July 14, 2019

“The Good Sam Club”

Luke 10:25-37


Today’s passage has a similar but shorter version in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.

In those two gospels, just as in Luke we begin with this scene of a teacher of the law asking Jesus 2 questions.

  1. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers his question with a question-
  2. “What is written in the law? What do you read?”

He Answers and quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, and from Leviticus which we also find in Mark 12:28-34, and in Matthew 22:34-39. The Deuteronomy 6:5 passage says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.” Leviticus 19:17-18 says “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The word for “Neighbor” is “Reya” in Hebrew-brother, companion, fellow, friend, husband/wife, lover, neighbor- someone close to you. It is pretty clear that the Leviticus passage is talking about the concept of neighbor meaning “Fellow Hebrews.” However, the next question the teacher of the law asks leads to that definition expanding greatly by Jesus. He asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Only Luke has this illustration of what a neighbor is to Jesus- the story of the Good Samaritan, which illustrates that everyone is our neighbor, caring for others, even strangers, affecting their lives by helping them in some significant way. We’ll return to this understanding of neighbor in just a bit.


It is quite easy to look at this section quoted by the lawyer and focus solely on the idea of loving our neighbors, showing God’s love to them so that they can, in turn, know that love and pay it forward to others. We gloss over the words “as you love yourself,” which may be an even harder call from God than reaching out to a total stranger.


In fact theologian Karl Barth, one of my favorites believed this passage has absolutely nothing to do with a love of self, for love of self can never be good or right, but must be reversed and turned into a love of God and neighbor. Barth said- “We already are much too devoted to ourselves.” Loving ourselves can make us feel uncomfortable, self-centered. It is easier to think of ourselves as lowly worms, bringing ourselves down to “Eeyore” like proportions. “Nope. Nothing special about me.” But Barth was wrong. This passage does have to do with the love of self. In fact, it is an integral part of God’s message to love others. A person cannot reach out in love to another without first loving themselves and knowing that they are themselves beloved creations of God.


The great Theologian Henri Nouwen said, “The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world- free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridiculed, or even considered useless; free also to receive love from people and to be grateful for all the signs of God’s presence in the world. I am convinced that I will be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries.”


When we fully believe we are loved far beyond the boundaries of this world, it is then that we can love God with the wholeness of our being- heart, soul, mind, and strength.


To love God with the heart: In early Israelite understanding of the human body, the heart was seen as the central organ of the human will, for the heart made it possible for arms and limbs to move. Without a heart, the human being has no will, no direction or purpose.


To love God from the soul is to understand the origin of one’s soul. The word for soul, nephesh, literally means the “breath of God.” The Hebrews understood that as they were created by God, God took a breath, and breathed life into their bodies through their nostrils, giving them a soul. You are God-breathed! The very depths of your soul, your nephesh, come from the Creator, is connected TO the Creator.


To love God from the mind is to use your intellect to understand your world, to use your mind to bring about peace, mercy, justice, and love to your neighbors.


To love God from your strength, actually “Force” in Hebrew means to work in this world physically for God-through your own strength to bring about hope to a world in despair.


One of my favorite seminary professors from my Alma Mater, SFTS, Herman Waetjen wrote that as human beings come to know they are beloved of God, then and only then can they reach out in love to neighbors as they love themselves. “Indeed, the two cannot be separated from each other. For to love God out of the whole heart is to be free and courageous in fulfilling the will of God in our relationships with fellow human beings and with ourselves. To love God out of the whole soul is to open ourselves to actualizing the possibility and freedom of God in all levels of human society. To love God out of a whole mind is to employ all the powers of intellect in devotion to the creator by discovering new and superior ways of building social and economic institutions that eliminate poverty, ignorance, and disease.”


The teacher of the law was right: He quoted Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus told him “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.” It all begins with the understanding that you are beloved of God. It is then that we can respond to love God and turn in love to our neighbor. But the teacher of the law wanted to understand fully, and so he asked a clarifying question. “WHO is my neighbor?” This brings us back to the story of the Good Samaritan and trying to fully understand who our neighbors are.


First, we hear of a traveler going on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a well-traveled, well-known route, which means it more than likely had bandits hiding along the road. These bandits come out and rob the man, leaving him half dead.


