Preached on Sunday, 14 July 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year C (thematic track)
I’m going to give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to take him seriously when he calls Jesus, Teacher, and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I take him seriously; I think he’s sincere because isn’t that the heart of what we all ask, over and over? Not “I want to live forever” eternal life, but “I want to live well” eternal life. What should I do to live a life with purpose and meaning and integrity? To be able to look in the mirror at the end of the day and to feel good about who we are and about all of our interactions during the day. To know ourselves and feel comfortable in our own skin whether we’re home alone or with our family or at work or out in public; no matter who we’re with or what we’re doing.
I take him seriously because Jesus takes him seriously. He doesn’t brush him off. He engages him in conversation; deep conversation.
“You already know the answer,” Jesus says. “What does Torah say? How do you read it?” And the lawyer proves Jesus right. “Love God with all of your being and love your neighbor.”
Isn’t this what we hear in our Deuteronomy reading this morning? The passage is taken from the author’s account of Moses’ final discourses before the Israelites enter the Promised Land after their 40-years in the desert. Moses has reminded them of the law and the promise of a good life and prosperity in the land, but he has also warned them that they will disobey the law and be scattered amongst the nations.
Then the Lord will gather them again and return them to their home; the Lord who loves them; the Lord who gives them the Torah so that they can live and live well. “This Torah, this teaching, this law, it is not too hard for you. It is not hidden or obscure or too far away. No, it is very near. It is within you; it is written on your heart by the God who treasures you and wants you to prosper.” You already know.
The lawyer presses further, though. He asks who counts as a neighbor; who’s inside that sphere and who’s outside. Jesus shows him that he already knows that answer, as well. He responds with one of the most well-known stories in the whole Bible – the parable of the Good Samaritan.
It’s been said that the whole gospel can be summarized in two parables: The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. One shows the nature of God; the other shows us the implication of God’s nature on how we live.
In his response to the lawyer, Jesus teaches, not who is his neighbor, but rather how to be a neighbor. Since the Samaritan is never described as “good” within the text, perhaps a better title would be “The Neighborly Samaritan.”
Where do you find yourself in this parable? Jesus holds up the Samaritan as the example of the neighbor, and we want to earn his praise, so it’s understandable to want to be like the Samaritan. Except, of course, that the Samaritan is despised by everyone else.
Of course, there are the respectable folks, the priest and the Levite. Then there’s the innkeeper who is paid to care for the man. And there are the unmentioned characters. Imagine being the parent of the man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead, or his spouse or his child. What must they be going through, wondering why he hasn’t come home? Wondering, where is he? Is he ok or is he hurt or maybe even dead?
This is precisely the scenario my mother always told me she imagined when one of us stayed out late – that we were lying half-dead in a ditch somewhere.
And what about the man? We know nothing about him. How old is he? Where is he from? Who is his family? What does he do for a living? Is he a Jew? A Samaritan? A gentile? A foreigner? What is his social status? Is he rich or poor? An upstanding member of society or a scoundrel or a criminal? Jesus tells us nothing about who he is because none of those details matter. All that matters, is that he is a neighbor and needs help.
When have you been in that kind of situation? Not robbed and beaten, maybe not even injured, but in need of help from a neighbor?
I remember the time when I was lying on the side of the road, a long way from home, bleeding from a gash on my face. I guess a mother’s fears aren’t always unfounded. I was eighteen and on a bicycling road trip with a friend, riding along the Oregon coast on our way to California.
My wheel slipped off the edge of the pavement and down I went. My glasses were broken, my bike bent and un-ridable. I needed stitches. My friend could offer first aid, but I needed transportation and an E.R.
I don’t know anything about the people who didn’t stop. I don’t really even know much about those who did. I do know that it seemed like a lot of people offered help. One was a nurse who checked me out and said I should see a doctor. Another said she was praying for me. In the end, someone with a motor home drove us to a hospital and someone else loaded our bikes into the back of their truck and followed. They stayed until the doctor finished taking care of me and then invited us to spend the night at their home and fed us some dinner. In the morning we took very welcome showers before slowly heading off.
You know, I don’t remember even seeing any of their faces, but I will always remember their compassion; how eager they were to help, to do whatever they could for us.
They knew the answer to the lawyer’s question.
The lawyer already knows.
Jesus asks him, “who was a neighbor to the man?”
“The one who showed mercy.”
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him.
What more is there to say?
We already know; it’s written on our hearts.
Go and do likewise; go and be merciful.