Sunday, July 14, 2013

Living by the Rules

          It was the bottom of the 9th of a women’s softball game between Western Oregon College and Central Washington University.  Central Washington was winning 2 to 0.  Western Oregon was up with 2 outs; 1 strike; and 2 on base.  The Western Oregon batter swung for the fences and hit what would've been the game-winning home run.  But as she rounded first base, she twisted her knee and was unable to continue running.  Her coach immediately sent in a substitute but the umpire stopped her, telling her that the rules required that the runner touch all of the bases with no assistance from her team mates.  Sometimes living by the rules too closely can produce a bad outcome.  Today’s Gospel teaches us how to avoid that problem.

          In today’s Gospel we hear the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus confirms Jewish teaching that love of God and love of neighbor is the key to eternal life.  As Moses tells us in our first reading, this law isn't mysterious or remote; it’s very near to us; it’s written in our hearts.  But the Jews of Jesus’ time had a lot of laws.  The Levite and the priest, “leading examples of law-observant people, do not aid the stripped and apparently dead man for fear of becoming defiled.”[1]  If they had touched a corpse, they would've been deemed ritually impure under the law, and they would've been unable to carry out their duties in the Temple.  They were simply following the law.  But the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us that following some rules too closely can produce bad results.  I think we can all agree that the Levite and priest swung and missed.

Generally speaking, people like rules.  Tell me how to be a good citizen, and I’ll do it.  Tell me the rules to get into heaven, and I’ll try my level best to follow them.  We have a lot of rules, just like the Jews of Jesus’ time did, and it’s not always easy to know which rules to follow.  Sometimes we get so hung up on following a particular rule to the letter of the law that we end up doing more harm than good – like the Levite and the priest.  “This fine-print thinking is the air that legal minds breathe.  But it is the air that suffocates Jesus.”[2]  Now I’m not here to criticize rules or doctrine.  I’m a cleric and a lawyer and I've got German blood coursing through my veins; I get rules.  We need rules to make our lives safer, healthier, more secure and more peaceful.  But these rules can’t interfere with our higher obligations.  Some rules are more important than others.

Jesus teaches us that loving God and loving our neighbor are the greatest commandments.  (Matthew 22: 36-40)  Loving God by showing mercy and compassion to our neighbor is the rule that governs all other rules; every other rule should be interpreted in light of this rule.  “To love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself meant then and now that one must often reject society’s rules in favor of the codes of the Kingdom.”[3]  If we follow the two greatest commandments, we will never have a bad outcome.  But we also have to remember why we have the commandments in the first place.  The commandments, the Gospels and Church doctrine are all intended to teach us the ways of the Kingdom of God –  to show us how to live the Kingdom here and now.  They’re not meant to be used as weapons to keep some people out of it.

And that brings us to the lawyer’s second question:  who is my neighbor?   Here, we learn two things:  First, “by depicting a Samaritan as the hero of the story, Jesus demolished all boundary expectations.  Social position – race, religion, or region – count for nothing.”[4]  Samaritans and Jews hated each other, but that cultural enmity didn't stop the Samaritan from showing mercy to his neighbor.  We also learn that the definition of "neighbor” doesn't look to the one who deserves to be cared for but rather to our obligation to treat everyone we encounter with compassion – no matter how frightening, alien, naked or defenseless.[5]  We become neighbors when we act with compassion to all who need it without prejudice or hesitation.

So now the challenge.  Who needs us to be their neighbors?  Who needs our compassion?  Certainly the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.  But what about others whose lifestyles or choices don’t always comply with the laws and teachings we believe in:  people with same sex attractions, people who are pro-choice, illegal immigrants.  They may feel unwelcome in light of our laws and beliefs.  But our Gospel calls us to treat them no differently than anyone else.  We don’t have to condone or support lifestyles or choices that contradict our beliefs, but we do have to extend our compassion without hesitation to the people who live those lifestyles or make those choices.  I’m certainly not a perfect Catholic, and I feel pretty welcome here.  So should they.  “To be a neighbor forces a Christian to go beyond friend and family and extend welcome and mercy to the outcast”[6] and even to someone on the opposing team.

          Two Central Washington players overheard the umpire’s strict reading of the rules and decided to follow a higher law.  So they picked up the injured Western Oregon player and carried her around the diamond helping her touch her foot to each base.  The rules said nothing about assistance from the opposing team.[7]  The compassion of the Central Washington players cost them the game but won them a much bigger prize:  they learned the true meaning of living by the rules.

[1] Robert J. Karris, “The Gospel According to Luke,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, Roland E. Murphy, eds (Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, 1990) at 702.
[2] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers:  The Relentless Widow, Luke, Year C (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2006) at 196.
[3] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995) at 232.
[4] Id. at 229
[5] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1991) at 175.
[6] Michael F. Patella, “The Gospel According to Luke,” New Collegeville Bible Commentary, Daniel Durken, ed. (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2009) at 258.
[7] “Unbelievable Sportsmanship in Softball Game,”


  1. You are a Deacon groupie when you run home waiting for the Homily Post to share on Facebook AND a Catholic Mom's Board :) Awesome Homily today!!!

  2. I agree on all counts except the running home part! :)


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