Friday, September 23, 2011

Who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37 NASB

And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?" And 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." And He said to him, "You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE." But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

Jesus replied and said, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. "And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. "Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. "But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. "On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.' "Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?" And he said, "The one who showed mercy toward him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do the same."

My thoughts -

"Wishing to justify himself..."

Those four words just jump out at me this morning. Here's a lawyer, I don't know his age but I always picture him as young, who asks Jesus a question. This is an important question. This may be the important question. What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?

There's all kinds of questions rolled up in this one. What does God desire? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? There is a fear of death, sure, but also a longing for life and for meaning and for purpose.

And Jesus answers with a question. What does the Law say. The lawyer responds that the Law says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus tells him that is correct. Do it and you'll live. Now, it can't be that easy, can it? I mean, Jesus didn't even really answer the question, did he? He let the guy who asked it do that. And such a simple answer, too. Love God. Love neighbor. Do this and you'll live. There's not a lot of debate here. There's not a lot of deep, complicated theology or philosophy. No real secrets or mysteries revealed. Just love God and love neighbor.

And then we get to those four words: "Wishing to justify himself..."

I don't know if he felt like he was wasting Jesus's time or if he felt stupid or what, but the lawyer obviously felt as though his question and the answer to it weren't good enough. Maybe he's insecure. Maybe he wants to be seen as smart. Maybe he was looking for a theological debate that didn't pan out. Whatever the reason it inspired him to ask a great question: Who is my neighbor?

So the secret to life both abundant and eternal is to love God and to love your neighbor. Two questions follow. Who is God? And who is the neighbor? The God question is debated regularly and has been for as long as there have been people. The lawyer didn't get into that here. This is a room full of people who probably all had pretty similar views on God. They worship the Lord. No sense hashing all that out. They knew God. But neighbor, there's a question.

Now maybe the lawyer is looking for a loophole. Maybe he's trying to find out who he is obligated to love and who he doesn't have to. Maybe he's just asking a deep.question. It's impossible for me to tell and quite frankly not all that important to me. What is important is Jesus's answer.

Jesus answers with what we now know as the parable of the good Samaritan. I won't rehash all of it here. You probably know the parable and if not it's in today's text above.

We have hospitals named Good Samaritan. This story is a big part of our culture. And I wonder sometimes if we don't overlook something important that Jesus is saying to the people he is speaking to here.

Jesus is speaking to Jewish religious leaders. In fact, this exchange starts with a man who looks to be wanting to debate the Law with Jesus. And this man, a Jewish expert in the Law, asks who his neighbor is the answer involves telling a story in which a priest and a Levite do not help a man who has been beaten and robbed but a Samaritan does.

The priest and the Levite would be like the men in this room. They are Jewish religious leaders. They are "good" religious people. The Samaritan is the outcast. The Samaritan worships the "wrong" God in the "wrong" way at the "wrong" places.

Now I'm starting to wonder about the questions that obviously follow from Jesus's earlier answer. The lawyer asked "who is my neighbor?" and not "who is God?" seemingly because all the people in that room had very similar views about God. But the answer Jesus provides for the neighbor question reveals something about those views on God.

The neighbor to the man who was beaten and robbed was the man who did not believe and worship in the same way as the men in that room. How important is that? There's no way that this is just some coincidence. Jesus didn't just throw that in there incidentally while riffing on some story. Jesus is telling these men that what and how they believe is not nearly as important as how they love.

The outcast, the stranger, the reject, the one who is different and worships differently from these "good" religious people loves his neighbor in this parable. In Matthew 22 we have Jesus answer a question about the most important commandment. His answer to that ties love for neighbor together with love for God. (Matthew 22:39 "The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.'.")

Now none of this is to say that belief in and beliefs about God are not important. But love seems to Jesus to trump belief. Right beliefs mean nothing without love. And let's not forget that this all came from a question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus didn't say the key was to believe. He said it was to love. Then when pressed the hero of the story he told was a man who believed differently than the people he was telling the story to. I can't see this is a coincidence.

I'm not saying beliefs aren't important. But love is essential.

And we get this radical shift in how we think about God, neighbor, and love because a lawyer wished to justify himself.

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