The past few weeks I have been pondering the word “loophole.” 

It’s an interesting word with an even more interesting usage. A loophole is a means of evasion or avoidance. It’s a workaround, a way to beat the system, or maneuver around a law to one’s favor or advantage. But when I think of a “loophole”, I think of a piece of rope that is made into a loop, and has a hole in the middle. You know, a loop hole. Right? But where did this meaning come from?

Actually, a loophole originally referred to those long narrow openings in the walls of old castles which allowed those inside the castle, the defenders — to fire arrows or bullets at an enemy outside of the castle, with little risk of their attackers’ missiles finding their way in through the “loophole.” This usage dates back to the 16th century. Somehow this concept attached itself to the existing word loophole, and it’s not hard to imagine why. The loopholes in a castle give you an advantage over your adversary, and so – potentially – do the loopholes in a law or contract.

Now the word “loophole” may not have been around in first century Palestine, but lawyers were and where there are lawyers, there are loopholes, even if that’s not what they were called. In today’s gospel we read of an exchange between Our Lord and a lawyer. We’re told that the lawyer is trying to put Jesus to the test. He asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the question with a question of his own, “What does the law say?” The lawyer answers, “love God and neighbor.”  Jesus replies, “You are right. Do this, and live.” And it is here that the lawyer drills down in search of a loophole, a way to evade or avoid the teaching: “Ah, but who is my neighbor?  Hmmmm?’

Our Lord replies with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan.

There’s a guy traveling along a road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s beaten and robbed and left for dead. A priest passes by him. A Levite passes by him. Two Jews — his own people — pass by him and completely ignore him. Finally a third man, a Samaritan, comes along the road, and when he sees the man, he has compassion on him, and he cares for him.

In order to appreciate just how provocative this parable is, we must remind ourselves of the deep and abiding hatred that the Jews had for the Samaritans, and vice versa. This cultural backdrop makes the compassionate actions of the Samaritan much more profound.

After the parable, Our Lord asks the lawyer, “Who do you suppose proved to be neighbor to the man in need?” The lawyers answers, “The one who showed mercy on him.”

Our Lord redefines the definition of a “neighbor.” A neighbor is not simply someone who is near by or in close proximity to another. A neighbor is a person who has mercy, and compassion, and love for those who are close by, and in proximity to one another. The priest was not a neighbor. The levite was not a neighbor. The Samaritan, he was the true neighbor.

The lawyer may very well have sought the loophole that would allow him to not have to love his Samaritan neighbor. Our Lord’s response resolves that question. There are many lessons we can learn from this teaching:

1) How easy it is to have deep and abiding compassion on people from afar; on those in another town, or country, or continent. To pay a visit or send some aid and feel that we have fulfilled our Lord’s charge to love our neighbor. To be clear, we do well to love those far away. But the commandment to “love our neighbor” is a specific charge to love, and have mercy and compassion on those who are near by, close in proximity, those who we are present with. And in truth, it is precisely those who are near by, who can be the hardest to love. I’ll let you fill in the blank for yourselves on who fits that bill in your own life.

2) We learn that whatever distinctions we may want to make about what constitutes a neighbor, Our Lord upends them all. Neighbors are not defined as people we are friends with, or with whom we share the same interests, or race, or religion. The person who I encounter, wherever I may be, that is my neighbor, and that is who I am called to love.

St. Jerome writes, “Some think that their neighbor is their brother, family, relative or their kinsman. Our Lord teaches … everyone is our neighbor, and we should not harm anyone … We are neighbors, all people to all people, for we have one Father” (ACC on Luke, p.179).

3) The advent of virtual reality lends a new dimension to this teaching. Who is our neighbor in a digital environment that knows no geographical bounds? Who is the person that is near by, or in close proximity to me online? Here begins the new frontier of sci-fi theology!

For all of its great benefits, one of the great challenges and temptations of online communication is the prospect of operating anonymously, or even pseudonymously. Under the invisibility cloak of online anonymity there is a much stronger temptation to hurl all manner of unloving sentiments across the virtual table. The man in the parable was attacked and robbed physically by bad actors. He was then ignored physically, first by a priest and again by a Levite.

We are quite capable of doing the same today in our virtual spaces. We can attack others and rob them, and ridicule and condemn and assault them, all online. We can also ignore those who are hurting, try and avoid them, and look the other way from their pain, all online. These behaviors are virtual per se, but we are still human beings, which is to say relational beings, and the affects are not all that different in the end.

Each of the three passersby in the story, at a certain point on the road, they become a neighbor to the man in need. That is, they encounter him, their paths cross, they come to a place where they occupy the same space. When the priest was coming down the road, “he saw him.” The Levite likewise, “came to the place and saw him.” And finally the Samaritan, “as he journeyed, came to where he was …”

When they encounter the man, they become a neighbor, at which point they have a choice to make. This path, and this choice, we encounter every day, and it is the fork in the road at which point we must choose whether or not to obey Our Lord’s command, to love our neighbor. It happens physically. It increasingly happens virtually, but the choice remains the same; will we show mercy, compassion, and love … or not?

Jesus teaching on the definition of our neighbor is provocative enough. But in the parable of the Good Samaritan it is very easy to loose the forest for the trees. This question about the neighbor is merely a clarifying question; a follow-up to the initial and far more crucial inquiry. The lawyer stood up to put Jesus to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This discourse is not, in the end, about who ones neighbors are. It is about how one might life forever.

It is about salvation.

Jesus asks him, “what does the law say?” The lawyer answers, “love God and neighbor.” Jesus replies, “You’re right. Do this, and live.” That is, do this, and have eternal life. And at the end of the parable, with the one who showed mercy identified as the “neighbor”, Our Lord concludes again with the charge, “Go and do likewise.” Do this, and live.

Like the lawyer, we all have a propensity for loopholes. There are many, many compelling reasons to try and evade, avoid, or workaround the firm commandment to love our neighbors. The priest and the Levite may have been concerned with becoming unclean by aiding this bloodied victim. The road itself was notoriously dangerous, and it is possible that they were concerned for their own safety, and so chose to move on quickly. Or perhaps they simply could not be bothered. 

This parable is just one more instance of the strange upside-down irony of the Christian faith. Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever looses his life for Jesus’ sake, he will save it (Luke 9.24).

In our quest for loopholes, perhaps we are better off reframing the dilemma all-together, and viewing the commandment itself … as the loophole; viewing the charge to Love God and love our neighbor as the loophole. In a world of sin and madness, evil and darkness, it is God’s love — and our calling both to receive that love, and then emanate that love to the word — which is itself the loophole to all of the assaults of the enemy, of sin which leads to death.

Loving the Lord our God, loving our neighbor as ourselves; that is how we evade darkness, that is how we avoid evil, that is the workaround to the devils grip in this world.

It is Our Lord who says: Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor. Do this, and live.

Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.

Photo Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Victorian window in Pusey church.