'Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'...'What is written in the law?'...'You shall love the Lord your God...and your neighbor.'...'You have given the right answer. Do this, and you will live...' -- Luke 10:25-28

One of my favorite quotes from the "Peanuts" comic strip is Linus' offhand remark, "I love's people I can't stand."

I presume it became quite popular in the late 1950s and early '60s because so many of us identified with the little guy: We can love things in the abstract, but when it comes down to loving them in the concrete, we frequently find a half-dozen reasons for suspending our love.

That's exactly the problem Luke's Jesus tackles in Sunday's Gospel (Luke 10:25-37).

It's not difficult to repeat Jesus' answer to the lawyer's question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" We're to demonstrate our love of God by loving our neighbor.

On face value, that's easy to understand. The kicker comes when the legal scholar follows his first question with another: "And who is my neighbor?"

Those who deal with the 613 laws of Moses know that definitions of terms are essential to understanding those laws. For instance, when it comes to the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," Christians presume that prohibition refers to having relations with anyone who's the spouse of another. Yet, many Mosaic law experts are convinced that commandment originally applied only to those who were having illicit relations with Jews. Similar relations with Gentiles weren't covered under that particular commandment.

Samaritan mercy
It's interesting that Jesus doesn't provide this legal expert with a precise definition of "neighbor." Instead, Jesus tells him a story.

Most of us know about the historical animosity between Jews and Samaritans, but few of us appreciate the actions of the priest and Levite. When the two pass by on the opposite sides of the road, they're not just refusing to get involved with a fellow Jew in need, they're actually forced to do so because of their religious obligations.

Functionaries at the Jerusalem temple, they're forbidden to touch a dead body or even come into contact with blood. So, in this particular situation, this particular Jew doesn't fit their theological definition of a "neighbor." He's more a temptation to sin for them than a concrete occasion to fulfill Yahweh's command in the book of Leviticus to love your neighbor.

The Samaritan, on the other hand, isn't limited by their religious restrictions. He's forbidden -- under pain of death -- from even entering the temple!

Notice, when Jesus asks, "Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" the lawyer doesn't say, "the Samaritan." He simply replies, "the one who treated him with mercy."

Just help
Jesus seems to be saying that if any of us ever find ourselves in dire straits, some "religious persons" would have four or five reasons why, in this situation, they're absolved from helping us.

Luke's Jesus couldn't be clearer: Religious obligations can never excuse us from helping someone in need.

He agrees with the author of Deuteronomy, who, in our first reading (Dt 30:10-14), reminds us that God's commandments are ensconced in our everyday lives. We don't have to look up to heaven to find out what God wants us to do; we simply have to look around us. God works in the concrete, not the abstract.

The Pauline disciple responsible for Colossians (1:15-20) takes this concreteness one step further, expressing his belief that the human Jesus was actually the "image of the invisible God" -- not the holy card image of Jesus, but the real image.

Along that line, historians remind us that no one over the age of 20 in Jesus' day and age had a full set of teeth. The historical Jesus was 30 when He died.