Forty-first in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37
One of the most ancient and persistent Christian heresies (Greek hairesis, taking by the hand, take into power) is Gnosticism. It didn’t start with Christianity – it had been around for a few hundred years – but it did creep its way in, resulting in some of the apocryphal Gospels of the 2nd century A.D. (like Thomas) that some people tend to love more than the authentic ones. In brief, the Gnostic approach teaches that the physical world and its Creator God are false, evil, something that needs to be escaped, and that the path to escape the lie and find the truth lies in a secret knowledge (in Greek, gnosis) that is revealed to a select and worthy few – in this case, which Jesus passed on to His disciples, including Mary Magdalene, in secret. The most definitive refutation of Gnosticism was set down by Saint Irenaeus of Lyons around the year A.D. 180 (if you’ve never seen or heard of Against Heresies, it’s a great resource for what constitutes authentic Christianity – which is by far less complicated than Gnosticism!). But this philosophy that sees the physical as too irredeemable and the way to God as too mysterious has always been incompatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition – and, ultimately, with being “merciful like the Father.”
Today’s readings show just how much the religion of the “both/and” puts the lie to Gnosticism. The First Reading itself shows how this lie was anticipated hundreds of years before it first began to surface. As Moses implores the people to follow the Law which has been given to them, he makes the following point:” [T]his command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious or remote for you. It is not up in the sky…[n]or is it across the sea… No, it is something very near to you.” The great Law with its 10 general commandments and its 613 quite particular ordinances is a very real thing set before the people. They not need ever again wonder “What is it God wants us to do? How can we achieve fellowship with God?” The perennial answer to “know, love and serve” Him, to obey His commands and observe His decrees, is more than just a trite proverb. He actually told His people what to do in order to reconcile themselves to Him, and these things were written down so that future generations would be able to do it too. And through them, the other nations would see the way. Now, His people may not have liked all this specific instruction, and they may have struggled to meet the demands of this Law, but they certainly could not say they didn’t know what to do.
Another point too is that Moses, in speaking of the nearness of God’s commands, says they are “already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” The Law, for all its particular peculiarity, was always recognized as an extension of the natural law of Man. In His Law God does not ask Man to do anything contrary to his own nature, which is why it could be summed up in the way the scholar of the Law does in the Gospel reading: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart…and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus’ famous Parable of the Good Samaritan that follows brings the reality of that statement into crisp clear focus for this scholar of the Law, someone who knew the truth of what Jesus said even if he only begrudgingly admitted it. The neighbor of the injured traveler was not simply his fellow kin or countrymen or those who had the charge of taking care of him, but “[t]he one who treated him with mercy” – even if that “one” was the most distrusted and scowl-inducing neighbor of all. And Jesus’ instruction to “[g]o and do likewise” is again not a order to do something contrary to our nature, but a reminder of something we already know. That’s what Law of Love is, in the end: a reminder, the thing that makes us do the things we already know we should do at the times when we most don’t want to. It’s the thing that reminds us that being “merciful like the Father” is to be an impartial minister of reconciliation. It doesn’t require an evolved intellectual knowledge or some transcendent spiritual mentality. It can’t be found simply by reading a book, even if that book is the Book of the Law. It’s something we already know; we need only carry it out.
This knowledge compelled Saint Paul, in the Second Reading, to preach to the Church at Colossae by using what was at that time already a popular hymn to Christ. This is a hymn that uses a lot of Gnostic imagery, which was already creeping into Christianity by way of the Greek philosophy Paul and other Apostles like John were using to relate the Gospel truth across the world. In the hymn Jesus is described as the preeminent One, He Who existed “before all things,” the place where “the fullness” (in Greek, pleroma) dwells. He is not just the agent of the one true God, the One Who will show the path to the pure spiritual world beyond this corrupt matter, but He is in Himself that path. However, the hymn goes beyond these concepts to show that Christ is something more, something ultimately incompatible with the escapist notions of even the most mythologically creative Gnostics. The hymn states He is the One through Whom all things, “the visible and the invisible,” were created; He is not just the agent of God but the very active force that made both the pure world of the spirit and the physical world that the Gnostics considered false. He is called the “head of the body, the Church;” by His Incarnation and then by His Sacraments, He shares always in that same physical nature that, in the Gnostic view, He was meant to lead the chosen disciples beyond. And finally all this great saving work of reconciling physical man with spiritual God is accomplished through “making peace by the blood of his cross” – the grisly and humiliating death that this preeminent agent of the true God freely accepted in order to demonstrate where the path to Him leads.
The God-Man achieved the impossible within His own Self, and so became in Himself the Way to God. This is a way nearer to us than the even the Law is! He is the One Who totally empties Himself (Greek kenosis, emptying) while losing none of His fullness. For all its borrowed Gnostic imagery, this hymn in its entirely is a paradox that takes the idea of transcendence and rips it apart. We were never meant to transcend earthly existence; if we were God would never have given His people a Law so grounded in physical everyday life circumstances, He would never have incarnated upon earth as the One Who could fulfill all the functions for which the Law’s demands were the mechanisms, and He would never have given us a Church that is the flawed earthly community of those who trust in the merits of His great redemptive acts and follow His path to God. That is what Paul means when, speaking through this hymn, he call Jesus “the image of the invisible God” – in fact, the very icon of God (Greek eikon, image)! He didn’t just look like one of us or seem to be one of us, and He certainly didn’t escape His humanity since even now He possesses His body, glorified but still wounded. He is not just “firstborn of all creation” but also “firstborn from the dead,” and as such He continually, eternally affirms the goodness and truth of all the created world, created good by the true God. Such awesome compassion is anathema to the skeptical and comparatively narrow vision of the Gnostic, and ultimately cancels it out.
I said once before in this series that if the physical world doesn’t matter, the Redemption is pointless. That statement applies not just to the macro, long-term vision, but to our everyday life. If we were meant to transcend this existence, the Good Samaritan should have just let the traveler die. But we know better, instinctively. The scholar of the Law knew it even before he asked Jesus who his neighbor was. We all know it in our mouths and in our hearts; we only need to carry it out. “Do this, and you will live.”