How do we love God? 7/11/10

Luke 10:25-37

I.                   Who is my neighbor?

The first thing we have to ask ourselves in this passage is: what kind of question is the lawyer asking?  Is he sincere in his request?  One thing we know is that he views eternal life as an ‘inheritance,’ something that is his birthright, what is owed to him.  So perhaps he is trying to trap Jesus into blaspheming, of explaining if the law and the prophets is the only way, or if there is another way to God – the way that Jesus, himself, claims to be.

Jesus asks him a question back.  It’s an astute (and sometimes annoying) person who answers a question with a question, but he is trying to get at the heart of this man’s question.  The term ‘lawyer’ here is synonymous with ‘scribe’ – one who is an expert in the interpretation of the Mosaic Law.  So, the two of them find common ground in the Torah.  The lawyer quotes the schema, which is presented to us in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and is used daily in Jewish prayers.  It’s a beautiful piece of Scripture: “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.”  Anyone of us here today would agree that this is one of the major points of all of Scripture.  Jesus agrees.

The two could have gone their separate ways happy and in agreement.  But the lawyer asks one more teensy-tiny question that, in fact, is the biggest question of all: who is my neighbor?  Where are the boundaries?  How much do I have to care?  Surely, there are limits.  In answer to this gigantic question, Jesus tells this often-told, well-loved story.

II.                The Priest and the Levite

I do not always allow myself to feel the shame of being like the priest and the Levite in this story, but there have been many times in my life when I have failed to do the right thing and just kept on walking, believing that I did not have the time or the luxury of being able to help.  I can easily see in retrospect that was really just an excuse. 

It is typical for a sermon on this parable to remind us of the many ways in which we are like the first two individuals who pass by the man in need, and urge us to be more like the Good Samaritan.  This is always a good reminder, as Rebecca Kruger Gaudino asks, “At what point does the quest for holiness violate God’s commands to love?”  But this is not the entire message for us today.

III.             The Good Samaritan

The listeners of this story would have expected almost any character to come next except a Samaritan.  Like our jokes today that begin “a lawyer, a doctor and a priest …” the listeners would have expected that instead of a high religious official, the next person would your average, common man – an Israeli.  Instead, the listeners are shocked to discover that “the real neighbor was a despised foreigner, a believer in a rival creed.”[1]  I think it’s helpful for us to realize just how scandalous this choice of character is for Jesus.  “The Jews held Samaritans in contempt, seeing them as unfaithful to the Law of Moses and the temple worship in Jerusalem.  The contempt was mutual.”[2]  Samaritans and Jews believed in the same God and used the same Bible (the Torah), but they differed (on what exactly no one is 100% sure) over a creed.  This would be similar to the sharp rivalry felt between Protestants and Catholics just shortly after the Reformation.  It might even be similar to the victims of 9-11 hearing of a member of Al-Qaeda showing compassion for a fallen American.  The passion and distrust between the two groups of people run strong.

Yet, somehow this character acted out of his own deep faith to care for someone, at great risk to himself.  James Wallace shares a story about a twelve-year old Palestinian boy:

“Ahmad Khatib, who had been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during street fighting near his house.  The boy had been holding a toy gun.  He was taken to an Israeli hospital, where he died after two days.  His parents made the decision to allow his organs to be harvested for transplant to Israelis.  Six people received his heart, lungs, and kidneys, including a two-month-old infant.  His mother, Alba, said, ‘My son has died.  Maybe he can give life to others.’  These parents made their own journey into the compassion of God and were living eternal life.”[3]

The Good Samaritan is often someone that we don’t expect … someone that we cannot imagine helping. Good Samaritans are the enemies who, out of their faith, their integrity, and their character embrace a “higher righteousness” and witness to an “impulse to kindness,” that is present within all of us.  This shocking choice of character forces us to realize a very moving notion: we need our enemy.

