A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
Two Sundays ago, our lectionary Gospel readings set out with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Today’s lesson directly continues in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The journey started in Jesus’ home district of Galilee, in the far north of Palestine to Jerusalem, in the southern part of Palestine. A large part of the journey is through the district of Samaria. That roughly overlaps where the northern Kingdom of Israel was before the Assyrians overran it and then the Babylonians invaded and took many from the southern Kingdom of Judah into exile. In that district of Samaria was a large number of towns populated by Samaritans. The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true followers of Moses—they observed the laws of the Five Books of Moses and offered sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim, which they believed was the place that God had appointed, not Jerusalem. The Jews, including those who were the majority in Galilee as well as those from Judea, regarded the temple in Jerusalem as The Holy Place. The Jews believed that the Samaritans had intermarried with idolaters, that their worship was polluted, and that they were generally a people not to be trusted. These two groups did not have an amicable relationship. In fact, they got along better with the gentiles with whom they shared no common traditions, than they did with each other.
When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, he sent messengers out and a Samaritan town rejected them. Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John, whose nickname was the “Sons of Thunder” came to Jesus and suggested that they should call for God to rain down fire on that village. That epitomized the relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans.
In our reading today, a lawyer stands up, and in this case, he’s a man trained in the interpretation of Jewish law. It’s clear from the way the text is written that his questions are meant to test Jesus and put him in a difficult place, to make him say things that would not be popular with the crowds. So when he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he’s not looking for an answer, but a debate. Jesus agrees with him, “Do this and you will live.” There is no difference in the essential core of the spiritual life and the Jewish law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
But now the lawyer wants to pin Jesus down, “And who is my neighbor?”
He was looking for Jesus to draw for him the boundaries of the righteous and the unrighteous.
When Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t give guidance on how to decide who your neighbor is. Do you see that? He doesn’t give a narrow or a broad definition. He doesn’t say one group is neighbors and another is not. He doesn’t say that some might become neighbors in such and such a way. He doesn’t say, you’ll know they are neighbors by their love of you. He does not even say that everyone is your neighbor.
Jesus tells a story about how to BE a neighbor. Not to figure out who to treat like a neighbor, just how to be one. And in this situation, at this time, Jesus chose to tell this Jewish lawyer about a Samaritan who behaved like a neighbor. The man who was beaten by robbers was clearly Jewish, like Jesus and the lawyer, and the two other characters in the story were clergy—a priest and a Levite. The religious people in this world may think that being religious makes them much more neighborly, but that isn’t the case. Not according to Jesus.
Jesus chose as his illustration of who could be a neighbor, a person that all of his hearers, not just this lawyer, but also his own disciples, especially James and John, regarded with disrespect and anger. When Jesus described the Samaritan, when he saw the man injured by the road, Jesus said that he was moved by compassion—the Greek root of the word implies that he felt the man’s pain and need from deep in his insides.
Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Who acted like a neighbor?”
“The one who showed mercy.” There was no other possible answer to Jesus’ question. Jesus refused to respond to the question of who your neighbor is. Instead he said, “Go and do likewise.” This was not necessarily good politics, but it was what Jesus meant.
This week—I’m not sure what to say. The shooting of Alton Sterling and of Philando Castile by police officers. Shootings that would not have happened to white men. Then Thursday night, the massacre of police officers in Dallas, Texas who were conscientiously doing their job of keeping a peaceful protest safe. Anger and fear reacting in violence. We are in a country where everybody seems to shout—“NOT MY NEIGHBOR!” And even those who are quiet, quietly see others as the transgressors, the untrustworthy, the scary— “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But it was one of those transgressors, one of those Samaritans, who was deeply moved by compassion. Who saw the humanity of the wounded man, who put himself on the line for the sake of his healing.
It’s easy enough to see how people habitually do not treat one another as neighbors. It’s easy enough to see the disastrous results of that. What is not easy to see is how to unravel the violence, the hate, and the simple self-pity of those who allow violence to flourish. I don’t know what to say.
But it was obvious, even to his hostile questioner, when Jesus asked, “Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who into the hands of the robbers?” It was the one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Let us pray our Psalm for today, once more. Psalm 25:1-9 in the insert.
To you, O Lord, I life up my soul, My God, I put my trust in you:
Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
Show me your ways, O Lord.
and teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.
Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,
For they are from everlasting.
Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.
Gracious and upright is the Lord;
Therefore he teaches sinners in his way.
He guides the humble in doing right
And teaches his way to the lowly.
All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness
To those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.