Sunday, July 10, 2016

"Go and Do Likewise"

8th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 10 (Year C)
Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Psalm 25.1-10; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37
Sunday, July 10, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

This week we have witnessed a number of brutal acts of violence across our country. The killing of two homeless men and serious injury of two others in San Diego on Monday. The killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge on Tuesday. The killing of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota on Wednesday; the killing of five police officers in Dallas on Thursday. And all of this just a few weeks after the killing of 49 people in Orlando. As I watched the news coverage of some of these events, with endless analysis and commentary, what invariably was cited as the root cause – usually by religious leaders, but also by some political leaders – was not so much race, or Black Lives Matter, or excessive use of force by police. What it ultimately boils down to is love of neighbor. Or lack thereof.

It’s always amazing how the designated Gospel for any particular day speaks to issues and events going on in the world around us. This week’s Gospel, in the wake of this week’s horrific events, is about love of neighbor. It is the parable of the Good Samaritan – one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. So well-known that the term “good Samaritan” has made its way into secular language. Even those who do not know the actual story, even those who are not Christian, know what we mean when we say “Good Samaritan.” Someone who cares for the needs of his or her neighbor.

While this basic definition of a Good Samaritan is accurate – caring for the needs of one’s neighbor, especially by a stranger – it is a bit simplified. At least when compared with the original intent of the parable by the same name. Because Jesus meant so much more by telling this parable. But we often miss the depth of meaning. We tend to take the parable at face value, without considering the context in which it was originally presented and without any understanding of the nuances contained within the parable itself.

As we heard, Jesus is approached by a lawyer who wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus throws the question back to him. “What is written in the law?” The lawyer knows this. All good Jews would have known the answer. It is part of who they are, dating back to the time of Moses and the Exodus. In fact, our Old Testament lesson provides some of the background.

Some 1,200 years before Jesus, as the people of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses stood before the people and reminded them that as they enter their new home, they are to remember God’s commandments. They are to remember that they are in a covenant relationship with their God. They are to renew that covenant and that remembering the commandments and living them is what is required under that covenant. As Moses tells them, “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut 30.14). These commandments dwell in the hearts and minds of the people. They are an integral part of who they are. They are what makes them God’s people.

Back to Jesus and the lawyer. As a devout Jew, the lawyer rightly answers Jesus, “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” (Lk 10:27). The lawyer then asks “And who is my neighbor?” The lawyer asks this not for clarification, but to justify himself, in an attempt to prove that he has done all that he is supposed to do under the Law and is therefore worthy of eternal life. But instead, Jesus challenges him to rethink the definition of who his neighbor is by telling him a parable.

On the surface, the meaning of the parable, the answer to the lawyers’ question, is that his neighbor is anyone whom he encounters. Especially anyone who might be in need. That is a reasonably accurate conclusion, on the face of it. But there’s more to it than that. Jesus purposefully makes the characters of this parable a Jew and a Samaritan. You see, the Jews and the Samaritans were enemies. They had a centuries-old rivalry over land, as well as ongoing arguments over theological understandings and religious practices. Even though they worshiped the same God, even though they were descended from the same religious roots, they considered each other heretics. In a time and culture where everything was rooted in religious identity, these two groups of people were sworn enemies. If at all possible, they avoided each other.

In the parable, the first two people to come upon the poor beaten man are Jewish religious officials. The first is a priest and the second is a Levite. These religious men walk right on past without even stopping. In fact, in both cases, upon seeing the man lying there dying, the priest and the Levite go out of their way to cross to the other side of the road. They don’t want to go anywhere near the victim. This is not necessarily because they don’t care. After all, as leaders of the temple, they know the Law better than anyone. They know the commandments to love, to have mercy, and to care for, others. The most likely reason for their not wanting to go near the man is fear that he may be dead. Under Jewish law, touching, or even going near a corpse, other than that of an immediate family member, would render them ritually impure for a period of seven days, requiring an involved process of purification. So best not to risk it. But this raises the question, are they ignoring their responsibility to care for their neighbor in the process? All out of fear of being inconvenienced by purity concerns. Out of self-interest.

