July 14, 2019
There are a few bible stories that it seems the whole world knows, whether they are Christian or not. David and Goliath, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the 23rd psalm and the Good Samaritan. The trouble for us in the church is, we have heard these stories over and over again. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he told it with a surprise ending. We miss the shock value of the story both because we've heard it so often and we don't always understand the very unfriendly relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans.
Here is another way the story may affect someone hearing it for the first time. A Sunday School teacher was telling the story of the Good Samaritan to her class of 4 & 5 year-olds. She was making it as vivid as possible to keep the children interested in her tale.
At one point, she asked the class, “If you saw a person lying on the roadside all wounded and bleeding, what would you do?”
A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, “I think I'd throw up.”
Let's start at the beginning of our reading, “a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” Now this wouldn't be a courtroom lawyer, but an expert in the law. His question to test Jesus dealt with the system of hundreds of law the Jews had developed. “Which is the most important out of all those laws, Jesus?” The lawyer would have known the answer, it was an accepted concept that love God and love neighbor came first in the book of laws. But he was checking on the answer Jesus would give. And Jesus passed.
But the lawyer didn't really want Jesus to pass so easily. So he now moves on, he wants to make Jesus give a legal clarification; draw boundaries if you will. “Just who is my neighbor? Is it only the person who lives next door to me? Is it the people in my synagogue? Is it my friends? Just where is the limit on who I need to love as my neighbor?” Rather than answering directly, Jesus told this all-so-familiar parable. Who loved the injured man as his neighbor?
Well, I understated that a bit. The man wasn't just injured, Luke tells us the man was half dead. That's quite a beating. In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max says of the dead hero Wesley, “It just so happens that your friend here is mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.” In Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, the cart rolls through the town, with the crier shouting, “Bring out your dead. ” One fellow brings out his half dead father who complains, “I’m not dead yet.” This fellow by the side of the road was half dead, and needed help. Who would be his neighbor?
The church certainly wasn't, the priest passed by; I'm sure he was able to justify his actions. Rather than helping a man whom he didn't know; didn't know his race or his religion or his condition, he didn't dare to take a chance on doing something that violated his religious rules. He crossed the road to avoid him. Likewise the Levite would have crossed over for similar religious reasons. It is possible that the two commands—love God and love your neighbor--conflicted here. The priest and Levite weighed the value of helping versus the possibility of breaking one of their religious rules. And it is possible for us all to use this conflict to justify our actions: we may play one off against the other. “Sorry neighbor, I have to do this thing for God. Sorry God, I have to do this thing for my neighbor.” We must guard against this trap. Doing for God means doing for your neighbor.
Julie and I went to the musical “Litchfield is our Home” on Tuesday. Bishop Herbert Chilstrom, a Litchfield native, told of the divisions even amongst neighbors he saw in Litchfield growing up. He said that if he and his Lutheran friends were walking by the nun's home and saw a sister in her habit, they would leave the sidewalk and walk in the street...and if they saw the priest, they crossed all the way over to the other side of the street. Taught hatred and/or fear led them to avoid “the other”; anybody they didn't understand or of different beliefs were to be avoided. He pointed out to us all that through the course of his life, that fear was wrong and unfounded and he had close connection to many Roman Catholics.
It is tempting to cross over the street and avoid an uncomfortable or difficult or scary meeting. Those two religious men crossed over intentionally to avoid the man in need. Jesus then tells them the hated Samaritan is the only one to help. Which would have been not only surprising to his listeners, it would have been downright maddening. I don't doubt there were some very disatisfied listeners that day.
If we study the answer Jesus gave in parable form a little closer though, we might ask ourselves, “Did Jesus really answer the lawyer's question?” The question was, “who is my neighbor?” But the answer Jesus gave was really to the question, “how does a true neighbor behave?”
Jesus did not do what the lawyer wanted, give a checklist of who we are to love and who we do not have to love. He told them this story of someone who showed love; sacrificial love, selfless love, love that went above and beyond the bare minimum the lawyer was looking for. So Jesus did not tell him who he should love, but that love is action. If we asked the priest and the Levite if they loved that man lying on the side of the road, they would most certainly say yes. But they loved their proper rules and their procedures and safety more. People as a rule are pretty good at justifying our actions... or inaction. And we do have to be wise, not take foolish chances but even as I type this I realize that the Samaritan took foolish chances. The half-dead man laying on the side of the road may have been a trap. The robbers could have been waiting in the weeds waiting for someone to stop and they'd have themselves another victim. Or he could have been playing possum and attacked the Samaritan himself. There are, as we know now, certain dangers in coming in contact with blood. And when he paid money to the innkeeper, there were likely characters around who just might be tempted to rob him when they saw that cash being flashed.
There are always excuses. It's too dangerous, I'm not qualified, someone else can do it better, I need to help myself and my family first.... In our Old Testament reading, we read of Amos and his call by God. Amos was struggling mightily to get King Amaziah to hear him as he brought him God's word. When Amaziah tried to have Amos removed because he wasn't a recognized prophet, Amos admitted to the king, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” acknowledging that he did not have the credentials to be a prophet. But God had sent him, and his response to the king explained his call, “the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.' "Now therefore hear the word of the Lord...'” And Amos went on to prophesy disaster for the king and his personal life, and for the nation, “Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”
This was not an easy thing for Amos to do. He didn't seek the call, didn't want the call, but did what God called him to do. Loving our neighbor may not be an easy thing to do. Some people are more lovable than others. But this parable of Jesus makes clear that we are not called to do what's easy... that's what the lawyer wanted, an easy answer that made obedience easy. What we are called to do is not necessarily the easy thing. And you aren't called to do everything, but to do what is there for us to do. Amos went to the king with God's message; he didn't go to the army or the priests. That Samaritan wasn't looking for a service project when he went on the road that morning. But when a need arose, he was willing to step forward.
What might you be being called to do to love your neighbor today? It almost certainly won't be by saving a half-dead person in a ditch on your way home this morning. Loving your neighbor might mean we quit keeping score on who has hurt us and who we believe we owe retaliation to. It might mean sending money to a cause that is near and dear to you because you know a neighbor affected by it. I remind us all that opportunities may arise and we should be prepared to respond. And we should be intentional about the love your neighbor thing. And remember, despite what society teaches us today, for Jesus and for us love is an action and not an emotion; we act in love even when we aren't particularly fond of the person with whom we are interacting.
So I ask each of you the question the lawyer asked Jesus: Who is your neighbor? We can look around today... to the east there are some who live day to day with no family visits, who are lonely, who could use a friend. Across the street is low income housing, can we be welcoming and helpful there? Downtown; it may be that we need to be more intentional about shopping local so that our business neighbors can survive and thrive. It may mean not buying bargain brands because child labor has been used in its development. In These Days on Friday, Susan Andrews challenged us this way, “what do you feel in your gut? Horror at injustice? Passion for a cause? Empathy for the oppressed? Fear for your fragile grandchild? Fury at political dishonesty? Listen to your gut... and respond with the unconditional love in your heart.” Examine your heart and respond to those issues for which you have and passion, that can show what being a good neighbor looks like.
We as a church have certain projects to touch the lives of people in need, educating Litchfield about how to prevent abuse, helping the children in Head-start get a better start in life, giving necessary supplies to teenagers at WINGS, visiting our shut-ins, giving rides to someone in need, giving donations to the national church's disaster aid program.
As a Christian, we have a calling to love our neighbor and if we start looking for ways to touch the world with the love of Christ, we will find there is no shortage of needs or of neighbors. Be wise, be intentional, be loving... and help others, for the whole world is our neighbor. Amen