video of this sermon can be seen at: http://www.facebook.com/lcm.lakewood
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of the divisions that seem to be deepening around us and among us. The “us vs. them” mentality seems harsher then ever. The black and white thinking of “I’m right, you’re wrong” seems more entrenched. We seem to be less open to dialogue, moving instead to argument. We have come to believe that our opinions are facts, by virtue of them being our opinions,. We demonize and attack anyone who disagrees with us because, if they disagree, they are not only wrong, but evil, unpatriotic, ungodly, or just “one of those people” and can therefore be written off and disregarded.
That was apparently happening in Jesus’ day too. It’s what’s happening in the parable of the Good Samaritan. “A lawyer stood up to test Jesus,” we began. If he wants to test Jesus, he believe he knows the answer, right? He wants to see if Jesus knows what he knows, believes what he believes. He wants to know if Jesus is “one of us” or “one of them.” So he tests him to see if Jesus is right, which will be revealed if Jesus agrees with this lawyer’s interpretation of the law regarding eternal life. I don’t think the lawyer really cares about eternal life. I think he believes he has the right answer and wants to know if Jesus can be counted on to back him up.
We don’t ever find out what happened to this lawyer. But one thing we can be pretty confident about: Jesus didn’t pass his test right then. This man is not an attorney like we understand it. He’s a teacher of God’s law, a religious expert. And Jesus’ answer to “who is the neighbor?” wouldn’t be what a teacher of the law would believe. Jesus says that a heretic, a Samaritan, reveals God better than a priest or a Levite—both of which are religious experts too.
Samaritans had a falling out with Jews centuries before, when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was overthrown. Samaritans, from Samaria, were the Jews who were left behind and weren’t killed off. Left behind in Israel, they corrupted the Jewish faith by intermarrying other religions and incorporating some of those practices into their own. By Jesus’ day, Samaritans represented everything that was abhorrent and opposed to God.
Yet Jesus chooses in his parable to lift up a Samaritan as the one through whom God’s mercy is recognizable. A Samaritan! One of “them!”
Part of Jesus’ point, it seems to me, is that God is seen, revealed, can work through anyone. Even those we consider wrong, or evil, or “one of them.”
Have you ever recognized God in the words or actions of someone you disagree with?
I initiated several conversations with friends on Facebook about gun legislation. Yes, I did that. On Facebook. On purpose.
I started badly. I called out a government official with whom I disagreed and used the word “disgusting.” Not a great way to start a conversation. Like the lawyer in this parable, I was testing people on Facebook to see who agreed with me and who didn’t. When someone from this congregation took offense at my language, and called me out on not wanting to have a conversation, it eventually caused me to rethink my approach. After, of course, I said a few more argumentative statements. At least the lawyer had the good sense to shut up when Jesus called him out.
So I deleted that post and tried again with others. This time, actually listening and acknowledging the possibility that perhaps I needed some transformation too. Maybe I needed to see what God was doing beyond my own opinion. Perhaps I could recognize the voice of God in the words of those I disagree with.
And the conversations were civil, mostly. I respected the opinions of those I disagreed with and they respected mine. And I learned a few things, and I heard God’s voice.
It’s not that anyone’s mind was changed. It’s more that I saw and heard something we have in common that God was addressing. Gun rights advocates and gun legislation advocates are both afraid. We’re all looking for something to bring security in the midst of that fear. Fear causes us to test others and see who rallies to our position. Fear causes us to blame others for the things that are wrong. Fear causes us to label people, to jump to conclusions, to scapegoat, to draw lines of division. If we’re afraid, we seek the security of closing borders to “them,” to keep “them” away. Police shootings of two black men in Baton Rouge and in St. Paul bring out our fear. Snipers mowing down police at a peaceful march in Dallas bring out our fear. And it is our fear that separates us.
In scripture, whenever God is going to do something big, why do you think the first words God speaks are, “Do not be afraid”? Because fear separates us from each other—and from God. And the point of this parable of the Good Samaritan is that God works through “them” just as well as God works through “us.” And that is the part we need to pay attention to, to be open to.
But I’ll tell you, when we’re open to God’s activity, we will be changed, transformed. Isn’t that the heart of this whole Jesus thing anyway? New life? Death and resurrection? Dying to the old and being raised to the new? That can be uncomfortable, even frightening. We’re back into fear. So, to comfort us in our fear of being changed, we use Jesus to defend our opinions and positions. Too often we use our religion to prevent change instead of initiating it. We must be transformed, which is the work of God and the purpose of our faith. And transformation comes when we embrace God’s activity, even when it is revealed by those we disagree with. Even if it is done by those we hate. Even if God speaks to us through those we are afraid of.
The violence and division are eroding us, diminishing us, enslave us in fear. It must stop. God is in the midst of it doing something new. That’s what we need to watch for, what we need to pray for. “Do not be afraid.” We will be changed. God is at work. Even through our enemies. Even through those we fear. Even through those we disagree with. Even through us. The neighbor, Jesus says, is the one who shows us God. Go and do likewise.