Becoming the Letter of the Love of God, like St. John Bosco, in an Indifferent World, 12th Sunday after Pentecost (EF), August 16, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, 1962 Missal
August 16, 2015
2 Cor 3:1-9, Lk 10:23-27


To listen to a recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided the homily: 

The most important things we need to do

The lawyer in today’s Gospel asks Jesus one of the most important questions a man or woman, a boy or a girl, can: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What do I have to do, in other words, to get to heaven? We don’t get to heaven simply by being born. We don’t get to heaven by coasting there. It’s a choice, or more precisely, a series of choices, and the most important ones we’ll ever make. Jesus questioned the lawyer what he himself thought the answer was to his own question, and the lawyer gave what Jesus admitted was the right response. Putting together two parts of what God had revealed in the Old Testament, the lawyer said that to inherit eternal life we must love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Deut 6:5) and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18). On these two commandments, Jesus himself said elsewhere, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:40). These two commandments are a summary, in other words, of the entire Old Testament. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.” The whole Old Testament was God’s revelation to help his people enter into life and be prepared to embrace “life to the full” (Jn 10:10) when it finally was revealed in the person, words and deeds of Jesus.

Our Neighborhood

But as conceptually simple as Jesus’ answer is, there are obviously some practical considerations — for us and the lawyer — to putting it into practice. There are clearly practical issues involved in loving God not with “some” but with one-hundred percent of our mind, heart, soul and strength, as well as one-hundred percent of our time, talents, and wallets. But the scholar of the law didn’t ask Jesus for help putting that it to practice. Instead, he asked him to make concrete how he was to love his neighbor, by querying, “Who is my neighbor?” We’ve heard Jesus’ answer so many times that to us the answer might seem obvious, but it wasn’t at the time of the lawyer. In fact the question of who is one’s neighbor was one of the most discussed and controversial debates among Israelites. A typical Jew was raised with an attitude to which Jesus referred in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5:43). Therefore, if one were to love one’s neighbor and detest one’s enemy, it was crucial to determine who was one’s neighbor and who was one’s adversary. Almost all Jews admitted that one’s neighbor extended beyond one’s family or those who lived physically proximate. Most interpreters considered that one’s neighbor included all fellow Israelites and those gentiles who adhered to the Mosaic law. But no one was quite prepared for Jesus’ answer, which he gave in the form of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He basically said that everyone is in our neighborhood — even those considered enemies, as Jews and Samaritans deemed each other.

What happened when we were in the ditch and dying

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus stressed that God’s love had no limits and that likewise there be no limit to our love for neighbor. The first point about God’s love is often missed, but the Fathers of the Church (the saintly bishops of the early Church) saw this as the necessary “background” for the proper understanding of the parable. They saw man as that person who had started to go down from the place of God’s dwelling, represented by Jerusalem, to Jericho, literally the lowest place on earth (1000 meters below sea level). His descent was sin. While walking in paradise, man was ambushed by the evil one, who left him at the brink of death because of sin. The priest and the Levite were, respectively, those who even though they knew the law and the prophets, chose to pass the nearly-dead sinner by, so that they would not be contaminated by his sins. Eventually Christ, the Good Samaritan, came. When he beheld this man half dead, he had compassion on him and for all his wounds caused by sin. So, as we read in the parable, “he approached.” Christ approached all the way from heaven, getting so close as to take on our nature, becoming “God-with-us” (Mt 1:23). He poured the oil and wine of his redemptive blood on man’s wounds to heal them. He brought him to the inn, which represents the Church, and gave the inn-keepers (all of us in the Church) the instruction for them to care for the human person until he returned and to help nurse him back from sins to the full health of holiness. The extremely generous two denarii and the promise for more upon his return were the treasure of Christ’s merits, especially the sacraments, which continue the healing process within man. Finally, the reference to his return was an allusion to the second coming, when Jesus will come to repay each of us according to our deeds (Rom 2:6).

