The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Familiarity breeds certainty. Unquestioned certainty can get you in trouble, as with the Good Samaritan parable. We know Good Samaritans – a person who gives the hungry guy a five, because he says he needs a meal; stops to help you fix a flat; has laws, statutes, organizations and hospitals named for him. The moral is easy: be like the Samaritan – kind and merciful to those in need.
Like the lawyer, I’d like to know just who is my neighbor? Wearing a collar doesn’t help. I attract new friends, thinking I have a lot of cash or hand out bus passes. Like the priest and Levite – I try and sneak by unnoticed. How can you be neighborly to someone who wants more neighborliness than you have to give? I feel guilty. So Jesus, “About eternal life – am I doing enough?”
Are you concerned about what you need to do to attain eternal life? Some fundamentalists can help you. Answer “Yes” to about four questions; then, mumble a prayer, even if you don’t mean it. Sign the card. You’re in. Feel guilty for acting like a Bad Samaritan, or if loving others is not your thing, no worry. You’re covered. Some call it “fire insurance.” No – that’s not getting eternal life. Accept God’s gift of eternal life given to you already. Start living on earth as in heaven, now. Many mistakenly equate eternal life with heaven, as when someone dies we say, “They’ve gone to eternal life.” Eternal life is living God’s will so that you bring heaven to earth by your love and compassion for others.
So the lawyer has it wrong: “What do I do to inherit eternal life?” “You’re a lawyer. What do you think?” “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” “Good answer. Do that and live.” The disconnect comes when you know and can quote the law, yet fail to live the life God intends. Words known don’t lead to action.
Now the lawyer gets legal, “Yeah, and just who is this neighbor I’m to love as myself?” In other words, “Who don’t I have to love?” Loving God and neighbor is a Torah command. In the Old Covenant, scribes defined your neighbor as family, at least the ones you hope will act decent enough at your holiday dinner table.
Now comes the familiar parable, with its familiar moral, to us: Don’t be like these religious professionals. But, Jesus’ audience would never think that. They’re good reasons to steer clear of someone robbed and left for dead. Note, Jesus doesn’t spend a second condemning of judging them for not helping; but we sure do. A Samaritan appears, and the familiar moral to us is: Be like him. He shows mercy. For Jesus’ audience, that’s a scandal. Samaritans are bad, despised. Samaritans are impure, not fully Jews. They once assisted Israel’s enemies, refused to help rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and have grown lax in keeping the law. If you were half-dead, lying in a ditch would you want to look up and see a terrorist assisting you? Jesus picks a Samaritan as hero, a guy in a mutual contempt pact with Jesus’ audience. Think about that – a “Good” Samaritan is an oxymoron to Jesus and the Jews, until Jesus comes along.
Next Jesus plays “Stump the Lawyer.” He asks, “Which of these three is a neighbor to this half-dead man?” “The one who showed mercy.” Okay, once more – “Go and do likewise.” A Samaritan shows us eternal life? Yes and the evidence you’re living eternal life begins when love, mercy and kindness flow through you, not from you, but THROUGH YOU to everyone, even enemies and those who annoy you. There’s a difference when a source flows through you. That implies its beyond you – greater than you. No longer is your action an obligation you hope will win a reward, or get you to heaven. The question has shifted from “Who is my neighbor?” to “To whom will I be a neighbor?” In other words, do you care for others as God cares for you, and you care for yourself? Can you put yourself in the place of a victim – feel their fear, their longings, take time to listen and get to know them? Jesus seems awfully relevant in recent days when racial tension and injustice are again exposed, to reveal a badly fractured society, in need of peace and reconciliation.
Think about God in this story – and in the unfolding stories of these tragedies of the past week. Where is God present and acting among us? Here’s where God is. God rejects deep-seated hatreds and prejudice among people, races, nations and genders. God’s favorites are each one of us. God is for wall de-construction, not construction. I hope and pray in the days to come that you will begin conversations and study from a Biblical and social perspective these issues of seeing one another as a child of God, especially the other, and not as a person to be feared or as an enemy. When God shows up, and we begin to understand and grow into God, compassion, kindness, mercy and love rule us – eternal life now.
Notice the lawyer can’t, or won’t say, “Samaritan.” Could he have moved beyond racial labels to see a person who may be more like him than he imagined? That will turn your world upside down. The journey into eternal life takes a lifetime – continual striving for and growth into God’s love and will, which naturally comes to you through loving God, and flows through you to all others.
Some scholars suggest we think of Jesus like a Samaritan, one who was despised and rejected. I’m intrigued by that. Then let’s put ourselves in the place of the one left for dead, worthless, needing help in our present condition. Is it not Jesus who comes by, stoops to earth to lift and raise us to new, eternal life now – when we are most needy and helpless? When we accept Jesus’ love and mercy for us, when we choose to live into the story, we become transformed. That truth naturally compels to “Go and do likewise,” not to gain eternal life, but because we have it.
I imagine if that lawyer, after meeting Jesus, found himself, God forbid, half-dead on the side of the road, he would be relieved to see a Samaritan standing over him. That’s the shock and dislocation Jesus’ parable makes, and gets us beyond thinking, “I already know what that story means.” Hello – do we?