The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
He already knows the answer to his question. Jesus also knows this man knows the answer. After all, he’s a lawyer, but not like an attorney – you know, that “One call, that’s all” attorney guy. He practices Moses’ Law. He’s come to test Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” he smugly asks. “You’re a lawyer. What do you read?” “Love God and love your neighbors as ourselves,” he answers. “You got it,” says Jesus. “Now do this and you will live.”
“Not yet, Jesus,” he replies, “Tell me, just who is my neighbor?” Factions of Jewish scholars endlessly debate, “Who qualifies as a neighbor.” Many believe, “My neighbors are like me – look like, talk like me, think like me, are related to me, members of my club, and worship like me.” The Pharisee says neighbors are those that keep the law as they prescribe. And one tiny faction believes neighbors they can have love and have mercy for are only members of their church, no more qualify for compassion and aid.
“Pull up a chair,” says Jesus. We know the story of the Good Samaritan, one of the most well-known stories of Christendom. If you say a person is a Good Samaritan in today’s world, most will know what you mean. A Good Samaritan helps someone in need. If you let a friend with hangnail borrow your nail clippers, you give someone who’s run out of gas a ride, or buy a homeless guy a sandwich – you likely are considered to be a Good Samaritan. In his story, Jesus broadens the scope of compassion.
I imagine we’d choose to identify with the Samaritan, rather than the two clergy who pass by the Jew beaten and left for dead. They may have had their reasons. All we know is that they do nothing for one of their own, even though they know what the law commands. To hear Jesus even speak the word, “Samaritan” would boil your blood. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says the Samaritan is a hero. That’s a real punch in the face. A Samaritan is the enemy. He’s arrogant, says he knows God, but doesn’t worship right. Since a Samaritan is religiously unclean, God won’t have anything to do with him. Yet when this hated degenerate sees the bloodied, assaulted Jew, he wells up with compassion for the man. Past prejudices mean nothing. He gives First Aid, takes the man to an inn, pays for his stay and any expenses he will incur. He’s not acting like a Samaritan the lawyer or his friends know. If a Samaritan stumbles upon a wounded Jew, you’d expect him to stand over the guy, laugh and go on down the road. What a reversal of expectation – and Jesus asks the obvious, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the beaten Jew?” The lawyer can’t bring himself to even say “Samaritan”: “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “That’s the one. Go and do likewise.”
Translating the impact of the story into our terms, a Good Samaritan is an Al-Qaeda member who risks his life to pull you from a burning car; or a guy with spiked, multi-colored hair, has tattoos, ear, nose and eyebrow rings, and offers a ride when your car breaks down. This Samaritan is not a hero because he’s a nice, compassionate, helper sort of guy. A Samaritan is your worst nightmare, because this is the one who saves you, and darn it, you need their help. A Samaritan crosses boundaries and goes where no one else dares.
Jesus is saying more than be nice to others, share nail clippers, give a sandwich or a ride. Asking, “Who is my neighbor,” really means, “Who don’t I have to love? How tight in can I draw the circle?” Jesus challenges conventional thought. Instead of an answer to the question, he says, “You are a neighbor.” A neighbor acts like this Samaritan. A neighbor loves, does mercy and kindness, without hesitation or checking credentials. A neighbor loves as God loves – compassionately, freely, unconditionally, out of love for God, extending love and never thinking of whether a person deserves it or not.
Can we really do this? Here’s a clue. I suspect the Samaritan could show mercy by caring for his enemy because he is more deeply connected into God than the clergy who pass by, or the lawyer who knows the law so well. Knowing the words, having knowledge, looking pious, and giving right answers won’t cut it. And as for eternal life, something I imagine we all want, we don’t attain or earn eternal life. God gives eternal life; all have it. We show eternal life by doing love. We are so connected into God, we realize we are God’s beloved, we love God and we love everyone. We dare love with God’s love, even an enemy, a person we despise, fear, would never trust, or the person we turn away from as we pass them by on the street.
Does anyone else feel guilty driving by someone holding a sign asking for money or work, at an intersection? I wish they wouldn’t stand there. I hate when I start thinking like that lawyer, or the clergy who cross the street so as not to notice – “Well, if I give him money, he’ll buy booze or drugs. That’s how those people are.” “How do I know he’s not scamming me?” “I can’t help everyone, you know.”
So, is this a sermon on doing more, producing enough guilt so we’ll go wear ourselves out serving everyone? If we tried, we’d be more likely to die trying. No, that’s not the point. We can’t do this for everyone – yet we need to be open to doing love for any and everyone.
We live eternally now by loving God and loving one another – actually doing it, withholding love from no one, regardless – doing what we can, but doing something. That’s a sign of compassion. We can talk about what it means to love and help, argue over it, and consider the implications all we like. We must do love, do mercy, like this Samaritan. Doing love this way is a sign of the kingdom in which we live.
I know we know that. Inherit eternal life? – start by drinking in a generous, overflowing, healing love God has for each of us, even those we don’t like and think are dead wrong. Then, we’ll see the world differently, and we’ll be more ready to do likewise, as a Samaritan. That’s the sign we live already with life eternal.