Imitating the Lord

The parable of the Good Samaritan, therefore, is first a commentary on God’s love for us and, secondly, a clear illustration of Christ’s statement during the Last Supper, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Our love for each other is based not merely on our love for ourselves — “love your neighbor as yourself” — but on God’s love for us. Never in the Gospel did Jesus say, merely, “Do what I say.” He stated time and again, “Come, follow me!” He would set us an example and then tell us to imitate him. That is why Jesus was able to say at the end of the parable, “Go and do the same;” we were to follow his example of love. He was calling us to go out to seek those who have been ambushed by the evil one and left at the point of death in sin, and patiently take them to the Church to nurse them back to health. He was also explicitly calling us to cross the road and approach all those who have been mugged, bruised, beaten, victimized, and abandoned by others in this world and use our donkeys, our cars, our shoulders, our money to bring them to safety, to nurse them back to health. In other words, Jesus was giving us marching orders to love others — even those who seem to be our enemies, even those we find most despicable — to the point of sacrificing our lives, our goods, our time for them.

Becoming the Living Letter of the Word of God others can read

Hence, Jesus gives all of us a point on which to examine our consciences today. To be a Good Samaritan means to behave like Christ and draw close to those who are in need, close enough to become their neighbor. In today’s first reading St. Paul says that as Christians we are to be a “letter of Christ,” “written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh.” We are supposed to be the living commentaries, the breathing explicitation of God’s word. To know what God says, people should be able to read it from the way we live. And therefore they’re supposed to be able to read in us how to love God with all we’ve got and how to be Good Samaritans through the love we have concretely for everyone God has placed in our neighborhood. And so we can ask ourselves: When we see someone in need, do we behave like the priest and the Levite, who, although outwardly religious, pass by on the other side of the road, afraid to get our hands dirty and commit our time to helping someone in dire straits? Or when we see someone in need, do we draw close and see how we can help, even to the point of sacrificing our own transportation, our own time, and our own money? Are we willing to be inconvenienced to help others or are we too busy minding our own business to stop and put others and their urgent needs above ourselves and our own desires?

God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven

Pope Francis has been preaching about this parable since he assumed the papacy. When he went to Lampedusa, a small Italian island 70 miles off the coast of Africa where 25,000 people have perished over the last 20 years trying to flee from persecution and poverty in Africa, he basically asked if most of the people in the world cared that so many thousands of our brothers and sisters, including pregnant women and young children, were perishing by drowning on the seas, perishing by being crushed against the rock cliffs on the southern shore of the island after boats were capsizing. He said many times we hear about those who are suffering and we say, “Poor fella!,” and go on with our work. But he asked if we can hear their cries. He asked if we’re sensitive to their predicaments. He asked whether we’re willing to do anything, being with praying, for them. God’s kingdom, he would say a couple of months later, is one in which we grasp that we are our brother’s keeper, that we cross the road, that we help others as Christ helped us first. To be Christian means to love others to the point of martyrdom. It doesn’t mean just to know the catechism or to keep the commandments or to fulfill our weekly obligation on the Lord’s day. It means to seek to love God with all we’ve got and to love our neighbor with all we’ve got. And if we’re not living in God’s kingdom here on earth, why should we expect to enter into his eternal kingdom? God’s kingdom is for Good Samaritans, not for those who pass by the other way. It’s important that we all grasp this. Jesus says that those to whom he will say at the judgment, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” will not merely be people like Nero, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin, but those who didn’t give food, drink, clothing, care, visits, or welcome to others in need, “for as often as you failed to do it to the least of my brothers and sisters,” Jesus tells us he will say, “you failed to do it to me.” To be a good Samaritan isn’t “extra credit” to the Christian life. To be a Good Samaritan is a command: “Go and do likewise.” That’s the way Christ’s kingdom is built up here on earth. That’s the way we inherit eternal life.