Instead, it is a passing Samaritan who comes to his aid. It’s not the temple authorities who help their fellow Jew. It is someone who is other, who is considered enemy, who is moved with pity, who shows mercy on the man, and does everything in his power to help him. He does the best he can to take care of his immediate needs and binds his wounds. Then he takes the man to an inn where he continues to care for him, delaying his travels by a day. As if that isn’t enough, the Samaritan leaves the man in the care of the innkeeper, paying two denarii to cover immediate expenses. Enough money to provide room and board for two weeks! He gives instructions that the innkeeper is to do whatever is needed to care for the man and to nurse him back to health. The Samaritan promises to return and make good on any additional expenses incurred. Whatever it costs, he will pay it. Now that’s generosity. That’s mercy. In fact, in his actions, the Samaritan demonstrates the epitome of grace and mercy, of unconditional love. The Samaritan puts God’s commandments into action. While the man’s own people did absolutely nothing.

Jesus concludes his story with a question – “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Lk 10.36). A question that shifts the emphasis from identifying potential neighbors to actually being a neighbor to whoever we encounter. To whoever happens to cross our path. He shifts the focus from ourselves and our own interests to the other, to our neighbor and his or her needs. No matter what those needs may be.

What Jesus is conveying in the parable is that everyone is our neighbor. Even those who are different from us. Even those we don’t agree with. Even those we may not like. Even those who may be our most despised enemy. Jesus is conveying the radical nature of God’s commandment to love and care for our neighbor. That we are to do so selflessly.

It’s one thing to know God’s commandments. It’s quite another to truly live them out. Remember Moses and his reminder to the Israelites about their covenant relationship with God? With the commandments to love God and to love neighbor? That these commandments are in their hearts, that they are a part of who they are as the people of God? Our relationship with God is expressed through our relationship with the people around us. We demonstrate this through acts of kindness and mercy. In fact, the Greek word that is translated here as “mercy” is the same word that is used to describe God’s action in relationship to God’s people. In other words, we are to demonstrate the same mercy that God has for us. We are empowered to do no less than demonstrate God’s mercy in the lives of others. In living out one’s covenant with God, compassion, mercy, and love are the key factors in living for God and in discipleship with Jesus. And that love does not have any boundaries.

Most parables contain a moral lesson that we are meant to learn. This one, while containing a moral lesson, goes further. It ends with “go and do likewise. We are commanded to not only learn, but to live what we learn. Like the lawyer, to reevaluate the definition of neighbor may mean difficult choices when it comes to us living God’s commandment to love our neighbor. But we must make those choices. We must live into God’s commandments to love and care for our neighbor in the fullest sense.

In recent months, we have seen such horrid examples of hate and violence at home and around the world. Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas are just the most recent, making them the most vivid in our memories. Not to mention the fact that they happened in our own country, not someplace halfway around the world. Such atrocities are becoming all too frequent, all too common. Our political and religious leaders are correct. They are the result of increased disregard for the wellbeing of our neighbor. Disregard for the wellbeing of every human being that our God not only desires, but demands. Such tragedies stem from suspicion of those who are somehow different, who are other. They stem from fear of those who are other. And in some cases, from hate of those who are other. These and all other such incidents point to the ongoing need for just treatment of those viewed as different from ourselves. Of the need for mercy and unconditional love for all God’s children, as exemplified by the Good Samaritan. By the example of the Good Samaritan in the truest sense, as Jesus intended with his parable. To demonstrate in our words and actions the radical love of neighbor that crosses race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or political ideology. Of extending compassion, love, mercy, and respect to all we encounter, no matter who they are. The compassion, love, mercy, and respect that God first extended to us.

As Moses reminded the people of Israel, as Jesus reminded the lawyer – this is who we are as the people of God. This is not optional. As one witness to the Dallas sniper attacks said during an interview, “Our love needs to be stronger, our love needs to louder, than their hate.” That is our calling as the people of God. Now go and do likewise.

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