Sermon; 5 Pentecost/Proper 10C; Luke 10:25-37
“What is written in the Law? What do you read there?”
This was Jesus' answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Answering a question with a question is a good tactic. It allows for some wiggle room, can keep you from getting boxed into a corner, and can lead the original questioner to come to a place of understanding on their own. It also might be a good way to get someone to think more broadly about their question.
In this back and forth volley, the lawyer must now provide an answer to Jesus' new question: What is written in the law? What do you read there? His answer is pretty straightforward: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.
And Jesus said, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Do this and you will live.”
The answer the lawyer gave has been around for a long time. Jesus gives this same answer when he's asked what is the greatest commandment over in Matthew 22. He pulls from both Deuteronomy and Leviticus to give the answer; which, I'm assuming, so does today's lawyer. And there's a story that tells of a wise rabbi who said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, body, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. The rest of the Law is just commentary.”
But then the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” The text says he asked this to 'justify himself.' This tells me that he already had an idea of 1) what the correct answer to his original question was; and, 2) who he classified as his neighbor. In response, Jesus tells one of his most well-known parables – the tale of the good Samaritan.
Donald Trump was walking around DC one evening alone, for he had managed to sneak out of the White House undetected. While out he was attacked, beaten, and left for dead. Now by chance Franklin Graham was out walking and came upon the body who looked somewhat familiar, but since he couldn't be sure if he was a Christian, he passed by on the other side. A little later, William Barr strolled by, but also unable to identify the badly beaten man, and unsure as to whether or not he was a US citizen, he too crossed the street and continued on. A little later, after a grueling meeting, Kamala Harris happened upon the man. Her car was parked close by, so she managed to get him in that and drove him to the hospital. Now, which of these was a neighbor to the president?
This is what is at the heart of being a neighbor in the eyes of God.
Who is my neighbor? It's the Republican or Democrat across the street. It's the white supremacist in our city. It's the rabid nativist who wants all non-Americans removed. It's the polite racist in our midst. It's the person in need. It's the struggling mother. It's the dying friend. It's children in cages and those who put them there. It's our friends and family. Notice that we are not asked to make value judgments. We are not asked to determine who is worthy of our care, or our compassion, or our welcome. And this is a very hard thing to do.
Jesus must have had the baptismal covenant in mind when he told this story, because the good Samaritan lived into the promise we make to respect the dignity of every human being.
Love God . . . yeah, sure, whatever. We think this is easy, but we just trick ourselves when we think that way; probably because we don't have to deal with God on a daily basis.. But loving our neighbor and respecting their dignity is hard work. Especially since we do have to look at our neighbors and deal with them every single day. And especially when we make value judgments about their overall worth.
When talking about what we must do to inherit eternal life, I sometimes feel like we're answering Jesus' question, “What do you read in the law?” We read the law, or scripture, and we do, or try to do, exactly that. We think if we follow/obey the letter of the law, we will be doing what is required. It's a lot like new referees who memorize the rules book but don't quite yet understand game situations.
I remember working a game as a new official. Rule 7-1-5 says that no player shall encroach on the neutral zone after the ball has been marked ready for play. Someone did and I threw the flag. It was an obvious penalty. But it was also the 4th quarter with under three minutes to play and one team up by 30-some points. Rules book knowledge versus game situation knowledge.
With this parable, Jesus is giving us a game situation. This is what it looks like when we add grace and mercy to the law.
So how do we go about loving our neighbors? First of all, we can pray for them. We can pray for those who have harmed us or those who annoy us. And I don't mean praying, “Dear Lord, please grant them the knowledge to realize what complete jerks they are.” Pray instead for peace in their lives. I have found that the more I pray for their peace, the more peaceful I become in my attitude and actions toward them.
Second, get to know your neighbor. The Samaritan didn't know the injured man. There are plenty of people here who don't really know each other. Change where you sit and get to know a new neighbor here at church.
Third, combine the two. Is there someone here with whom you have had an argument? Is there someone here who annoys you because they sing off-key, or say words in the wrong place or way, or just because they show up? Change pews and go sit next to them. Apologize, if necessary. Offer to make a new start. Offer to pray for a need they have.
This neighborly stuff is hard work. It causes us to find compassion that we'd probably rather not find. But hopefully, as we work hard to love God and love neighbor, we will be strengthened. We will come to see the face of Christ in others. We will understand that discipleship is more than simply following the rules. And we just might make this a better place because we were able to move beyond what is written in the law.
Love God. Love neighbor. Change the world.
Go and do likewise.