Grab your favorite reading beverage for this one ...
It feels a bit like tooting my own horn, but, again, some folks have asked to read this sermon. I wish there was some way to convey voice inflection in written text, but you'll just have to put in your own. Any and all feedback would be sincerely appreciated!
I'm working on my next sermon for August 1 at St. Thomas. You can check out the lessons on The Lectionary Page. Any and all suggestions will be considered!!
July 11, 2010
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Luke 10: 25-37
Is it just me or does the first verse in today’s gospel lesson sounds like the start of a bad lawyer joke? Only instead of a witty punchline that puts the lawyer in his place, Jesus responds in a way that lets the lawyer and all of us, discover the truth ourselves. In the context of Luke, the lawyer seems to randomly approach Jesus as an individual. In Matthew, the lawyer asking this same question is part of a group of Pharisees taking their turn to attempt to discredit Jesus after a group of Sadducees has failed. In either case, whether he was prompted by a group or acting on his own, he wanted to test Jesus’ knowledge of God. After Jesus turns the tables on him and asks the lawyer what the law says, the lawyer goes on, as the author of Luke tells us, to justify himself, meaning he wanted to prove himself a righteous man of God.
I’m sure many of you have been in this type of situation, either professionally or in a social setting. Someone wants to find out who knows more about a given subject and begins to question us not out of curiosity but to prove their own worth. Some of you know that this summer I’m doing a chaplaincy internship at the VA hospital. Last week, I was the on-duty chaplain and part of being on duty for the weekend is to do the protestant services on Sunday morning. We hold two services, one in the main chapel for anyone who is mobile enough to come to it and then another service in the psychiatric ward, just for the patients and staff there. The other chaplains, in helping me prepare for my first weekend on duty told me about one of the patients in the psychiatric ward who says he is Jesus. They told me that often he will interrupt the sermon to make comments such as “that’s not what I really said…” or to offer commentary on what the preacher is saying. They said the best thing to do is to ignore him and keep going, that he just wants to debate but if I didn’t acknowledge what he says then he would be quiet. I don’t think I have to tell you that all week I was secretly praying that he wouldn’t be at the service. I really didn’t want to be faced with the situation of this man questioning my knowledge even if I was given permission to ignore him.
As I was greeting the patients in the common room in the psychiatric ward before the service, guess who I met? Yep, Jesus. He introduced himself to me and thanked me for coming to do the service and then sat right in the front. As the service began, he followed along attentively in the bulletin, joining in all of the responses and prayers (I remember thinking to myself, Jesus must be Episcopalian!). As I began my sermon, I said a silent prayer for patience and courage. About halfway into it he stood up and I braced myself. … But instead of saying anything, he simply smiled at me and calmly walked out. … Now, I’m not sure which action would have had the bigger impact on my confidence, if he had completely questioned what I said, or just walking out all together! But, at least he didn’t try to test my knowledge. For the time being, I’d like to leave that to my professors.
Okay, so this is a very light-hearted, bit of a stretch of an example of the self-righteous testing that the Lawyer was doing with Jesus but I know we’ve all been in that type of situation. The lawyer realized he couldn’t trip Jesus up on the law, so he tries with something that isn’t specifically defined in the law: “who is my neighbor”. After all, Jesus was well known for hanging out with unsavory types so maybe his definition of neighbor would somehow be a contradiction to or evan a violation of the law. The traditional view of neighbor was a friend or a fellow citizen, not someone who wasn’t an Israelite. Even for us, today, the word neighbor makes us think of those that live right around us, in our “neighborhood.” But Jesus has a different definition and in his usual fashion, her responds with a parable, one we’ve known since childhood. We all know that the point of the parable is to show us what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. But why do we want to do the actions that show we love our neighbor as ourselves, what makes us desire to be this type of person? Let’s take a bit and, as my favorite professor would say, “unpack” it and look at it in detail.
First, the cast of characters: There is a man. He’s not given a name or a nationality or any type of identifier, just a generic man. The detail comes in his journey, he’s going from Jerusalem to Jericho, there was a purpose to him being on a road that at the time was known to be dangerous. The lawyer probably would have been able to picture himself traveling along this same road, feeling a sense of danger and not being surprised that the man fell into the hands of robbers. The robbers aren’t given any type of descriptor either. For the point to be made, it doesn’t matter who it was who was hurt or by whom, only that we see that a human being, one created by God in his image, is in desperate need.
Next comes a priest, a specific person whose job was to offer sacrifices and take care of the sacred rites of the people, who by chance, was going down the same road. He sees the man, yet doesn’t get anywhere near him and leaves him as the robbers did, half dead. After the priest, likewise comes a Levite, someone who served as an assistant to priests, who also passes by on the other side of the road, staying as far away from this man as possible. The story doesn’t give us any indication of their thinking or their feelings upon encountering the wounded man, leaving the lawyer and anyone else listening to fill in their own reaction to coming upon such a person. Anyone listening to the story, and even you and me, reading it and listening to it today, can see ourselves in each side of this equation.
Finally, there is a Samaritan, someone who despised and was despised by Jews. The description of the Samaritan seeing the man is opposite of how the priest and Levite saw him. The priest and Levite saw him first and then passed on the other side giving the impression that they went out of their way to avoid him. The Samaritan, the story tells us came near and when he saw him was moved with pity and he took action to help the man.
Jesus provides more detail about the Samaritan than any other of the characters in the story. His point is to show the lawyer who is seeking justification for his own behavior that those who focus first and foremost on the law rather than on the Giver of the law are the ones who don’t show compassion or mercy.
God provided the Mosaic law that was followed so painstakingly by the priests and Levites. The law is not bad. This was not the point of the story. The law provides direction on how to live life as people who loved God with heart and soul. The problem lies in making the law more important than loving God or even seeing it as a substitute. The problem lies in letting religious rules get in the way of being God’s people.
Following the rules isn’t how we get to know God. We obey God’s commandments because we know him and love him. Look at the text from Deuteronomy. Moses explains that God wanted his people to obey his commands because they had turned to him with all of their heart and soul not as a substitute for this relationship. Obeying the rules is the visible sign of our relationship with God. God’s purpose in creating us is to be in relationship with him, not so that he would have someone to give rules to. We are commanded first to love him with all of our being. We don’t have to search what God commanded us to do, he gives it to us plainly so that we can understand it and when we truly understand it in our hearts it will be easy for us to do.
Of all the rules and laws given to God’s people in the Old Testament, Jesus boils it down to loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to sift through all of the law books of the Old Testament to find it?
But even though it is given to us plainly, don’t we all at one time or another, attempt to test what Jesus tells us against our own ideas of what we think justifies what we do? We, like the lawyer, want to know what we can do, what actions we can take, to have eternal life. Jesus tells us that the “doing” comes as a result of the “being”, not the other way around.
We don’t follow God’s commandments because that is how we learn to love God. We follow his commands because we love him. When we know and love God as Lord and Saviour of our entire being, we want to do what is pleasing to him.
What was the Lawyer’s answer to Jesus’ question of which man in the story was the neighbor? He didn’t list all of the actions the Samaritan did for the wounded man, but he simply said “the one who showed him mercy.” I think the lawyer got it (maybe that’s the bad punchline to the bad joke of the beginning). He realized that being filled with the knowledge of God’s will, true spiritual wisdom and understanding as Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, leads us to do the things that visibly show we love God and our neighbor. It isn’t doing merciful things that gives us eternal life, but seeking to know and love God with all of our being and it is this intimate knowing of God’s will that leads us to do merciful things, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Let us all go and do likewise. Amen