IV.              The man was stripped, beaten and left for dead

We need our enemy.  These are the possibly:

“The most moving words and the most challenging ones written about this story … Jesus seems to have it all backwards: when asked what we have to do, he tells a story about us, lying there in the ditch.  That’s the place we ought to find ourselves in when we heart this story.  We’re lying in the ditch, and we desperately need our enemy to have compassion on us, no matter what.  We need our enemy to forget what he’s been taught and what he understands his rights to be.  He needs to forget the risk and the robbers, and to stop and help us in our need.  He needs to be moved by pity for our suffering.”[4]

Well, that’s a switch from the perspective I usually find in this parable!  As many times as I have heard this story, read this story, talked about this story, I have never once identified with one of the characters:  the victim.  This is exactly where we should put ourselves in this story.  There he is lying there after he is robbed and beaten.  He is hurting, dirty, and exhausted, unable to even pick himself up off the ground.  He sees a priest and starts to hope.  Surely, this man of God will see him and help.  Then the Levite comes and the same hope rises up and is crushed in the heart of this man.  His heart sinks, and he starts to beat himself up inside, “I should have listened to my sister and waited for morning to travel out alone.  If only my father-in-law had been done with his business earlier we could have left together.  What will my mother think when I don’t return in a few days?”

Then, out of the corner of his eye he sees a man.  A Samaritan.  “Oh well, I might as well die here anyway.”  Suddenly, he realizes the man is approaching; he’s taken off his pack and is rummaging for something. 

He's still not sure if he can trust this man, this Samaritan.

Then, he feels relief as the mud and blood that have crusted over are slowly and gently wiped off.  He’s not certain, yet if he can trust this man, this Samaritan, but what choice does he have?  The man carries him to the next town and leaves him with the innkeeper, who looks surprised to see this Jew and this Samaritan together … but the Samaritan paid well enough to insure the hurt man would be well tended.  The victim is too hurt and traumatized to process all that is happening as it is happening, but surely this event in his life would be pivotal, crucial, and essential.

Kate Huey makes one final observation that I find stirring:

“When I hear this story, I wonder what happened to the traveler afterward.  Once his wounds were healed and his family came to greet him and he went home to the security and comfort of life among his own kind, I wonder if he still laughed at Samaritan jokes, and I wonder if he turned the other way when someone said or did cruel things about or toward a Samaritan person.  I just wonder if his heart was broken open, permanently, long after his broken bones were healed.  I wonder.”[5] 

Indeed.  Once you know kindness that deep, you are forever changed.  This, I believe, is the Christian experience of grace and mercy.  We received the deep kindness of God’s mercy, and perhaps, we have also received the gracious help of someone that we would never call ‘neighbor’ and yet they were a neighbor to us all the same.

V.                 How am I to love God?

The lawyer starts by asking, “Who is my neighbor.”  Where are the boundaries?  Sometimes, it is the questions that we ask that are most important.  In the lawyer’s case, he asked the wrong question.  He knew the core message well enough:  we are to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind, and our neighbors as ourselves.”  Instead of asking, “Who is my neighbor?”  He should have asked, “How?”  How do we best love the Lord? 

Jesus answers with a story that tells us that there may be boundaries, but they are of our own making.  We may have an ‘in’ and ‘out’ crowd, categories of desirable/undesirables, and enemies, but they also are of our own making.  God is without limit in caring for all of creation and all of humanity.  God asks us to also push the boundaries back that keep us from caring for, respecting, and loving everyone. Jesus’ answer to the lawyer tells us that the way that we live our life is our response to God’s love.  Actively working to break down barriers in the world – that is loving the Lord, actively.  Actively loving your neighbor just as you love and care for yourself is actively loving the Lord.  “To love God is to love neighbor is to love God.”[6]  Praise be to God.

Let us pray, Jesus you call us to be a neighbor to all, to care for those no one else does, and to break down the barriers between “Samaritan” and “Jew.”  Bring us together in a community of God, help us to trust others, see the best in others, and allow ourselves to be moved by the compassion of your people in the world.  We love you, Lord, with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind.  Teach us to be a better neighbor to all.  Amen.


[1] Douglas John Hall in Feasting on the Word, Luke 10:25-37.

[2] James A. Wallace in Feasting on the Word, Luke 10:25-37.

[3] James A. Wallace in Feasting on the Word, Luke 10:25-37

[4] Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-11-2010-fifteenth.html

[5] Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-11-2010-fifteenth.html

[6] James A. Wallace in Feasting on the Word, Luke 10:25-37

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