An ironic aspect of Sunday's three readings is that we're hearing them in a context that emphasizes God's transcendence in our lives.

We're in a church, a building specially set aside and designed for other-worldly services. We are observing the gestures and listening to the words of someone traditionally regarded as "ontologically different" from everyone else present.

We're watching motions and hearing music that are performed in no other place.

Close to you

In the midst of such an unearthly environment, Moses' words in the first reading (Deuteronomy 30:10-14) enter our ears and intersect our lives: "This command I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky....Nor is it across the sea....No, it is something very close to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out."

At this point in Deuteronomy, Moses is just four chapters from his death. The author makes these words part of the great Jewish liberator's last will and testament, an aspect of faith he wants the Chosen People to remember.

Trying to ward off the teaching of those who would one day insist that Yahweh's commands revolve only around transporting us from the confines of our everyday world and placing us squarely in the realm of heaven, Moses reminds us we're to work out our salvation against the background of the natural and normal.

Similarly, Paul argues in the second reading that it's precisely in this world that the risen Jesus exists (Colossians 1:15-20). No matter where we are, Jesus is in the neighborhood: "In Him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible....All things were created through Him and for Him."

The Apostle forcefully reminds the Colossians that Jesus "is the beginning, the first born from the dead, that in all things He might be pre-eminent." It makes no difference whether we're dealing with heaven or earth; Jesus permeates both.

In the Gospel (Luke 10:25-37), Luke tells us that Jesus had problems with those who permitted religion to waft them out of this world, and situate their faith and obligations in a more heavenly zone. He's particularly upset with anyone who practices a religion which stops him or her from carrying out God's will in the ordinary circumstances of life.

Good Samaritan

Hearing Jesus' parable, most of us zero in on the Good Samaritan's generosity and sacrifice for a complete stranger. Jesus' original audience, brought up to despise heretical Samaritans, likewise would have been impressed by his actions. But they probably focused on the priest and Levite more than we do.

Both were liturgical ministers, part of the Jerusalem temple sacrificial system. Their ministry demanded a special ritual purity. Among other obligations, neither was permitted to function in his office for a specific period after he came in contract with blood or touched a dead body.

That's why, Jesus tells us, when the priest "saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he also passed by on the opposite side." Though they might have felt pity for the mugged Jew, their lofty positions in the worship system stopped them from acting on that pity. Religious obligations trumped love obligations.

Jesus' message couldn't be clearer. The one person in His narrative forbidden (under pain of death) from taking part in organized Jewish religious services is the only one who follows God's command to be neighbor to all.

In modern terminology, Jesus warns us that, if we're ever facing a life-and-death situation, we'd better pray an atheist comes along. He or she's the only one who wouldn't come up with six or seven religious reasons they couldn't help us.

(7/12/07)