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Sermons

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

July 11, 2021 Sixth Sunday After Trinity The text is Luke 10: 25-37.   (As preached at Grace Ministries.)

                                                                

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25 An expert in Moses’ Teachings stood up to test Jesus. He asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  ”26 Jesus answered him, “What is written in Moses’ Teachings? What do you read there?”  27 He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”

28 Jesus told him, “You’re right!  Do this, and life will be yours.”

29 But the man wanted to justify his question. So he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way robbers stripped him, beat him, and left him for dead.   31 “By chance, a priest was traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he went around him and continued on his way.  32 Then a Levite came to that place. When he saw the man, he, too, went around him and continued on his way.

33 “But a Samaritan, as he was traveling along, came across the man. When the Samaritan saw him, he felt sorry for the man, 34 went to him, and cleaned and bandaged his wounds. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day the Samaritan took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. He told the innkeeper, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than that, I’ll pay you on my return trip.’  36 “Of these three men, who do you think was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by robbers?”

37 The expert said, “The one who was kind enough to help him.”  Jesus told him, “Go and imitate his example!”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Luke tells us that an expert in the Torah attempts to put Jesus on the spot, to determine if his teachings go against Jewish Law.  This lawyer asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus turns the tables on him and he ends up answering his own question, using the words of the Shema, the Jewish daily prayer that is found in Deuteronomy.  Pious Jews were, and are expected to recite this prayer several times each day.  People were commanded to teach it to their children, wear it on their wrists, and on their foreheads, and place the words on the doorpost of their homes.  Even today, if you enter the home of a Jewish person, you will likely find a mezuzah attached to the doorjamb of the house.  This is a small decorative case, inside of which is a scroll with the Shema prayer written on it.  This prayer is the centerpiece of Jewish faith; it frames people’s relationship with God and with those around them.  It begins at the fourth verse in Deuteronomy 6 with “Hear, Israel” and continues with the words spoken by the lawyer to Jesus about loving God and neighbor.  I’ll try my best to recite it in Hebrew:

Sheh-Ma  Yis-ra-El  Ah-do-Nai  El-o-hey-noo  Ad-do-Nai  Eh-khad.  Veh-ah-hav-ta  Et  Ah-do-Nai  Eh-lo-hey-kha  Beh-khol  Leh-vav-kha  Oo-veh-khol  Naf-sheh-kha  Oo-veh-khol  Meh-oh-deh-kha.

After the lawyer recites these words to Jesus, he is told that he has answered correctly, and that now he must act upon the command to love his neighbor as he loves himself.  This is not the first time we come across a version of what has become known as the Golden Rule; Jesus includes the admonition to “do unto others” as part of his preaching of the Beatitudes earlier in Luke.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; this is central to our Christian faith, as well as it is to our Jewish forbears.  But before any of us claims singular rights to the phrase let’s investigate some of the other places this “ethic of reciprocity” may be found.  “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself”.  From the Koran in Islam.  “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence”.  The writings of Confucius.  “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself.  This is the essence of morality”.  A commandment found in Hinduism.  This one is my favorite: “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird one should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts”.  This is a Yoruba tribal proverb from Nigeria.  For we Christians, the command remains even today, as “love your neighbor”.

But not willing to admit that Jesus has confounded him, the lawyer rather cynically asks Jesus, “who is my neighbor?”  And over the centuries many others have also asked the same question.  Do we still ask today?  Is our neighbor the one who sits next to us at worship, the one who thinks and believes exactly as we do?   The casual acquaintance who we tolerate, but isn’t exactly our “BFF”?  Or, dare we admit this to ourselves; is our “neighbor” the one who is diametrically opposed to us and our deeply held beliefs in every way?  According to Jesus, that’s exactly who our neighbor is!

In his telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ makes this clear in direct, stark, and for Luke’s early readers, uncomfortable terms.  This discomfort was felt viscerally by the hearers of the parable.  To be blunt, Jesus selected as his protagonist the most un-neighborly person the people could imagine.  Not to put too fine a point on it…the Jews despised the people of Samaria.  Although the two groups were closely related, they hated one another, chiefly because each believed they possessed singular claim to the original twelve tribes.  In Jesus’ time the people of Israel were forbidden by the religious authorities from having any contact with those in Samaria, even though geographically and historically they were close “neighbors”.  In the parable a priest and a lawyer deliberately walk past the injured man, presumably a fellow Jew with whom each had much in common.  To drive home his point Jesus tells us that the one to render aid was a Samaritan; one of “them”, not “us’; an outsider, one who was to be avoided at all costs.  Jesus intends this parable to be clear and concise, there is no room for interpretation.  The Shema prayer makes it clear; our relationship with God extends to everyone we encounter; we are to love our neighbor, even if he is a Samaritan.  Or today, anyone we might find to be different from us; less worthy; of a different culture or belief system; not deserving of the mercy that God commands us to show to all people.  The greater the differences, the more we are commanded to embrace and show love and mercy to our “neighbors”, whoever they may be.

