“Going Further Down The Street”: Sermon From Keith, Proper 10, 7.11.10

Scripture Readings Psalm 82, Luke 10: 25-37

Today’s passage comes on the heels of the text Laura preached on last week.  If you remember, Laura dealt with the issue of boasting.  In what do we boast?  Jesus reminds his disciples, not to rejoice and boast in the authority he has given them, but to rejoice that their names are written in heaven.  In the midst of all this rejoicing, a lawyer shows up.  The Greek gives the indication that it is almost a “poof, he was in their midst” moment.  Isn’t it like a lawyer to show up and ruin a good time?  I’m only kidding.  I couldn’t pass that one up, with our lawyer friends in the congregation.   When the text uses the word ‘lawyer,’ you should actually think of someone with a seminary education, someone more like me.  This person is an expert in Torah law, or religious code laid out in the first five books of the Bible.  Let us listen to the Word of Lord as found in Luke’s Gospel.

Read Luke 10:25-37

            The conversation that begins between Jesus and the lawyer is very rabbinical.  What this means is that the answering of a question with a question was common for rabbis discussing the law.  This back and forth of questions is meant to come to a deeper understanding of the law and how it affects the lives of everyday individuals.  You see it in the rich history of rabbinical writings.  “How do I keep the Sabbath Holy?”  “What do you think?”  “I probably shouldn’t work.  But, what is work?”  “What do you do during a normal work day?”  etc, back and forth, until you come up with detailed list of what is not allowed on the Sabbath in order to keep it holy.  And in this initial exchange, the lawyer has answered right!  How does he inherit eternal life?  By loving God with his entire being and his neighbor as himself.  This is the heart of the Torah.  Jesus tells him to go and do this, and he will live.

            The next question gets to the heart of why this expert in Jewish law is having this discussion with Jesus.  He wants to justify himself.  At the heart of it, he is asking: Whom should I love with all of love’s obligations?  But also, whom am I exempt from loving?  Where are the boundaries to my loving?  On his journey of faith, the lawyer has come to define his neighbor as those he has placed in his inner circle.  He wants to justify that the ones he loves are the ones that fall into the correct definition of neighbor.  He wants to boast that he has got it right, that he is a “good” person, within reasonable limits.  He wants verification that the list that he has created jives with the list of the rabbi from Galilee. 

            But, Jesus doesn’t say, “Your neighbors are the people who live on the same block as you and those who live within a 5.2 mile radius of your home and place of business.”  Jesus doesn’t give him a list.  Jesus gives him a parable.  And if you remember, a parable uses everyday experiences to get to a deeper, richer understanding of the subject at hand. 

            Sadly, for us, the familiarity we have the “Good Samaritan” parable can also breed contempt.  For some, the message has been boiled down to “Be helpful when you come across people in trouble.”[1] Or even “Be nice like the Samaritan, not nasty like the clergy!”[2]  Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m saying that we shouldn’t offer kindness to strangers.  But, the parable goes beyond that.  There are twists that take place which make it worthy of looking at the Parable of the Good Samaritan again, so that we can catch the deeper lesson that Jesus, our rabbi, is trying to teach us.

            A man is on a journey, from Jerusalem to Jericho, about 17 miles distance.  The journey is through dangerous wilderness and not one to be traveled alone.  But alone he goes and finds himself brutally attacked by robbers and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite, experts in the law, come up the road and pass him by.  Was this man dead in the ditch?  Maybe.  Then if they were to touch him they would be ritually unclean.  Was it a trap?  If they stop, would they be attached and robbed?  No matter their rationale, both cross to the other side of the road to avoid him.   In contrast, a Samaritan stops out of compassion and takes care of the man.  Jesus goes into great detail describing every act of kindness the Samaritan gives to the wounded man, from the bandaging his wound to paying for his stay at an inn.  Jesus then asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the wounded man?”

