8th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 10, Yr. C. July 14, 2013. (Text: Luke 10:25-37)
How many of you here would like to have eternal life? May we have a show of hands? Thank you. Usually more than half the people present will raise their hands when asked this question. Even so, even half the congregation raising hands means the question with which today’s gospel begins is still important, two thousand years later. And it’s even more relevant if we realize that “eternal life” isn’t something we must wait to enjoy in heaven. It’s available right now.
Our story opens with: “A lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” I’ll resist the temptation to tell a lawyer joke here. Anyway, the “lawyer” who questioned Jesus wasn’t that kind of lawyer. He was a scribe, an expert on the Law of Moses, and the favorite pastime of scribes was debating interpretations of the Law with other scribes. So when he asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he was doing something like that. But his question was totally new. There’s no evidence that Jewish scribes before he time of Christ ever discussed eternal life. This means our lawyer had been listening and thinking about what Jesus was saying. He was a “good guy,” not a “bad guy.” And his was no off-the-cuff question. Jesus turned it back to him: “Well, how do you understand the Law on this point?”
Then the man with the unique question gave an equally unique answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agreed. “Do this,” he said, “and you will live.” But then the lawyer asked, “Well, okay, but WHO is my neighbor?”Now the issue shifts from love of God and love of neighbor exclusively to love of neighbor. Why? Because Luke wants everyone to see the fundamental link between loving God and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The scribe was asking Jesus to define the limits of love. “Where do I draw the line? Who belongs to my personal community of care? Who must I love because they’re my neighbors, and whose needs may I ignore because they’re NOT my neighbors?” The letter of the Law of Moses was unambiguous: “neighbors” meant Jewish neighbors, along with any gentile sojourners living among them.
To answer the lawyer’s question, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We can grasp the essence of the parable pretty quickly: my neighbor is not limited to those who live on my block, or belong to my church or to my ethnic group. My neighbor is anybody from anywhere who needs the help I’m able to provide.
Jesus put a twist in his story by making its hero the representative of a category of people that Jews despised. That probably shocked his audience. It certainly didn’t win him any friends. It was like a preacher in the deep South back in 1860 (or even 1960) choosing to use a black man’s behavior as an illustration of virtue in a sermon —and then, to make matters worse, comparing the black man’s compassion with the heartlessness of a couple of white ministers. Listeners would have marched out of the church.
But Jesus’ point was obvious: If you want to inherit eternal life, you have to behave like a “neighbor” to whatever needy people you encounter in life even if they’re definitely not “your kind” of people. Even if they’re your enemies. You’re to love them as you love yourself. In fact, if you do that you show that you’re already living “the life of the age to come”!
Nowadays, we generally hear this parable as a nice story with a tidy little moral. We identify with the Samaritan and imagine we’d do just what he did if we were confronted on a lonely and dangerous road with a poor victim of highway robbery. Thinking like that keeps us in our comfort zone. But there’s plenty of evidence that we’re deluding ourselves. Our society is full of people who DON’T imitate the Good Samaritan, even when they have an obvious opportunity.
We learn from Jesus a lot better if, instead of identifying with the Good Samaritan, we identify ourselves with the victim. Jesus tells a story about US lying there by the highway, stripped, robbed, nearly dead, and desperately needing somebody, anybody—friend or foe—to have compassion on us before we die.
Or, if that seems too far-fetched, then just imagine being stranded in a broken-down car on a busy highway, back in the age before cell phones. Did that ever happen to you? It happened to me forty-one years ago on the Pulaski Skyway across the Hudson from Manhattan. It was rush hour on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, and I’m sure lots of the people who whizzed by me were Christians, but none of them even slowed down. Finally a New Jersey state trooper came along and told me he’d radio for a tow truck to come out from Hoboken but in the meantime I should get out of my car and stand at least fifty feet away, since it might get rammed by a passing vehicle. And, by the way, “have a nice holiday.”
To love my neighbor as myself means to so identify with the needs of another person that the care I give that person is precisely the care I’d want if I were in his place.
We follow Jesus, the Son of God who came to give us eternal life. He identified with our human need: our loneliness, our desire to be loved just as we are, our fear of death, our need for forgiveness, and our hunger for a shepherd to lead us. (That’s what the Incarnation was all about: God himself stepping into our shoes!)
If we’re serious about having the “eternal life” Jesus talked about right now—not just in the sweet by-and-by— we have to get serious about imitating Jesus and opening our hearts to share the pain, grief, hunger, or loneliness of everyone we meet—reaching out like the Good Samaritan and showing ourselves to be neighbors who love them.
Because we live in “the Age of Therapy,” when we hear the expression love your neighbor as yourself we tend to psychologize it and start wondering what constitutes healthy self-love. This sends us down the wrong road. To love my neighbor as myself doesn’t require a mental-health definition of self-love. In the Biblical sense, to love myself simply means to take care of my needs—of any sort—in a natural way. To “love myself” means to provide for myself food and drink when I’m hungry and thirsty, a bath when I feel dirty, a coat when I’m cold, a place to live, transportation to work, and medical care when I’m sick.
Whatever Christians regard as necessities for ourselves, we should want to provide for others who lack them. For example, if I “love myself” and I’ve been injured in an accident, I’ll need medical treatment. If I’m to hold a job and support my dependents, then I’ll need some sort of training or education. If I work outside my home, I’ll need transportation to work. If I’m not to be a soulless drudge, I’ll need opportunities for recreation and intellectual stimulus.
Love your neighbor as yourself calls for very practical love. It’s not about just giving people “warm fuzzies.” If my neighbor has no way to get to work every day and I’m able to give him a ride or maybe let him drive my old car, what do you think Jesus would want me to do? If the young couple next door haven’t had an evening out in a year because they can’t afford a babysitter, much less a restaurant tab, what would Jesus want me to do?
Jesus’ lesson for the lawyer was clear: If you really want to live, if you want to “get a Life,” then imitate the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise.” Be a compassionate person. Be a neighbor. Compassion isn’t just a feeling; it’s a decision to act on that feeling.
The love we give back to God is always a response to God’s love for us, and loving our neighbor is a way of loving God. In fact, the commandment to love my neighbor as myself tests whether I actually love God at all.
Here’s the point: We can be as close to God as we are to our neighbors. The choice of how near God we want to get is up to us.
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