Saturday, July 13, 2013

"A priest, a rabbi, and a Samaritan walk into a bar..."

My deepest thanks to folks like Michael Rogness, David Lose, Kathryn Matthews Huey, D. Mark Davis, and Delmer Chilton for their keen insights and scholarship on today's Gospel reading.

The verdict in the Zimmerman trial came down as I was finishing the sermon tonight, and it shines a light on one of my most deeply held convictions: governments don't bring justice. Courts don't, nor do political processes of any kind. We do. We change hearts, we change outcomes, we build communities and societies where people like Travon Martin can walk without fear and where people like George Zimmerman can put away their guns and their aggression and their prejudices... becoming a neighbor.

LUKE 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer who asked the question knew his stuff, of course: When Jesus turned his question back on him, he responded without hesitation, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Maybe it’s the familiarity of the passage, or the fact that the parable overshadows everything leading up to it, but I never really noticed before how, out of all of the Mosaic law, all of the Scriptures detailing how the Children of Israel are to act, eat, worship, and think, the answer to the biggest question of all – life, the universe, and everything – even then, even to the experts in Jewish law, was love.

So my question is this: if the lawyer knew this already, why ask? Was he testing Jesus as a way of demonstrating to the people listening to Jesus that he was right? That Jesus was right? That the Law was right?

Or… was the real question that follow up question, “who is my neighbor?”

I like the direction David Lose of Luther Seminary takes with this – when the Scripture says the lawyer was “wanting to justify himself,” perhaps he wasn’t looking for confirmation of his actions. Maybe he really was seeking – wanting to know precisely what is required for the sake of justice in light of the commandments he has quoted. “OK, I get that, Jesus. But help me out, give me some parameters: Whom do I have to love just as much as I love myself, whose needs and welfare need to be as important to me as my own? Are there not are at least some people who are not my neighbor, someone it’s okay not to love?”

I don’t know, maybe he is hoping Jesus will say something like, “Well, if you can manage to love your family and friends and maybe throw a coin at a beggar every once in a while, that's pretty good. Just be sure to worship regularly at the temple, obey all the religious laws about sexual morality, and pay your pledge every year. Then you're all set - or as you put it, you'll inherit eternal life, and you'll go to heaven when you die, because, after all, you will have earned it.”

Nope. Jesus responds by telling a story that redefines “neighbor” not in terms of race, religion, or proximity, but in terms of vulnerability: Whoever is in need is your neighbor.

The man who was attacked and robbed was apparently Jewish. His fellow Jews, professional religious people, no less, went out of their way to go around him, no doubt fearing he was already dead and not wanting to make themselves unclean – after all, they had important business in Jerusalem, priest and Levite business, much more important than mere people, right?

Wrong, by the way: especially if they were heading the same way as the robbed man, they were done with all their Temple duties, ceremonial uncleanness wouldn’t have hurt them a bit, and besides, the Law said they had to help someone in need!

And what’s more, by all indications, be they cultural, racial, or geographical, the priest and the Levite were already this robbed and beaten man’s neighbor. If anyone should help this poor guy, it’s his people, for crying out loud!

Now, Stephen Patterson tells us that, in Jesus’ time, it was a pretty common theme to have a priest and a Levite in a story, kind of like a joke that starts out, “a priest, a rabbi, and a (fill in the blank) walk in to a bar…” The people listening would have strong feelings about the first two, no one listening to the story is surprised that the priest and Levite have no compassion. But normally in those stories, the third person, the one who gets it right, the one who saves the day, is a regular, run-of-the-mill Israelite. Someone like them!

That isn’t what happens though, is it? Of all the people to have compassion – and I mean a real, gut-wrenching need to respond, because the Greek word here is exactly the same kind of compassion Jesus felt when the Gospel of Luke tell us he saw a mother processing to bury her son, and it is the father’s response when he sees his lost son returning home in the parable of the Prodigal Son! Of all the people to drop everything and rush to help, a Samaritan?

Jesus’ audience would have been shocked and probably deeply offended that the hero coming around the bend is a hated Samaritan. After all, the Samaritans were considered "half-breeds," traitors who had colluded with Syria against the Jews. The Samaritans were so despised that, even after Jesus' moving story, the lawyer could not bring himself to say the 'Samaritan' word! That's how deep the hatred ran.

The Samaritans considered themselves Jewish, and in fact thought that the people in Jerusalem had it all wrong. The Samaritans believed that the center of worship was on Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem. They knew that the Jews considered them not only traitors, not only racially inferior, but absolutely unclean! A really good Jew would go the long way around to avoid a Samaritan town on his way to Jerusalem, not wanting his sandals to even touch the dirt of the village.

