“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.” Jesus replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”  Words from our Gospel today from the 10th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.

It’s the right answer.  The way to a good life, an eternal life.  The greatest commandments.  The gold standard.  Love God; love your neighbor as yourself.  Many of us would agree to these, and we do strive to live this out, certainly.  When do we get into trouble, however?  It’s when we try to justify ourselves, like the scholar of the law who began to nitpick how this was to be applied and whom exactly he had to show love to.  It’s precisely when we begin to lower our standards as such that we get into trouble. 

You may have heard this story that has been circulating as of late.  There are a couple of different versions of it now, so I’m not sure who the original author is to give them credit but the story goes this way: In January 1996, the 78-year-old Coach Scolinos addressed 4,000 baseball coaches at the 52nd annual American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Nashville, Tennessee.  He took the stage to a standing ovation.  Dressed in dark pants and a light blue shirt, his outfit was accessorized by a full-sized, bright white home plate hanging from a string around his neck.  After 25 minutes of speaking, he finally explained. “You’re probably all wondering why I’m wearing home plate around my neck.  Or maybe you think I escaped from the Hospital,” he began.  “No, I may be old, but I’m not crazy.  The reason I stand before you is to share with you what I’ve learned about life from baseball in my 78 years.  

“Do you know how wide home plate is in Little League?” he asked the Little League coaches who were there.  “17 inches,” someone replied.  “That’s right,” he said.  “How about in Babe Ruth’s day?”  Another coach hollered out, “17 inches?”  Addressing the high school coaches in the room, “How wide is home plate in high school?”  “17 inches,” came the reply.  “You’re right!” He repeated the question to the college, minor league and major league coaches in the audience.  The answer never varied: 17 inches.  “And what do they do with a big-league pitcher who can’t throw the ball over 17 inches?”  They send him to the minors!  “What they don’t do is this:  They don’t say, Ah, that’s okay Jimmy.  You can’t hit a 17-inch target?  We’ll make it 18 inches, or 19 inches.  We’ll make it, say, 25 inches so you have a better chance of hitting it.  No.  “So, coaches, what do we do when our best player shows up late to practice…  What if he gets caught drinking…  Do we hold him accountable?  Or do we change the rules to fit him?  Do we widen home plate?” he challenged the audience.  The chuckles gradually faded as four thousand coaches grew quiet, the fog lifting as the old coach’s message began to unfold. He outlined the consequences of bending the rules and failing to insist on performing up to standards not only for players, but for themselves, their children, schools, churches and their government.  There are disastrous consequences when we settle for less.  His message was clear: “Coaches, keep us all, all of us, at 17 inches.”  Indeed, this lesson applies across all the board.  Every organization, every household every journey of life has a metric that can be compared to 17 inches.  Figure out what it is and insist on that standard for everyone.  Demanding the best from yourself is a perfect place to start. 

This is our Christian standard, our 17 inches: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus says, do this and you will live.  We can’t excuse ourselves from this responsibility.  I learned this lesson from playing baseball myself.  Did you know that our parish has a softball team?  Well, I have just started playing with them, and I lament the fact that I am not a great softball player.  I don’t know all the rules, miss a number of swings, and have committed some bad errors out on the field.  Two games into my young career and one of the hard lessons I’ve learned is that 17 inches is a strong standard.  Baseball as such is unforgiving, and I feel incompetent.  But here’s another lesson I’ve also learned.  In the midst of my struggles, I’ve learned the support of a team, that is there for each other, that rallies around your efforts, supporting you with guidance, coaching, hoping to make you a better player, that sees you as a person and a player greater than your mistakes and helps you look forward to the next at-bat and get you ready for the next play.  They’ve been teaching me that we’re all in this same tough game together; that, in reality, we’re all in this same life together.  My teammates were like good Samaritans literally lifting up those who are waylaid and crestfallen, helping them to achieve the goals and standards we aspire to.

Deuteronomy is right to say that spirituality isn’t so mysterious, mystical, magical, inaccessible, or far off as we might think – our spiritual well-being is close at hand, in the people right around us and before us whom we encounter and concretely come across in our lives.  Whether we like them or not is beside the point and part of our narrow-minded justifications for applying the standard to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We all know people we’d rather avoid.  We also come across situations outside of our control or that we have unwittingly inherited.  I’m sure you agree, there are many events in this world that have occurred without anyone ever having consulted us about them.  And still racism, political differences, and varying beliefs have kept us on opposite sides of the road these days.  Even if we haven’t beat anyone up, per se, we are otherwise content with letting certain people lie there in the dust and wallow in their own problems.  And yet the Samaritan of our Gospel, like so many others before him, also had his own things to attend to which he was traveling off to.  This poor man on the side of the road wasn’t his responsibility; in fact, Samaritans and Jews were declared enemies to each other.  He had every excuse and more to keep walking right on by.  And yet our hero is forever known as the Good Samaritan, because he didn’t get sucked into the games we play, he looked past his own agenda, and even when everyone else lowered their standards, he didn’t use that as an excuse to justify himself, but instead loved his neighbor.  Sometimes life gets you down.  Don’t lower yourself and stoop to that level.  That serves no one.  Instead, be a Good Samaritan.  Raise yourself and others up.  

So, with all my rambling here, I think to sum up the lesson of the Good Samaritan for us today is twofold.  The first lesson is that Jesus is holding us to high standards: love God with all your heart mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself – nothing less.  These are the commandments God enjoins on us.  We can’t keep justifying ourselves and widening the plate.  No excuses.  And since we therefore can’t settle for less nor widen the plate, then the second lesson is this: that we need to pick each other up.  As the good Samaritan picked up his enemy, as a team picks up its players, so we need to pick each other up, and that starts with our neighbors.