Proper 10C: thoughts and exegesis

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Gospels / Lectionary / New Testament

(I’ve been traveling to holy sites in the north of England and Scotland for the last week, and while I imagined that I’d have lots of time on the bus to bang out some thoughts on upcoming lections… well that didn’t happen. Sorry this was posted later than usual. Cuthbert, Aidan, and Columba were calling my name too much.)

Jesus is asked the question by the lawyer, and then he turns the question right back on him. The lawyer answers his own question with what we’ve come to know as the “Great Commandment” to love God with everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This commandment is a conglomeration of two different pieces of scripture from the Torah – or the “Law”: Deuteronomy 6:6 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”).

This scene, and this answer given by the lawyer, is very much grounded in the ‘law’ of God. Not only are two Old Testament laws quoted, but in two parallel stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the questioning lawyer doesn’t ask about ‘eternal life,’ but rather ‘What is the greatest commandment?’ This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, given that the questioner here is a lawyer – an expert in Jewish religious law.

Jesus is impressed enough with this law-based answer to reply to the lawyer that he had answered sufficiently: “do this and you shall live.”

We’ll get to what this answer says, and doesn’t say, about salvation in a few moments – but the story very quickly takes another turn. The lawyer did come to test Jesus after all. And, he doesn’t have any ‘juice’ on him yet. So he asks a clarifying question: ‘So, who’s my neighbor?’

What follows is one of the stories of Jesus that everyone knows: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Even people who haven’t pulled their dusty Bible off the shelf in decades have at least heard of the “Good Samaritan.”

I don’t have any scientific polling data to back me up on this, but I have a hankerin’ to think that if you went up to the average person walking down the street, or the mall, or the school hallway and you asked her what the story of the Good Samaritan was all about, she would say that it was about being good, doing good, and helping other people. I also have a hankerin’ to think that if you went up to the average non-evangelical person walking down the street, or the mall, or the school hallway and asked him what Christianity was all about, he would say that it was about being good, doing good, and helping other people.

I have this hankering because when I’m out and about wearing civilian clothes (instead of my priest’s collar) and the person I’m talking to learns I’m a priest, the first thing they do is apologize. “Oh, my gosh! I can’t believe I said *&%^$ in front of you! I had no idea!“ Then comes the list of guilty statements and admissions: “I don’t have a church. . . I don’t even really go to church. . . now wait a minute, I did go to church once. . . I think it was Christmas. 1985. Oh! I did go to a wedding last year. It was in a church. That counts, right?” Then comes the kicker: “But reveren’, I’m a good person. I do good things, and I help people. And, I feel that God should be ok with that.”

But, I wonder, is being good, doing good, and helping people really what the Good Samaritan is all about? Is this why Jesus tells this story? Are we still talking about salvation here?

The familiar story of the Good Samaritan starts out on a very bad note. Some poor guy was walking down the road, minding his own business, and had absolutely no idea that this was going to be one of the worst days of his life. He ran into a couple of criminals, who took everything of worth from him, stripped him naked, and beat him to a bloody pulp. And when they were finished with him, they threw him into the ditch on the side of the road to die alone and exposed.

After the criminals had gotten in their final insults, and stole away with their newfound ‘riches,’ along came a priest. This is a guy who works at the Temple. This is a guy who works for God. This is a guy who you would expect at the very least to be good, do good, and help other people. But, when he was walking down that same road and came across the victim in the ditch, he looked down and saw the bloody, beaten, naked, and half-dead man there – and he walked right by.

Who knows, maybe he had a three o’clock meeting at the Temple he was late for. Maybe he was worried about touching blood, or handling what might become a corpse – something that would have made him ritually unclean to perform his priestly duties. Maybe he just didn’t want to get involved. But, whatever his motivation or his rationalization, he didn’t care enough to stop and help a man in desperate need.

Next down the road is a Levite. You Bible scholars out there know that a Levite was also a priest. This was also someone whose job was to handle holy things and serve the holy people of God. This was also a man whose paycheck was signed by the Almighty. When he looked down into the ditch and caught a glimpse of this bloody, bruised, wheezing, and naked man, he too walked right by. Though he didn’t walk by the man before he made the effort to cross to the other side of the street – to get even further away from this disgusting and disturbing sight. Like a middle class suburbanite avoiding the eye contact of a homeless man sitting on a stoop, these two men of God made like this man in mortal need was invisible.

But, invisible he was not.

For the next person to come along was a Samaritan. Now, if you had lived in Jesus’ day, and you were getting ready to set out of the house, one of the instructions your mother would give you (after she handed you your lunch and gave you a kiss on the cheek) would be to stay away – far away – from dangerous and evil riff-raff like Samaritans. They were not liked, they were not respected, and they were not considered to be holy people in any way whatsoever. They dressed weird, they talked weird, they did weird things, and they worshipped ‘falsely.’ They were to be avoided at all costs.

Well, this weirdly dressed, weird talking, irreligious scumbag passed by the spot of the attack, and he looked into the ditch and he saw the bloody, messy, half-dead victim lying there. But, instead of moving as fast as he could to get out of there, he was moved with pity.