So you could imagine that the Samaritans felt just as much spite for the Jews. Besides, this Samaritan is in Jewish territory, on the same dangerous road, and those robbers could still be hanging around, waiting for their next victim. But this man doesn't let the Law, or fear, or hate, or the knowledge that he himself is hated keep him a higher righteousness: what loving God and loving your neighbor really means.

Somewhere along the way, the priests and the Levites of Jesus’ day had let their quest for holiness violate God’s commandments to love. This Samaritan didn’t even think of the consequences, though. He just acted out of his compassion, taking time out of his day, going out of his way to render aid and get the injured man to safety, spending money he would never see again to make certain that his recovery continued in his absence.

One of the things I wonder about is what happened to the man after the Samaritan left? After he recovered, his bones mended and his wounds healed, after he went home to his family and friends… was he changed?

Did he still laugh at the “Samaritan” jokes? Did he turn away when someone said mean things about Samaritans, or treated the cruelly? Or was he changed? Did he defend the Samaritans? Reach out to them? Treat them with the same love and compassion he had received?

Because if there is one thing I have discovered in my life’s journey, it is that my prejudices, my preconceptions, my most dearly held hatreds are exposed and challenged and destroyed not by arguments, not by political processes, not by logical evidence, but by flesh and blood. Meeting and becoming friends with people who refuse to fit my mental stereotypes means that either they, or my stereotypes, must go.

In a way, we can see ourselves as the good lawyer, having our understanding of Scripture deepened, going away from the conversation a more complete believer. We can, in a way, see ourselves as the Samaritan, crossing boundaries of culture and creed and class in the name of Jesus to help a person in need.

Yet is there not, in these interpretations, a lingering sense of superiority? We come out on top either being educated or condescending to help the less fortunate… I want to suggest that there is a third, much more difficult way.

Look at the structure of the story: by turning the usual template of “a priest a Levite, and an Israelite…” on its head, by making the hero of the day a hated outcast, doesn’t that mean the guy in the ditch is us? We're not the good Jewish lawyer or the Samaritan, we are lying in that ditch, and we desperately need our enemy to forget what he's been taught and what he understands his rights to be. We need him to forget the risk and the robbers, and stop and help us in our need. He needs to be moved by pity for our suffering.

When I speak of meeting and making friends with people who challenge and ultimately destroy my hatreds and prejudices and preconceptions, it is not with the tone of someone who has done the hard work of reaching out, of purposely seeking opportunities. I haven’t taken the risk, these friends have found me, have taken a chance, and have endured my stupidity and accidental cruelty and have loved me anyway.

They have loved me anyway…

Perhaps we are the person in the ditch… and the Good Samaritan is God. Deep down, most of us don't want God's hand-out of love, we don't want God's generous offer. We are only aware of God because God first loved us, after all, otherwise in our total depravity we would never give a second thought to God. But we know about God and God’s love and we want to deserve it, we want to earn it… but, of course, we can't. We really can't. We are the one in the ditch. We are the wounded and foolish one, the one helpless and in need of help and healing.

Jesus concludes his story and there is a wonderful turn of phrase when he asks the lawyer that follow-up question. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and in the Greek, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think… had become a neighbor? Here is where the rubber meets the road: who has done the hard work, sat through the long nights and spent the time and money and gone out of their way to help?

We know the real answer to that lawyer’s first question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is “nothing.” We can’t do anything, it’s already done! We were saved when Jesus died on the cross, we are being saved every day as we walk closer with our loving God, and we will be saved on that final day of days when Jesus comes again. It is done. We cannot earn God’s love, because even when we were furthest from God, in the depths of our sin and separation, God loved us and sent Jesus to die for us.

We are called to live in that love: to be the good lawyer, seeking to learn more and more about responding to God’s boundless, resplendent love; to be the good Samaritan, acting with heartfelt compassion, being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to a world that is broken, bleeding and half dead… and when we need it, to receive the friendship, the assistance, the compassion and love of others, even when they don’t think or look or act or believe the way that we do.

Because just like that traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, we are on a journey. Eternal life isn’t about hitting the jackpot when we die; God has already saved us. Eternal life, life lived abundantly, is here and now and tomorrow and the next day and every day. God has reached down, pulled us from the ditch, has healed our wounds and carried us to safety and paid our way!

Our calling, our journey is to act like it! To love because Christ first loved us, to become a neighbor to anyone in any kind of need, and to grow every day in God’s love.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Everyone. Everyone.

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