First, a Priest passes by- Why? The story does not say. Then a Levite-who also worked in the temple, serving as a temple assistant passes by. Why did he pass by? Again, the story does not tell us. When I first heard this story decades ago, I thought the priest and Levite were horrible people. How could you not help this nearly dead man on the side of the road? And yet, perhaps the priest thought the man in need could have been a plant by thieves. Once he went over to the body, they would then beat him and take everything. Or, touching a corpse, if he wasn’t moving or groaning- would’ve made either of them unclean, would have disqualified them for their priestly duties at the temple. Perhaps a big worship service was about to happen at the temple and they needed to get there? Perhaps when they saw the victim, theirs was a choice between duty and duty- duty to a neighbor in need- Love your neighbor as you love yourself; And duty to God- Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul strength and mind by serving God at temple.


I have a parallel story that illustrates this dilemma perfectly. On Friday afternoon, about 1 pm, I needed to get to the City office on Winburn Way down at Lithia Park, to drop off a neighbor notice letter. We have just gotten a noise permit from the city for our jazz band who will be playing for us next Sunday at our barbecue. I wanted to make sure we are good neighbors, and so I wrote a letter informing our neighbors of the potential noise and also inviting them to join us which we will send out early next week, attached it to the permit request, and brought it down the office so they could file it, completing the permit process. That was only one of many other important things I had to get done, and I still had plenty to do. I had yet to start writing my sermon, hadn’t completed the powerpoint presentation on Scotland, needed to proof the bulletin, and needed to prepare for a pre-marital counseling session that afternoon. I hadn’t even had time to get lunch up to that point either, so I was in a hurry to get back to church.


On the way back up Siskiyou, I noticed a man lose his balance right in front of the Library and take a tumble. I slowed down and thought about pulling over to make sure he was all right. However, he righted himself pretty quickly, and a woman got out of her car and went over to check on him. Perhaps like the priest or the Levite, I was caught between duty- duty to a neighbor in need and duty to God at church. I prayed and asked what I should do, and did not feel a push from the Spirit to get out and help. As the man got up, I drove on, feeling I had tried being a good neighbor to our surrounding community while being a poor neighbor to someone in need, neglecting one duty for another, and understanding a bit more of what may’ve kept the priest and Levite from stopping.


Clearly, they are not the heroes of today’s story, and perhaps neither am I. Here Jesus uses a despised person as a hero instead- A Samaritan. These people were hated by the Jewish people. Originally part of the Hebrews who settled in the holy land, they eventually moved further north. They mixed with other nations, which in faithful Jewish minds made them unclean. They also opposed rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem after the return from the exile in Babylon, instead, building a temple on Mt Gerizim and believed that was God’s dwelling place, not Jerusalem’s temple. Because of all of these things, they were viewed as ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, religious heretics. This enemy delayed his own journey, expended great energy, risked danger to himself, spent 2 days wages with more likely to be spent later. He gave 2 Denarii to the innkeeper. To help us understand how much that was, the avg. salary in the U.S. last year was $905 per week, so dividing that number by 7, in today’s terms, it would be roughly $260 given by the Samaritan to help this complete stranger in need.


Jesus completes the scene, asking the interpreter of the law who of the three proved to be a neighbor to the man on the side of the road. He answered, “The one who showed mercy on him.” “Go and do likewise”, Jesus said.


2 things come to mind as I ponder the meaning of this parable. First, Jesus humanizes an enemy. Perhaps we are called to do the same. How might it affect us to see the enemy as a person as well? Secondly, here Jesus expanded the term of neighbor to mean anyone who shows mercy to another person whether they know them or not. Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers wrote, “If my heart is right with God, every human being is my neighbor.”


There are many questions to ponder here from today’s passage, things I encourage you to chew on and wrestle with as you go from this place.


First-Do you love God with your whole self?


Second-Do you love YOU?


Third-Who are enemies, people who you would not invite over for tea, or people you vehemently disagree with? Jesus encourages us to see them as another neighbor with the capacity for heroic deeds.


Finally, Jesus encourages us to see people, ALL people as neighbors, as people needing mercy. How does that apply to us on the street where we live? In our church here? In our local community? On the roads as we drive? How does that apply to us as a nation as we continue to struggle with the huge humanitarian crisis at our border with Mexico? What does it mean to take the concept of neighbor and apply it globally?


May God be with us as we struggle to be faithful, to live out the gospel in what we say and in what we do, to love God, to love self, and to show mercy to our neighbors.


Alleluia. Amen.

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