And Who is My Neighbor – March 12, 2017, the Second Sunday in Lent
Leviticus 19:9-18, Luke 10:25-37
March 12, 2017
Last week I began talking about “The Road to the Cross.” And I said then, that I wanted us to look at some of the significant milestones along that road. I said there would be “encounters” along the way, encounters between Jesus and the “powers that be.” There would be a “growing concern” on the part of those who wanted to see Jesus “gone.”
I also said that the more we journey along that road, the more difficulties Jesus would begin to have with his own people, as opposed to the religious authorities and powers. Well, frankly, I’m not sure which this one is! Because even though this challenge came from a Lawyer, I think this is a question that even Jesus’ disciples would have been asking. “And who is my neighbor?”
So here this Lawyer asks about eternal life. And I wonder what he was thinking. Was he simply trying to confront Jesus, to make him look bad in the people’s eyes? Luke seems to say that here! And that was often the strategy of Jesus’ enemies! Or, was this man sincerely interested in how a person “inherits” the kingdom of God. That’s how he put it. And that’s how many people thought about it in those days.
Well, challenge or not, Jesus does what Jesus does best. He seizes the opportunity to make a statement. He starts by asking a question of his own. “What does it say in the Law?”
Now, what Law was he talking about? The Torah, the Ten Commandments and the first five books of the scripture. That was their law. You may remember that the Pharisees were all about the Law. They were “sticklers” for keeping the law – to the letter! And Lawyers and Pharisees were colleagues. They were very close in their jobs – interpretation of the Law, living the Law.
So, this lawyer asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And that sounds like an honest question, even though Luke begins by saying “A lawyer stood up to put him to the test.” By the way, I was reading through a number of stories in the different Gospels this past week, and I discovered that Luke seems to have the most stories about the confrontations Jesus had with the authorities – particularly the Pharisees! There are long passages about that. There are a number of places where Jesus challenges them outright! There’s a long series of “Woe to you Pharisees…” No wonder they didn’t like him!
Well, in this case, Jesus responds to this lawyer with a question. An it is a very “lawyerly” question. (It’s funny my spell checker knew that word!) He asked, “What does it say in the Law?” And to his credit, the man gave a good answer. He seems to be with Jesus on this! “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 Jesus says, “You have answered right! Do this and live.” Again, that’s a very legalistic, “lawyerly” answer. It was something the man would have understood. (We have a couple of lawyers here, what do you think?)
So that’s all well and good. If that’s all there was, maybe it wouldn’t have made it into Luke’s Gospel. But then, the story changes! And this quickly becomes this story about “Who is my neighbor.” And again, whether this man was trying to discredit Jesus by what he might answer, or whether he had actually turned “sincere” at this point, is not clear. But I suspect both.
By the way, I want you to notice that the last part of the man’s answer, and for that matter the entire direction of this story, comes right out of Leviticus 19. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I also want you to remember that in telling this parable, Jesus was again teaching the people what they should have already known! (But they really didn’t want to follow!) The Jewish people were called to be “the light to the nations.” They were the “chosen people.” But they were “chosen,” not so that God could have a nice exclusive little group of people he could share life with. They were chose so that they could be the liaisons, the light of his love to the whole world. But, as you know, they had blown it! They had become that very exclusive little group! They had developed an animosity toward people of other nations, complete with their own collection of derogatory names!
So, when this question arose, “And who is my neighbor?” it was a most important question! They had already decided who their neighbor was. And it was more along the lines of “the other Jewish people living near them.” It didn’t include people in neighboring countries and cultures! (Particularly the Samaritans!)
So that’s the whole “set up” for this. And I want you to see that what Jesus said in this story became very controversial, very quickly! Because the roles in this story are all messed up! One would expect these roles to be reversed! If Jesus were trying to upbuild “God’s people” and teach them about the kind of people God wanted them to be in the larger world, they would have expected for him to make the object of his story an Israelite who reached out to help and care for a Samaritan. And that would be a great example of “loving neighbor – even when it’s difficult!” This parable could have been called, “The Good Israelite!”
That would have been powerful enough story right there! But Jesus didn’t tell it that way! And I suspect, for the people listening, this was a totally shocking story! They would not have been surprised if the Samaritan in the story didn’t help the Israelite, knowing what the Israelite probably thought about him! But, according to the master story teller, he did! He had compassion on the man!
The other reason he might not have helped the man was that the man had brought this misery on himself. That’s a big part of this! Jesus doesn’t actually say that, but I believe there’s no doubt his listeners were thinking it! When Jesus started out saying, “A man (by himself) went up from Jerusalem to Jericho…” the people would have laughed quietly to themselves! They would have thought, “What a dope!” “No one in their right mind would travel that dangerous road alone!”
This man brought this misery on himself! That was a dumb thing to have done! The people knew that road. It was notorious for being a good place to encounter robbers! And you know, I’ve thought this for a long time. But most people don’t have a “problem” with the idea of “suffering.” What they have a “problem” with is “undeserved suffering.” They have a problem with the “suffering of the innocent.” When someone suffers because of their own bad decisions, a lot of people think, “Well, they got what was coming to them!”
This man “got what was coming to him” – on that road! How much sympathy, how much care, how much compassion, would Jesus’ listeners have expected to come his way? Probably not much. And notice Jesus intensifies that thought by having a Priest and a Levite ignore the man! In fact, he has them going out of their way to ignore him!
But then, a Samaritan – again, someone the listeners would not have expected – had compassion on the man. He didn’t let the prevailing social “conventions” deter his compassion! He didn’t let his feelings that the man “got what was coming to him” get in the way. And seriously, we could stop right there!
Jesus forced the people to answer the simpler question – the simpler question that challenged their more complex and deep seated social conventions. Jesus was “disarming” in that way. And I believe he is the same with us. He directs us to the “heart matters” and challenges us, in the name of “love,” to reconsider some things we might have thought all along. He challenges us to love people we might not otherwise have loved! I believe he does that all the time!
So, this story is about us. And not just how we might treat others, but how God has treated us. Because the sin – the sin of which we are guilty – we brought on ourselves, too! We are guilty of “getting what’s coming to us.” Why should anyone – why should God – show us compassion? Why should he show us mercy?
But that’s what he did. That’s what God did for us! That’s the power in this story! And that’s what he calls us to do for others – hard though that may be! Because the final, simple statement Jesus gave to the man that day – and to the listeners – he also gives to us. “Go and do likewise.”
That’s not easy! It’s much easier just to go along with the crowd, to do what everyone else does. It’s much easier to love only those who love us. This is hard for us, and it was hard for them to hear that day. And for this, Jesus traveled just that much further down “The road to the cross.”
Eternal God, we are amazed at your steadfast love and mercy toward us. Help us too to have compassion and mercy on others. Teach us to reach out and love where others might not. Help us in our struggle to be more like Jesus. For this we pray in his name, Amen.