Sunday 14 July 2019
The Fifth Sunday of Pentecost
The scene opens on Jesus as he is on his way to Jerusalem. He has sent out his seventy disciples already to spread the good news and heal, and they have returned with their reports. And now something happens that seems a bit strange to us, but it must have been quite ordinary for people at the time.
Someone comes up and asks Jesus a question. Most bible translations call him a lawyer or a legal expert., and that is accurate to some degree, but it is also a bit confusing. What he is is an expert in the bible. He knows the words of scripture inside and out, and it’s his job to know the bible and interpret it for the people in his community, in his village.
So this bible expert comes up to Jesus and asks him a question. Luke tells us that he asks the question in order to test Jesus. That’s the part that seems a bit strange to us modern readers. Why would someone who is otherwise a stranger come and ask Jesus a question in order to test him? He must be one of the people who is trying to bring down Jesus. Maybe he is even part of the conspiracy to get Jesus killed. It’s difficult to think of any other motivation this lawyer would have to test Jesus, and so we often jump to cast him in the role of villain.
In fact, he is not a villain, and people at the time would have had no such confusion. They would have immediately understood, without even thinking about it, what was going on. It was quite common, and is still common today in cultures that highly value honor, for men to engage in these sorts of verbal battles. Scholars today call them “challenge and riposte.” It’s a sort of game of wits in which the two participants put their honor on the line, and the winner comes out with more honor, the loser with less.
When the bible expert comes up and asks a question of Jesus in order to test him, he is making a challenge to Jesus’s honor, but it isn’t necessarily hostile or malevolent. This is simply what people did. It was a sort of game, and anyone who thought they knew the scriptures well might have come up and challenged this traveling rabbi with a question simply to prove which one of them had a better command of the bible.
So let’s get into what they actually say. The bible expert challenges Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus accepts the challenge and counter-challenges by turning the question back on the questioner, “You’re a bible expert. What does the bible say? What do you read there?”
You see, now our young lawyer thinks he’s got the upper hand in this argument. He has a textbook answer ready to go and once he gives it, Jesus won’t be able to say anything back. He will have won. So he gives his flawless answer, quoted from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Nothing Jesus can say to that, or so he thinks.
Jesus concedes that the bible expert has gotten it right. Normally this would mean that Jesus had lost the battle of wits. But instead, Jesus counter-challenges not with a technical question, but with a call to action: “Do this, and you will live.”
The bible expert is caught by surprise. He had been on top in their little competition, but now Jesus has upped the stakes by implying that he, an expert in the scripture, has not been living out the scriptural call to love God and neighbor that he has been preaching. He can’t leave it at that. He’s got to respond. And so he asks Jesus another question, “And who is my neighbor?”
He seems to be trying to trip Jesus up again. Whom will Jesus include as neighbor, and who will Jesus leave out? According to the bible, it’s other members of the household of Israel who are neighbors, and maybe sojourners in the land of Israel, but no one else. Foreign merchants and tax collectors weren’t neighbors. The Roman soldiers and government officials weren’t neighbors. And certainly those heretics in Samaria were not neighbors. They were enemies, and there was no need to love them. They should only be hated and resisted.
Jesus, of course, has a very different answer. But he doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he tells a story. A man is traveling the sometimes dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is robbed, stripped, and beaten half to death. A priest goes by, a levite goes by, but a Samaritan stops and helps.
Now, priests and levites were at the top of the Jewish religious hierarchy. They were people set apart to be pure and holy for God, and as such, they had several purity laws spelled out in the bible that they were bound to keep. They had to stay holy and undefiled so that when they served in God’s temple, the offerings they made would be pure and undefiled. They were not allowed to come into contact with human blood, and they certainly were not allowed to touch a corpse. The only time a priest could touch a corpse would be to bury his own parent, and even then he would be made ritually unclean and would be barred from serving in the temple for some time until he was purified. It would have been a major breach of protocol for a priest or a Levite to approach what would have looked to them like a naked corpse. It would have been an abomination before God to allow one of God’s priests to be defiled in such a way.
A Samaritan, on the other hand, would not have had the same concerns about staying pure, but no self-respecting Israelite would have wanted to be touched by a Samaritan. They were believers in God, and they read the bible just like Israelites, but both Israel and Samaria considered each other to be hopeless heretics and enemies. The last person this man on the roadside would have expected to help him was a Samaritan.
Jesus rejects the premise of the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and instead proposes another question, “Who acts as a neighbor?” Love in the spirit of God is not about asking, “Who is worthy of love?” It is about asking, “Who has the grace to love another, even an enemy?”
It’s easy for us to put up barriers between ourselves and others. It’s easy for us to draw lines between those who are inside and those who are outside, those whom we are willing to love and those whom we are not. This person isn’t religious enough. She’s too liberal. He’s too conservative. He’s too old. She’s too young. They look different than we do. They speak a different language. They have a different religion. They come from a different country. They aren’t worthy. They don’t belong. They are outsiders. It’s easy for us to say, “I’m willing to go this far, but that is simply too much.”
But if we are to take Jesus’s words seriously, then we have to challenge those ideas. We have to challenge the idea that there are some people who are outside the love of God, some people whom we can simply discount, ignore, or marginalize. For those who seek to follow Jesus, that simply is not the case. Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbors—all of our neighbors, even the ones we don’t like very much. As Jesus tells us, we are to love even our enemies.
And is that easy? No, it’s not. There are some people that we have good reason to be wary of. And we each hold prejudices that we have collected over a lifetime, some of which have been handed down to us from generations past. It is not easy to love people whom we find different, or offensive, or even dangerous. But with the help of God, we can go beyond tolerance, we can go beyond acceptance, and we can love all of God’s children with the love of God, just as we ourselves have first been loved by God.