He climbed into the ditch with him. (Let that sink in a minute.)

He poured oil and wine (items frequently used as medicine in those days) onto his wounds, and he dressed them. He picked the man up and set him on his own animal. He took him to an inn where he cared for him all night. And in the morning he left money and instructions for how he was to be cared for until he got better.

And so, quite obviously, this story is indeed about being good, doing good and helping other people. It’s about being moved with pity and mercifully climbing into the ditch with people who need us. It’s about not having excuses, no matter how good they are, when it comes to coming to the aid of someone in need.

Quite obviously, if you take the time to read this whole passage, Jesus told this story to clarify who exactly our neighbor is. Because Jesus used a Samaritan as his hero in the story, and everyone who heard this story would have known the dishonorable reputation of Samaritans, it becomes rather clear that the story of the Good Samaritan is really about loving everyone as our neighbor. Because, the thing is, if a dirty-good-for-nothing-blasphemous-piece-of-scum Samaritan is our neighbor, then absolutely everyone is our neighbor. And if we have to love our neighbor as ourselves then this means that we have to love everyone as ourselves.

Yes, even the people we don’t like very much.

Yes, even the people that we look down on.

Yes, even the people who give us the willies.

“Love thy neighbor,” might just be one of the most difficult things for a person like you or me to do. Oh sure, we all like to think we love our neighbor. And, we all know we’re supposed to love our neighbor. But, think about it, how did you love your neighbor as yourself – which means giving everyone else’s needs, and desires, and feelings equal weight or more than your own needs, desires, and feelings – today? How did you love your neighbor twenty minutes ago? How did you love your neighbor yesterday? How will you do it tomorrow?

How do you love the people that you understand or like the least – as yourself?

How about homeless single teenage mothers on welfare, your neighbor’s pesky grandchildren, the loud television evangelist with the bad taste in clothing, the telemarketer who interrupts dinner, the leader of your least favorite political party, the advocate for homosexual rights /or the advocate to amend the Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, the actor who plays Barney, or the Islamic fundamentalists who would dance on your grave singing praises to Allah? How do you love them each minute of each day of your entire life?

And I mean really love them, not just tolerate their existence, or pretend that they don’t exist.

Remember that loving someone doesn’t mean agreeing with them. It doesn’t mean caving into poor moral standards. In fact, as difficult as loving our neighbor really is, God could have made it a much more difficult commandment. It could have been thou shalt like thy neighbor!

I’m reminded of the difference between loving someone, and liking someone when my wife and I are having a fight. Sometimes in the midst of the anger and hurt Karen will say, “Rick, I love you, but I don’t like you very much right now!”

Loving someone we don’t like – loving someone who makes our blood boil – loving someone who seriously gives us the willies, is as difficult as it is rare. But, nonetheless, it is the command of Jesus, and it is the example of the Samaritan.

We could quite literally spend a lifetime on this little commandment, and never get it right. There will always be moments where we can’t resist shear selfish indulgence, or fail to avoid hating (or even merely not loving) the person that makes us cringe every time we see them.

But, I ask the question again: is this what the story of the Good Samaritan is about? Is it about loving absolutely everyone and anyone – even the seemingly unlovable? Is this what Christianity is all about?

Well? Is it?

Where Ultimate meaning in the story of the Good Samaritan is found is in the few verses immediately prior to it, and the few verses immediately after it.

After all, the lawyer came to Jesus to test him with a question.

Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

After Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Note here that the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say that word, “Samaritan.” He could only conjure up enough dignity to say, “the one.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Now, this is what the story of the Good Samaritan is about. And, this is what Christianity is all about. Yes, of course it’s about doing good, being good and helping other people – but it’s more than that.

Yes, it’s about loving your neighbor, which is absolutely everyone, as yourself – but it’s about more than that too.

It’s about loving God with everything we are and everything we have. It’s about loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s about being moved with pity, and showing mercy.

And, it’s about salvation.

Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

To answer that question Jesus points to the example of a dirty, rotten, good-for-nothing blasphemer, and says, ‘Go and do likewise.”

The commandment to love God and neighbor sets up a plan of action and a way of living in this world. And by following this plan of action we gain glimpse of life in the next world too.

The wonderful thing about this ‘commandment’ is that Jesus is asking us to do for God and for our neighbor exactly what God already and unceasingly does for us: love us. It’s asking us to imitate God – to be like God – to be God-ly.

God loved us enough to create us. God loved us enough this morning to wake us up, fill our lungs with breath, course blood through our veins and give us the gift of life and the opportunity to live this life with people that we love. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, God sent his own Son – his only Son – to come live among us, live as one of us, live for us, and die for us. If God can love us that much, then is it all that much to ask of us to love Him back with all our heart, soul, and mind?

Salvation in this text is completely centered upon the command to love. But, as I said above, this doesn’t mean that this is a piece of cake. We can’t just assume that we already do a stellar job of loving God and our neighbor, because if we are honest with ourselves, we probably spend a lot of our heart, mind, soul and strength loving ourselves and placing our needs and desires above everything and everyone else. But, to boundlessly love God and our neighbor with everything that we have and everything that we are is the right answer.

Do this and you will live.

Go and do likewise