Some see it as a tale of overcoming the barriers of hatred between people. Some see it as an indictment of hypocritical religious leaders. Some religious leaders focus on the need of the priest and the Levite to maintain ritual purity for the duty they were rushing to Jerusalem to perform on behalf of the people. Some see it as an allegory of the people of God in their journey through salvation history. Some just see it as a story of a really nice guy who goes above and beyond the call of duty to help someone in trouble.
Each of these interpretations has some value, but it is vitally important for us to understand it within its context in the Gospel. On one level, it takes place within a dialogue between Jesus and a professional theologian, a scholar of God’s law, who has decided to confront him. The overall topic is what we must do to inherit eternal life. There are many things we must do, but they all boil down to two.
The first and most important thing is to love God with all our hearts, with all our being, with all our strength, and with all our mind.
Doing good works is great; helping other people is wonderful; but love of God must be paramount. Everything we do, no matter how good, sooner or later is going to fall into dust and be forgotten. Everyone we help is eventually going to die and be remembered no more. Our world is going to end. Only God is eternal and for us to have eternal life we must have our relationship with God as the foundation and the capstone of our lives. If we are continually being filled with the love of God above all things, then all that we do in accomplishing his will, his truth, and his love will be truly meaningful. It will make every good work we do and every person we help an occasion of God’s grace.
The second important thing is to love our neighbors as ourselves.
If we do not have love for our sisters and brothers, how can the love we profess for our Heavenly Father be real? It is also important to understand clearly what is meant by loving oneself. It is not the selfish, narcissistic love so prevalent in this world. It is love that is self-giving and that is based on truth and on the love that comes from God. Some of us may not like the idea of loving ourselves, confusing it with narcissism or something carnal. Indeed, there can be things we may not like about ourselves, things that may be far short of the perfection to which God calls us, but these are all things we should be striving to change. What we should love is ourselves as created by God, as redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ, graced with the Holy Spirit, and called to beatitude.
These are the two greatest commandments. Jesus then makes a third very important point: do it! “Do this and you will live.”
Love is not just an intellectual concept. Love is not just an emotion or a “warm fuzzy.” Love is not love if it is not acted out, to the best of our abilities, in service to God and our fellow man. We cannot just sit back or look the other way: we have to get involved, we have to do everything we can. Love is not love if it is not the true love we have received from God and which naturally flows to all of God’s children, even those we don’t naturally like (those we may dislike as much as Jews and Samaritans despised each other). Love is not love if it is not drawing us all, ourselves and those we love, back to God.
Love God. Love others with God’s love. Be concrete. Be faithful. “Do this and you will live.”