Going Deeper 7-15-2019

Hear again the final couple of verses from our Gospel text, the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus asks the inquiring Lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”   Thus far our text.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
How do you respond to this parable?  If we truly understand what Jesus is saying here in his teaching story, our response should be nothing less than astonishment.  Along with the lawyer whose questions prompted the story in the first place, as well as any Jew within ear shot—including Jesus’ disciples—our response ought to be something like this: “Oh come on, Jesus!  You can’t be serious?  Who can possibly love like this? And of all people, certainly not a Samaritan!”
What Jesus teaches here flies in the face of any realistic understanding of God’s expectations for anyone who—like the lawyer in our text—wants to know what must be done to inherit eternal life.  There is a clue to be found in the question itself as to where the lawyer’s confusion in all this comes from.  In particular, what does one typically have to do to “inherit” something?  Be someone’s child and then wait for them to die!  He is confusing inherit with merit.
The fact is that if we want to DO something to earn eternal life for ourselves, this story lays it out for us.  The answer’s in the divine Law, which the lawyer does a great job of summarizing by combining Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18- “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.” “You have given the right answer,” was Jesus’ reply. “Do this, and you will live.” 
But wanting to justify himself (ah, another clue as to his core problem!), the Lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  And now we head into radical new territory.  In the story Jesus tells we’re going to find out it’s much easier to talk about loving God and neighbor than it is to actually practice the kind of love the Law—and Jesus—truly demands!  Let’s look at some of the details.
In order to understand the mindset of the Lawyer in our story, and of his fellow Jews, let’s listen to a couple of extra-biblical texts.  First, from Sirach 12 (one of the apocryphal intertestamental books you can find in some Bibles), these words:  If you do good, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds.  Do good to the devout, and you will be repaid— if not by them, certainly by the Most High…  Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner.  
Secondly, listen to these words from a Jewish Midrash (or commentary) on the Book of Ruth: The Gentiles, amongst whom and us there is no war, and so those that are keepers of the sheep amongst the Israelites, and the like, we are not to contrive their death; but if they be in any danger of death, we are not bound to deliver them.  For example, if any one of them fall into the sea you shall not need to take them out; for it is said, “Thou shalt not rise up against the blood of thy neighbor”; but such a one is not your neighbor.
You see, the Lawyer is asking an honest question.  If he is to love his neighbor, it is important to know just who qualifies to be considered as one’s neighbor.  Jesus is not only going to answer that question, but he is also going to lay out just how much one is to love their neighbor. "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” Jesus begins his story.  We’re not told whether or not the man is Jewish.  Actually, after he “fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead,” there was no way of telling if he was a Jew or a Gentile.
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”  Priests were among the upper class, so he likely would have been riding a donkey.  But he was not willing to get off his ass and help out.  He was faced with a dilemma: How does he know if the man is a neighbor?  If he were clearly a fellow Jew, he might have helped out.  But the man might have even been dead, and if he was, the priest dare not touch him lest he become ceremonially unclean.  Priests were not allowed to come within six feet of a corpse.
So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  A Levite was not bound by as many regulations as a priest, but he decided to keep going.  He might have rationalized (root words “rational” “lies”), he may have rationalized things by thinking that it might be a trap, or asking himself, “If the priest did nothing, why should I act any differently?” 
Jesus continues: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.”  Wait! Stop the presses!  What did he just say?  A Samaritan was moved by pity?  How could this be?  Jews considered Samaritans to be lowly dogs, to be half-bred and contaminated distant relatives who were not only detested by Jews, but by extension surely were detested by God as well.  But, no, Jesus is God, and he speaks of a Good Samaritan.
The Samaritan also risks contamination... they had cleanliness rules, too.  He also put himself at risk of walking right into a trap.  No guarantee that the robbers had left.  They very well might be waiting for another victim.  None of that matters to him.  He doesn’t care if this victim is a Jew or a Samaritan, or if he might be dead, or if he might be putting himself in danger. “When he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”  Wow!  What compassion!  What courage!  What generosity! ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I’ll repay you whatever more you spend.’
So, the moral of the story?  Who is my neighbor? Answer: anyone who is in need. Absolutely anyone!  To what extent am I to care for them?  Without limit.  Now are you ready to respond as the lawyer and others certainly would have responded? “Come on, Jesus!  You can’t be serious?  Who can possibly love like this?”  And the first response to that question is…?  No one!  Not me. Not you.  No one. … Except Jesus. Only Jesus could be moved to that level of compassion and courage.  Only Jesus could love enough to risk everything.
Only Jesus… and those who would seek to follow him.  How can we possibly learn to follow so radically?  How can we become radically less self-centered and more focused on loving and serving God and others?  Paul tells us in our Epistle reading: In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.  
Only after truly comprehending and experiencing the radical grace of God, and only when moved and empowered by His Holy Spirit, can we even begin to love like Jesus.  This love is borne from the inside out.  And so we continue to pray for—and seek—the Holy Spirit of God.  We pray that the Spirit would help us become more and more like Jesus every day in all that we think, in all that we do, and in all that we say... and in who and how much we love.  Amen.