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Attachment to the Eternal

An address by Fr John Slater

25 August 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

There can be few stories that Christians know so well as The Good Samaritan. And you don't have to be a Christian to know the meaning of a Good Samaritan. The national telephone help-line for those in despair and tempted to suicide is called the Samaritans.

Rather than look at the story itself, I want to focus our thoughts on the context in which Jesus tells the story. A certain lawyer stood up and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? So the question comes from a lawyer and his intention is not a genuine desire to learn but rather to trick Jesus into a reply which might discredit him. We have to remember that at the time of Judaism there were several different forms of Judaism competing against each other. There were Sadducees whose focus was the temple, and Scribes and Pharisees whose focus was the written Law and the words of the prophets. Then there were the Herodians, working towards an assimilation between Jewish and Greek thought, and Zealots who wanted a violent uprising against the occupying Roman power.

Since it was a lawyer who put this question to Jesus, he replies very cautiously, What is written in the Law, how readest thou? The lawyer replies by quoting the summary of the Law by the famous Rabbi Hillel, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And Jesus replies, Thou hast answered right; this do, and thou shalt live.

The lawyer's question has been answered in the terms of the Law of Moses and that should have been the end of it. But then we read, But he, (that is the lawyer) willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? Now we might well think that this is an odd question, and perhaps it is for most of us. But the man asking the question is a lawyer who wants every detail firmly in place. What he is really asking is if the commandment to love one's neighbour can be limited to fellow Jews. Surely the Law of Moses cannot mean that one must love Gentiles! Well, the story of the Good Samaritan answers that in the most vivid way.

For the lawyer of 2,000 years ago, the religious problem lay in the unlimited nature of the invitation to love other men and women without any boundaries of race or religion. In the 21st century, I believe the religious problem lies elsewhere. We may not be very good in practice at loving our neighbour as ourselves, but most of us would accept the principle. But what about the first of these two commandments? Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind. I think this is the point where men and women in our society would reply to Jesus, But what does it mean to love God?

If the lawyer wanted to establish some limits to the demand that he love his neighbour, perhaps we are equally disturbed by the invitation to love God without any limit: with all our heart, our feelings, our capacity for loving personal relationships; with all our soul, our sense of an eternal destiny; with all our mind, our ability to use our intellect to define what we believe to be true; and with all our strength, our here-and-now bodily self and identity.

The lawyer didn't see this as a problem. The fact that most men and women in our society do find it a problem simply underlines how very different our society is from that in which Jesus lived and in which the New Testament documents were written. Worship is the human way of responding to this invitation to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. Our forms of worship need to embrace our feelings, our inwardness, our minds and our bodies. I ended my address last week with Peter Schaffer's words in the play Equus - Either you worship or you shrink; it's as brutal as that. He recognised that when men and women have no point of reference outside themselves, their sense of a vision of the wholeness of things is necessarily diminished.

The lawyer wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life, and I get the impression he wanted to know what was the absolute minimum he had to do to squeeze into heaven. But eternal life is surely attachment to that which is eternal, and this is something we need to begin now. Here is the heart of the Gospel. The Kingdom of God is not something to which we look forward in a distant future but something we know and enjoy even now. To know God and to love him with heart and soul and mind and strength - this is eternal life.
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