Sermon - Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (7/14/19)
Deut. 30:9-14; Ps. 25:1-10; Col. 1:1-14; Lk. 10:25-37
So a lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks a question. I don’t know if lawyers were any more popular in the first century than they are today – present company excluded, of course – but I tend to doubt it. This particular lawyer would not have been chasing ambulances or serving divorce papers, but would have been more like a legal scholar – and for first century Jews, that meant his study was of religious law as much as, if not more than, secular law. And his question is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Now, the lawyer in me says, it’s never a good question to ask, What must I do to inherit anything? Because you can’t do anything to inherit something – only somebody else can leave something to you. Maybe you can try to talk somebody into remembering you in their will, but in the end it is always somebody else’s decision whether you inherit something. So a lawyer who asks, What must I do to inherit something?, might not seem like a very good lawyer.
But perhaps the lawyer is thinking of today’s first reading, in which Moses speaks to the people shortly before his death, shortly before they begin to enter the promised land that the people had been told would be their inheritance from God. Where God would bless them abundantly and make them prosperous, if only they worship the Lord with all their heart and soul, if only they follow and keep the Lord’s commandments. It’s not hard, Moses tells them. God’s rules are not far away, not strange things requiring special wisdom and knowledge. God’s commands are very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, you know what God wants you to do even before God tells you. And this land will be your inheritance, if you just keep these commandments.
And of course, ancient Israel did not keep the commandments. They did not worship God alone, but submitted themselves to idols of power and money and honor and pleasure, like the other nations. They committed murders and adulteries and thefts and dishonored one another, as humans everywhere have done throughout history. And so the people were exiled from the land, they lost their inheritance. And now Jesus has come announcing that the age to come, the restoration of God’s people, the new creation, the kingdom of God, is about to begin, and the lawyer sensibly asks: What will we have to do, this time, to be worthy of this inheritance? What must we do, if not to inherit, but to remain in our inheritance of the coming kingdom of God? Will it be like before, where there are laws we must observe and commandments we must keep in order to stay in the kingdom of God? If so, what are they? What must we do?
Well, what do you think? Jesus asks. The lawyer gives an answer that Jesus himself once gave, when asked to summarize God’s law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. You know, the basics. Nothing spectacular or unusual, just what you already know in your heart is the right thing to do.
“But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus: And who is my neighbor?” Luke tells us that the lawyer asked this question because he wanted to “justify himself” – he wanted to know, the way lawyers do, exactly what will be required and what will not be required to belong to the kingdom of God. Where is the boundary line, who is the “neighbor” whom I must love as myself, and who is the “stranger” whom I can safely ignore? I don’t want to be surprised, the lawyer says, I want to make sure that I do everything I’m supposed to do, and so please tell me the exact definition of “neighbor,” so I can be sure that I meet all the entrance requirements and all my records will be in order when I come into my inheritance in the kingdom of God.
And so Jesus tells him a story. A story in which the people who are uniquely preoccupied with fulfilling God’s law – the priest and the Levite, people very much like the lawyer himself, professional observers and interpreters of the Law – these people simply fail to treat a fellow Jew in need as a neighbor. A story in which a foreigner, a Samaritan – a heretic, someone no one would expect to be the least bit concerned with whether he is following the Law – this outsider still knows instinctively what it means to love a neighbor as oneself.
In fact, The Samaritan does more for this half-dead robbery victim than anyone would ever imagine someone would do for a stranger. The Samaritan stops and gives first aid. The Samaritan places this injured person on his own animal, meaning he will now have to walk – so much for getting to wherever the Samaritan was going on time. The Samaritan takes him to an inn, where he can get good care, at the Samaritan’s expense – the Samaritan leaves two days’ wages and a blank check as well. This is clearly more, way more, than anyone in real life would ever expect someone to do for a stranger, even a stranger in serious need. It is a story, after all – a parable that Jesus tells to make a point. And the point is: You want to know what the limit is? When you will be finished loving your neighbor so that you can be sure that you have fulfilled God’s law? There is no limit. You can always do more. You can never do enough. So stop worrying about it.
And something more. The characters in the story who the lawyer would most identify with, the priest and the Levite, the people who are focused on doing exactly everything that God wants them to do, are precisely the people who miss the point, who miss their wounded fellow human being, who don’t even see the suffering. It’s the Samaritan, the outsider, the one who isn’t even trying to fulfill the law – it is the Samaritan who is filled with pity and acts to help. The Greek verb in Luke’s text for “to be filled with pity” is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splangch-ni-zomai), from which we get the English word “spleen.” It’s a feeling you have ** here **, in your gut, not something you can think about or can command yourself to feel, a feeling of deep compassion that comes over us when we see a fellow human being in suffering.
I believe Jesus told this story to the lawyer – and, through Luke, to us – because the lawyer’s question is what makes him the opposite of the Good Samaritan. If you’re focused on getting all your papers in order to get past St. Peter at the gate, you are still thinking about yourself, and if you are confronted with a neighbor in need while you are worried about yourself, you will not feel σπλαγχνίζομαι (splangch-ni-zomai), you just won’t see it. Trying to be successful at keeping the law in fact produces failure. It’s the Samaritan, the outsider who isn’t thinking all day about whether he’s keeping the law, who turns out to react like a human being, who still knows how to feel σπλαγχνίζομαι (splangch-ni-zomai).
Martin Luther taught that faith that Jesus has fulfilled the Law for us so we don’t have to – this faith is actually what we need to be free to truly love our neighbor as ourselves. To really love our neighbor, not as a box to check on our eternal report card, but simply as a neighbor, as a fellow human being in need. And I think our world, perhaps even more than in the time of Jesus or even Luther, trains us not to see the suffering around us. To avert our eyes from the homeless person. To forget about the poverty and addiction in communities we don’t drive by and that we don’t see on television. To think that our food and our clothes and our smart phones come from the store and aren’t picked by migrant laborers or sewn in sweatshops or assembled by children. We could use some more σπλαγχνίζομαι (splangch-ni-zomai) in this world. Perhaps faith that God loves us unconditionally, even though we haven’t loved our neighbors as much as we should, perhaps this faith is what could give us the courage to let ourselves feel some σπλαγχνίζομαι (splangch-ni-zomai) and see people who otherwise might be invisible.
St. Augustine, the early Church Father who most influenced Luther, said of this parable that we should not try to compare ourselves to the Good Samaritan – that’s the lawyer’s way of thinking. Augustine said that we are much more like the person lying on the side of the road, robbed of our hopes and dreams in this life, half-dead, unable to help ourselves. And it is God in Christ who loves us so much that God has σπλαγχνίζομαι (splangch-ni-zomai) over us, it is God in Christ who fulfills the law and cares for us in ways that go far beyond anything we could possibly have expected. It’s Christ who patches us up and brings us to the inn that is the Church. One more Greek word, if I may, the word for “inn” is πανδοχεῖον (pan-docheion), literally, “where all are welcome,” and is that not where we have been brought?
Augustine even says that, just as the Samaritan left two days’ wages to pay for the man’s healing, Jesus left us two sacraments, Baptism and Communion, for our continued healing until he comes back again. That might be reading a little too much into the text, but maybe not. May our communion here, in this place where all are welcome, help us to know the deep and profound compassion that God has for us, so we might go and do the same.