I mentioned earlier that Jesus named the Compassionate Samaritan as the protagonist in the parable he told; but is he the main character, the most prominent figure in the story?  Should he be?

Let’s take a look at the other players in this parable, as Jesus instructs the lawyer as to how he must act if he is to serve his neighbors.  As well as the Samaritan who cares for the man beaten and left for dead, there are the priest and the Levite, who for all intents and purposes are two side of the same coin, and the injured man himself.  We can group the Levite and the priest together, since these are both associated with the temple and are assumed to be most familiar with Jewish Law.  So, we actually have three main characters.  A man who has been robbed, beaten, and left to die; his pious countrymen, well-versed in Jewish Law, which commanded them to aid the fallen man, and they didn’t; and the man from Samaria, despised by the locals, yet the one who was willing to render aid to the fallen Israelite. 

Where do we see ourselves, which of the characters in the parable do we most feel we represent?  I’m sure we would like to think of ourselves as the Good Samaritan, the compassionate one who wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to help someone in need.  So, let’s take a moment to ponder this, to insert ourselves into the parable, to imagine ourselves going above and beyond to aid the injured man lying in the ditch.  Now imagine the person lying on the side of the road is someone who, for whatever reason you don’t particularly care for.  Perhaps lying there is someone your culture or family upbringing has taught you to distrust, to view as “them” and not “us”?  If we are truly to take the place of the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, we still won’t hesitate to render all possible aid to whomever we find lying in the ditch.  Well, that exercise should make us feel pretty good about ourselves, no?  We’ve just thought of ourselves as the Compassionate Samaritan, and we’ve done exactly what our faith compels us to do.

Next up, the Levite and the temple priest, deeply religious men, fully versed in the Law of God which commands them to act with mercy toward anyone they encounter.  Yet they went out of their way to avoid even walking close by the poor, battered man lying there in front of them.  This time, you are invited to assume the uncomfortable role of the ones who passed by the helpless man, not stopping to help.

I would suggest that if we are honest with ourselves, we won’t have to search too deeply in our memory to recall a time when we may have acted in this way.  None of us behaves in the way God commands us to, all the time and in every situation.  Although we are forgiven through the saving work of Christ, it’s important that we recognize our failings and our sins.  When we place ourselves in the role of the callous ones in the parable, and we find ourselves not loving our neighbor, we are reminded of Jesus’ admonition to “go and imitate” the mercy of the Samaritan.

And, perhaps lastly, we ought to imagine ourselves in the place of the one lying injured in the ditch by the side of the road.  This is the role that most of us might overlook when we insert ourselves into this parable.  Obviously, we would like to think of ourselves as the “good”, compassionate one, coming to the aid of a person in need.  And, although we might not be too quick to admit it, we too have been known to disregard the needs of our neighbors.  But, do we think of ourselves as the one in need, the broken soul, unable to help ourselves?  Dependent on others?

I would suggest that this is the role that most clearly defines us; the injured man in need of help is the character in the story we most closely identify with.  After all, we are sinful beings in desperate need of the mercy, grace, and love bestowed upon us by God.  And if we allow ourselves to imagine we are the one in dire need it becomes much easier to see ourselves in others who find themselves in similar circumstances.  If we adopt the role of the “other”, the “them”, it then follows that they become “us”.  Often, we stop to help, occasionally we walk right by; it’s only when we are broken that we can truly understand the needs of our neighbors; only when we put ourselves in their place.  It’s then that we truly take to heart the command to, “go and imitate” the compassionate example that Jesus sets before us.  Good Samaritan, unsympathetic priest, and battered victim; in the eyes of God, they are all the same; and they are all us.  We ought to imagine ourselves in each of these roles when we find ourselves called upon to “love our neighbors”.           

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, help us to see ourselves in the lives of others.  Send your Holy Spirit to motivate us to always show compassion for the neighbors that you have set in our midst.  Forgive us when we fail to act toward others as we should.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who reaches down from the cross to lift our sinful selves up from the ditch at the side of the road.  Amen.  God is good, all the time!  All the time, God is good!

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