            The parable takes a twist at two turns.  First, the lawyer has asked Jesus a question about who is a neighbor.  From his perspective, to ask “who is my neighbor” is to ask “whom must I love, with all the implied obligations of care, within the limits of the law?”  In the parable, the priest and the Levite answer it in a reasonable way, if we are thinking of cleanliness codes and their own safety.  The lawyer has asked about what kind of person he is to love.  But Jesus turns the question to ask the lawyer what kind of person he is.   Is he a neighbor?

            The second twist is Jesus makes a hated Samaritan the example of what it means to be a neighbor.  To the lawyer, the appearance of the Samaritan in the story would have jolted him in his seat.  Samaritans and Jews both claimed to worship the God of the ancient Hebrews, but they had a split that had made them both cultural and religious enemies.  The lawyer would have thought of the Samaritan as a non-neighbor, someone he had no obligation to care for in any way.   Jesus has challenged the lawyer’s premise by making the exemplary neighbor a person whom the lawyer would have rejected entirely as his neighbor!

            When it is all said and done, and the lawyer responds to the final question from Jesus in this back and forth rabbinical conversation, he cannot bring himself to say that the Samaritan was the neighbor.  This is because Jesus has spoken to his heart, and he has a new understanding of the law.  The priest and the Levite, who knew the law, should have stopped and helped.  However, the religiously ignorant Samaritan practiced the law better than then those who were versed in the law.  He says, “It was the one who showed mercy.”  In saying, “Go and do likewise,” Jesus is telling the lawyer, “Do not worry about who is your neighbor, just be one.  Love does not figure out how to get out of loving, it just loves. Show mercy and kindness to all you meet.” 

            Friends, Jesus is calling us to just be a neighbor, too.  Gustavo Guitierrez words it this way, “Who is my neighbor?  The neighbor was the Samaritan who approached the wounded man and made him his neighbor.  The neighbor…is not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.”[3]  In other words, to find out who your neighbor is, you must first become a neighbor.  The Samaritan had a choice that day, just like priest and Levite.  He could have crossed to the other side, but he chooses to show compassion and kindness to a helpless stranger in a ditch.  He chooses to become a neighbor.

            We have a choice, too, in every encounter with every person we meet.  And the kind of neighbor that Jesus is calling us to be is not reasonable nor is it easy.  On any given day, when someone comes to the church looking for aid of whatever sort, I struggle with what my obligations are.  Do I filter every story through a lens of mistrust, calling the police other pastors to make sure the story that I am hearing is true in order to protect the funds of the church, other community organizations, and even myself?  Sometimes.  Or do I open myself up to them, hear their story, and respond with every resource that I have available?   

            We are all faced with these choices every day in our homes, at our jobs, in the grocery store, everywhere we encounter another person.  The kind of neighbor that Jesus is calling us to be is impossible on our own.  On our own, we will cross to the far side of the road, away from the one laying injured along the way.  And we will have legitimate reasons for doing so.  Our resources, our families, even our lives may be at risk.  We cannot do it unless we trust fully in God’s protection, empowerment and forgiveness.  We cannot do it without God’s Spirit guiding us and leading us.  It is because of what God has done that we can truly be neighbors.  For God so loved this broken down, fallen, laying in the ditch world that he sent his Son to cross to our side of the road, to heal us and make us whole.  Jesus now calls us by the power of the Holy Spirit to walk with him as we walk with others, offering healing and wholeness, mercy and kindness, even offering ourselves.  It is with Christ that we share God’s sacrificial love to a broken world.  There is no guarantee we will not get hurt along the way.  Many rejected the love Christ offered; to the extent they nailed him to a cross.      

             The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story for travelers on the road of life that routes us in the only direction God desires—the way of love and compassion for others.  This is more than a parable about a helpful stranger or uncaring clergy types.  It is about more than meeting our basic, reasonable obligations of care.  It is about the extravagant and transforming power of God’s love.  It is about being transformed by the work of God’s Spirit within us into a neighbor.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word p239

[2] p238

[3]Resources for Preaching p208


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