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Fifteenth Sunday of the Year

Inheriting eternal life

In the part of this gospel which precedes the parable of the Good Samaritan, the question is asked:

What must be done in order to possess eternal life?

This expression - 'eternal life' - is so often in our thoughts and on our lips that we can take it as a central theme of Christianity.

But the question was asked by Jews. We are not sure whether a Greek conception was present, according to which eternal life was infinite and therefore timeless, completely unrelated to time; or whether it referred to an idea of a long drawn out time, with no ending. But for the Jewish background to this conception, two observations can be made.

The first observation is factual. The expression seems to be used in the Old Testament just once, in 4 Macabees 15:3, a book which was recent and apocryphal. And there it was put on the lips of a Jewish woman whose seven sons were tortured to death rather than renounce their faith by eating pork:

She loved religion more, religion that preserves them for eternal life according to God's promise.

It is quite possible that from this incident the phrase 'eternal life' was given wide currency; and in relationship to the life of Christ, it belonged to recent history.

The second observation is speculative. Some other factor must have intervened to account for the currency of the expression (and normally in exactly the same context) in all the gospels, and very frequently in the epistles of Saint Paul.

Here one can recall that on innumerable occasions in the gospels we are told that our Lord preached the 'Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven', or that the disciples and apostles preached it, and no summary is given of the content of their preaching. It is as if the content was understood as substantially identical with the gospel as preached by the apostles after the resurrection.

So one may ask whether the expression 'eternal life' was derived from this unrecorded teaching, even of our Lord, as a prominent theme (which is not at all to deny that there was a substantial identity in content between the unrecorded teaching and the recorded teaching which, gathered canonically together, has applied to it the expression 'literally inspired').

After this we have the unforgettable story of the compassion of the outsider, the despised Samaritan, who was so massively moved at the sight of the man deprived by thieves of possessions and almost of life on the road down to Jericho, after the temple priest and the man from the tribe of Levi, who had a right of entry into the priesthood, had both seen the dying man and his condition, and out of an outburst of inner fear, avoided him as too disturbing a spectacle to contemplate.

But the Samaritan, who had brought with him olive oil and wine, because he did not wish to provoke unpleasantness with Jewish shopkeepers, did not hesitate. He himself had been sidelined, and here was another even more sidelined than himself. Oil and vine are medicines: the oil can become a balm, the wine an antiseptic.

With the greatness of his contemplation, which is to say, greatness of soul, Saint Bernard saw mankind as summed up in that man: mankind, deeply wounded in its soul by its enemies and its own follies, past human succour. For him oil and wine represented the gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which some were, like the oil, immediately easy to bear, soothing and restoring, like wisdom, understanding and piety; whilst others were sharp and purgative, perhaps even very painful though necessary, like fortitude and the fear of the Lord.

The Samaritan gave the man there and then all the aid he could, placed him on his own animal, and took him to an inn and paid the innkeeper to look after him. Unanimously, all interpreters see the inn as the Church: not to be judged on its exterior state, but on the devotion in the heart of its ministers.

And in the Church, we, who may have been in the condition of the man left for dead, are cured so that we may become servants of others, as we communicate through our realistic charity the eternal life which plays around this great teaching, as a goodness which must communicate itself from its own infinite source in a good who is timeless and substantial Love. Amen.

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