When I first started teaching high school religion, I regularly asked my freshman students what they would do if, on their way to church on Sunday, they came upon an accident. They could help the injured. But if they stopped, they'd certainly miss the only Eucharist in which they could participate that day.

Though they'd already had eight years of Catholic education, most usually answered that they'd pass by the accident and go to church! Their reason was simple: they didn't want to risk committing a mortal sin. (Of course, there always were a sensitive few who assured me they'd leave during Communion and return to the accident scene to see if they could still help.)

Such a response justified Luke, including Sunday's Good Samaritan passage in his Gospel (Lk 10: 25-37). He didn't compose this to condemn ritually over-pious Jews. He wrote it for Christians; those in his late first-century community who thought obedience to liturgical regulations was more important than love of neighbor.

Going past

Jewish law forbade priests and Levites from coming into contact with blood or even touching a corpse. Those who did were prohibited from taking part in the sacrificial system of the temple which employed them. Fortunately for the injured Israelite, someone happens by who is forbidden under pain of death from even entering the temple precincts: a Samaritan. This heretical, half-breed Jew is the only person who cares for the victim, the only one who lives the most important of Yahweh's laws.

Most Christians agree with Paul's statement in the second reading (Col 1: 15-20). We believe "Jesus is in the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation....He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." Yet, no matter our belief, it's still difficult for us to carry on His ministry of "reconciling all things,... making peace by the blood of His cross." The only way to accomplish such an idealistic goal is to completely imitate Jesus. Like Him, our relationship with God and others must become the most important dimension of our life.

Our main problem is that love of neighbor is "iffy." We never know exactly what to do, or how it will be received when we do it. It's much easier and safer to fall back on black-and-white ritual demands. Such regulations rarely come in shades of gray. Before Vatican II, for instance, we knew exactly when we committed a mortal or venial sin in regard to our Sunday Eucharist obligation. If the chalice was still covered on the altar when we came in late, our sin was venial; if it was uncovered, we were guilty of a mortal sin.

Near to God

Our early Christian authors knew they had discovered someone in Jesus who truly exemplified Moses' reflection in the first reading (Dt 30: 10-14); someone who knew God's command to His people was "something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; (something) you only have to carry out."

Following Jesus' example, they knew God's will didn't revolve around the keeping of ritual laws. On the contrary, it was as near as the person to whom they showed love and concern, no matter what their acts of love and concern consisted in, or how they were accepted.

Those who hesitate to love those around them before they commit themselves to anything else are simply ignoring the fact that Jesus always combined love of God with love of neighbor. In the long run, it doesn't matter how, or even if, people receive our loving actions. Jesus teaches that God ultimately is the person who does the receiving, a God, He reminds us, who rates one small act of love as more valuable than a million acts of ritual.