“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question sets us off on one of the most beloved parables found in the gospels. Now notice that the lawyer who posed the question wasn’t really asking because he wanted to know. It says he “stood up to test Jesus.” But sometimes, what others mean for evil, God has a way of turning to good.
Jesus boomerangs the question right back at the questioner—“What’s in the law? What do you read there?” And the answer is one that any young Jewish child would have been able to recite “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.” It’s not rocket science. It’s not even hard to memorize.
As the writer of Deuteronomy put it (Deut. 30:12-14), “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’… It is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
So we know the answer to the question, “What do I have to do?” But we don’t want to know THAT answer to the question. Because it can’t be “that easy.”
Love God. Love neighbor. Love self. Hey, wait a minute. That would mean loving everybody. That can’t be right. I get it. This must be a trick answer. Love God (that has to be right). I know I love myself. Love your neighbor. There we are. Follow-up question Jesus? “Who is my neighbor?
And we find ourselves, with Jesus, on the dangerous road to Jericho—where a man has been beset by robbers, who strip him, leaving him naked in the hot sun; who beat him mercilessly; who leave him half dead.
We’ve acted out the parable this morning. We know the priest and the Levite (the outwardly pious and religiously learned) SEE the man, but their faith somehow doesn’t mean they stop to help. No, they pass by on the other side. It is only the Samaritan… (that despised group of people who live next to the Israelites, who worship the same God but on the wrong mountain, who are looked down upon as lesser, for they don’t have the right credentials, they aren’t right, mostly, because they aren’t us.) It is only the Samaritan who stops, who binds this man’s wounds with expensive oil and wine; who uses his own animal to bring the wounded man to an inn (meaning he has to walk the whole way); who takes care of him that night, and when this Samaritan has to depart, he gives money to the innkeeper to continue care—promising to repay anything extra that is needed.
Did you notice that when Jesus asks “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Our lawyer can’t even bring himself to say it. “The Samaritan” Doesn’t come out of his mouth. Nope. His answer is “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus doesn’t rub it in too much. He just ends with “Go and do likewise.”
The lawyer knew what he was supposed to do. So do we. The problem comes with putting our faith, our words, our beliefs, into action. Because Faith in Action is a lot harder than faith that is only “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith in Action means stepping out of our comfort zone. Faith in Action might require giving up some of our privilege or our hard-earned capital or our standing in the eyes of others. Faith in Action is where you discover whether it is faith at all.
Anyone can say, “I love God, I love my neighbor, I love myself.” Jesus picked a priest and a Levite for goodness sake. They knew the Scriptures. And I’m pretty sure they knew that they ought to help a stranger in need. Isn’t that the code of hospitality? But actually doing faith is messy. It might mean getting blood on your clothes. It might mean dislodging your perfectly set schedule. It might require more than you wish to give.
We all love this parable where Jesus really sticks it to that lawyer, and we revel in all the people that that lawyer represents in our lives, until he becomes us. Because “who is my neighbor?” seems to be the question of our time as well.
Who is our neighbor when we look to the southern border, to people crammed into pens like animals, where children are separated from their parents with no seeming way to be reunited?
Who is our neighbor when we are faced with systemic, generational poverty that beats mind, and heart, and soul, and strength down into the dust?
Who is our neighbor in the current climate where overt racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred are tolerated and even lifted up as patriotic by some?
Who is our neighbor when we are so polarized that families are split down the middle with no obvious way of reconciliation?
Who is our neighbor when we are filled with righteous anger, or when we hold onto deep-seated bitterness, or when we are parched beyond thirst for justice?
Faith in Action is not easy. And we don’t have unlimited resources, unlimited time, unlimited energy. But faith without action really calls into question what our faith is all about. We may be lucky enough to pick our faith battles. The Samaritan just stumbled onto his. What seems sure is that there needs to be action of some kind—because on the road to wherever we are going, there will be those who have been stripped of their humanity, bloodied, beaten, and left half for dead.
Jill Duffield of the Presbyterian Outlook puts it this way:
When we look at the world, what do we see? Growing income inequality. Unequal access to everything that contributes to life and life abundant: healthy food, clean water, a good education, quality health care, banks, jobs, community, housing, the right to vote or walk without fear in your neighborhood. Who, do you think, is a neighbor to those who are left for dead, nameless, and barely breathing? The answer is obvious. Those who notice. Those who stop. Those who tend. Those who share their resources. Those who enlist others to help. Those who refuse to just go on about their business as if there is nothing to be done, nothing they can do, no balm for suffering, pain, cruelty, and trauma. In short, those who show compassion.
We know what is required of us.
We know what the Scriptures say,
We know it in our heart.
We should “Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Faith in Action.
Go and do likewise, says Jesus.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.