15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Ignorance Is No Excuse…
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37 or Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37
Sisters and brothers, ignorance of the law is no excuse. We all know this, don’t we? For example, if I dash across Farrer Road, climbing over the road divider, so as to get from the market to the bus-stop on the other side, and if a policeman happens to catch me doing it, it wouldn’t help very much if I were to protest that I didn’t know jay-walking was an offence. Ignorance is no excuse. Similarly, suppose I’m running late for Mass and the car-park is full, and I park my car along a street with a single white line painted down the middle. If, after Mass, I return to find a summons on the windscreen of my car, it probably won’t do me much good to write in to the authorities to say that I didn’t see the white line. Ignorance is no excuse.
We all know this principle quite well. We all know that we each have the responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the law. We each need to find out what we can and cannot, what we should and should not, do. And we quite naturally apply this to our lives as Christians as well. So we all know, for example, that we have an obligation to come to Mass every Sunday, and that we have to go to confession if we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin. And isn’t this also the reason why we are so concerned to find out if it’s still compulsory for us to abstain from meat on Fridays? We make it a point to know these things, because if it’s true that ignorance is no excuse, then better to find out. Better to be safe than sorry. And, for the most part, we do know what we need to do, don’t we? We are familiar with the law. But are we, really?
Consider that man in the gospel today, the one who questions Jesus, the one who asks Jesus, What must I do? This is a very legitimate question to ask, isn’t it? Especially if ignorance is no excuse. And also especially because of what is at stake: not just what must I do to avoid paying a fine, but what must I do to inherit eternal life. This has to do with our eternal happiness. It’s nothing less than a matter of life and death. If there is one important question to ask, this must surely be it. Except that we are told two things about this man. We are told both that he is a lawyer and that his aim is to disconcert Jesus. In other words he isn’t really asking the question to get an answer. All he wants to do is to embarrass Jesus by posing a difficult legal question. Being an expert in the law, he thinks that he already knows the law well enough. But does he, really?
Well, of course he does. He is a lawyer, after all. He is an expert. Even so, we may wonder which law he is expert in. For it would seem from what Moses tells us in the first reading, that there are at least two kinds of law. There is the law that is very far away, the law that always seems beyond your reach, the law that seems to always remain high up in heaven or far beyond the seas. But the law that God lays down for the people, through Moses, is not like that. This law is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.
The difference then is between a law in the heavens and a law of the heart. And doesn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan help us to see more clearly just how different these two laws are? Of the people in the story, it is quite clear who is keeping which law. The priest and the Levite do not ignore the injured man out of cruelty or indifference. From a distance the man probably looked like a corpse, so it was only right that they should be careful to stay far away, for fear of being rendered unclean by touching a dead body. They were following the law, the law in the heavens. And in doing so, they failed to do what was necessary for eternal life. In contrast, it is the much-hated foreigner, the Samaritan, who does what is necessary. We are told that, at the sight of the injured man, he was moved with compassion. He went out of his way to help him. This is what following the law of the heart looks like. The difference between the two laws could not be clearer.
But how does one come to know this second law? How does one come to follow the law of the heart? I believe it has something to do with the questions we ask. Isn’t it true that when we are following only the law in heaven we are often preoccupied with only one question? This is the same question that the lawyer asks Jesus: what must I do? It’s an important question to ask, of course. But isn’t it also true that in order to follow the law of the heart, in order to imitate the Good Samaritan, we need to ask another question first.
For as the early Christian writer Origen tells us, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just about what we must do, it is also about what has been done for us. That man who was set upon by brigands and left for dead is really an image of us. We are the ones who have been crippled by our sins. We are the ones who are unable to save ourselves. And no on can help us, especially not those who follow some faraway law. To save us, God actually comes down from heaven. Like the Good Samaritan, God is moved with compassion. God goes out of God’s way, becoming a human person, so as to reach out and care for us. And as we are reminded in the second reading, in Christ, God’s compassion extends even to submitting to death. For it is in this way that Christ heals us. It was by his death on the cross that Christ reconciled everything, everything in heaven and everything on earth.
And it is only as we ponder ever more deeply upon what has been done for us that we can then put into practice all that we need to do to inherit eternal life. It is only when we allow ourselves to realize how much we are loved that we can then learn to love God and our neighbour. Isn’t this why we come to Mass every Sunday? Isn’t this why many of us make time for personal prayer and scripture reading? Isn’t this why people sign up for worthwhile programs like the parish’s week of guided prayer?
Sisters and brothers, as Christians we have all been baptized into Christ. In water and in blood, Christ our Good Samaritan has washed us of our sins. And God’s law has been placed in our mouths and inscribed upon our hearts. Do we really have any excuse to remain ignorant?
How might we continue to grow in our knowledge of God’s law today?