The Charity of St. John Bosco

Today in the Church we celebrate the 200th birthday of one of the greatest human beings who has ever lived, someone who lived by Jesus’ teaching today. Two centuries ago today, on August 16, 1815, in a small village of Becchi close to Turin in northern Italy, St. John Bosco, the patron saint of school children, young people, street kids and juvenile delinquents was born. When he was just two, his father died leaving his mother Margherita to care for the three young boys as a peasant farmer during a time of great drought and social unrest. Margherita did all she could, but even at a young age he needed to be apprenticed to an uncle. And he was one of the lucky ones that he had an uncle to whom he could be sent when his mother no longer could feed him. Many boys didn’t have that fortune. Young John Bosco would see them hanging out together on the streets, causing trouble, stealing things in order to survive, and he knew they needed God. Having keenly observed some people in the circus juggling and doing magic tricks, he soon learned how to use them to impress the street boys. He promised to show them how to do the same tricks if they just went with him to Church. And even as a young boy he was an apostle for those who were left by a harsh society on the sides of the road. Eventually a priest recognized in him signs of a priestly vocation. He was taught how to read so that he would be able to go to school and seminary. His upkeep and his clothes were provided by charity, the mayor paid for his hat, the pastor his coat, one parishioner his cassock another a pair of shoes. During Seminary he would continue to go out on Sundays to draw the boys to Mass and make sure these waifs would be taken care of. It was during Seminary that St. Joseph Cafasso, the seminary rector just a few years his senior, recognized his vocation to give his entire life to the care of these abandoned, lost sheep, seeking to love them with the love of Christ and bring them to live truly Christian lives. St. John Bosco organized activities on Sundays but very few people wanted hundreds of street kids around them, and so he struggled to find a permanent place. Eventually he got a big barn and began to build it up. He founded schools to train them as shoemakers, tailors and printers. He began to give them accommodations so they weren’t sleeping on the streets and entrusted their care to his mother Margherita who came to live with them. His orphanage would grow to house more than 800 boys for whom he would beg for food. Some of the bright boys he would eventually begin training to be priests to serve young people like these in the Salesian order God would lead him to found. And the work of Salesians continues to this day. It’s a work of Good Samaritans, sacrificing one’s whole life to improve the life of those who would otherwise be lost and abandoned. It’s a work geared toward helping people learn how to love God with all they’ve got and to love others with their energy, their work, their time and all God has given them. Back in 2006, when Pope Benedict wrote his encyclical entitled God is Love, the second part of it was focused on how we, having received God’s love, are called to pass it forward. And Pope Benedict said that the saints are the ones who have specialized in this work of the Good Samaritan. Pope Benedict mented St. Martin of Tours, St. Anthony the Abbot, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vicent de Paul, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the saint whose birthday we celebrate today, St. John Bosco, calling them the “true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope and love.” They are Christ’s letter written by the Holy Spirit on their hearts and inscribed by them on the conscience of humanity.

The source of the charity of the Saints

How did St. John Bosco and the saints learn how to love like this, to become that living word of God in the world? It was by consuming the Word of God and the Word made flesh at Mass. St. John Bosco would say to his spiritual sons about the gift we’re about to receive today, “If a well-known and trustworthy person were to go to a public square and tell all the idlers loitering there that on a certain hill they would find a gold mine and could take all they wanted, do you think anyone would shrug his shoulders and say he did not care? They’d be dashing there as fast as they could! Well, now, doesn’t the tabernacle hold the most precious treasure ever to be found on earth or in heaven? … Our faith unerringly tells us that endless riches are to be found there. People sweat and toil to make money, and yet, in the tabernacle dwells the Lord of the universe. He will grant you what you ask, if you really need it!” This is where he received all of his strength. This is where daily he received God’s letter of love and was able to go out to announce that message of life-giving sacrificial love not just with his words but with his body language. This is the same source of love from which God wants us to draw the same strength. Today on this special celebration of the bicentenary of St. John Bosco’s birth, we ask him to intercede for us that we might respond like he did, to the graces God gives us, especially the grace of God’s own flesh and blood here at Mass, to learn how love the Lord with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as God has first loved us. May the Good Samaritan whom we’re about to receive in one-flesh union, help us from within, like he helped Don Bosco, to become his hands, his feet, his tearducts, his compassionate heart, in the midst of an indifferent world that desperately needs us and the whole Mystical Body to become brothers and neighbors —Christ’s living letter — to those in need.

The readings of today’s Mass were: 

A reading for the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all, shown to be a letter of Christ administered by us, written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the Israelites could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory.

The Continuation of the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke

Turning to the disciples in private he said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”