doesn't answer the man's question-perhaps because it's the wrong question, a dangerous question that can turn a neighbor into an abstraction.

And when one's neighbor has become a mere abstraction, then one can pass him by on the road and leave him in his misery, like the priest and Levite in today's gospel. Then one can exploit, oppress and even massacre him or her like the perpetrators of the Conquista at the time of Bartolome de Las Casas. And then one can also turn him or her into a mere statistic, a possible "market" to be exploited or (perhaps worse) simply ignored as unprofitable or uninteresting in the global economy of our own time.

So Jesus does not answer the man's question, but instead asks as question of his own.

He does not ask which traveler recognized the injured man as his neighbor, but rather which became a neighbor to that man. It's a question that does not let us retreat into abstractions, but forces us to face the concrete reality of the condition of the other and then to discern the reality (or unreality) of our response-the reality or unreality of our own love. For it was love that prompted the Samaritan to act. It was love that made the Samaritan a neighbor. --Just as it was love that caused Dominic to reach out to the innkeeper and Las Casas to reach out to both the victims and the perpetrators of the injustices of his time.

If we are to find a way through the nettlesome questions of our time, that same love must also be at work in us, transforming us into genuine neighbors to the people of this age, so that, in all our preaching and in all our works, we may, like the Dominicans of each century, continue faithfully and humbly to show the way that leads to life. puce

 

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