Tuesday, December 15, 2009

This Week's Sermon: Love Your Neighbor

The Parable of the Good Samaritan- Luke 10:25-28
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " '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, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' " "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Who is my neighbor? It is the question asked by the expert in the Law. It is the question each of us asks when God tells us that we need to do something. We always want to know how far we are required to take it. Like Peter with his question of how many times he needed to forgive his brother. Like the Pharisees who asked, “Can’t we divorce our wives for any and every reason?” When given a law, we want to know where the line is. So our friend, the expert in the Law asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wanted to see who exactly he was required to love, and this is an interesting response by Jesus. The man asks a simple question. Jesus could have responded with a simple answer, “Everyone is your neighbor.” But he does not answer that way, instead he tells a story. We have heard this story before, and many times the focus is on how we should love everyone and be willing to help those in need. I want to take a little twist on that focus this morning.

Many know of the racial tension between Samaritans and Jews, it is seen as a clash of cultures. Here is what we don’t get in our modern reading of this passage. Samaritans were not just of a different culture, they were considered unclean. They were considered idolaters and those who would pervert the true worship of the One God. Jews saw them as so unholy, they would not even speak to them. That is why the Samaritan woman at the well was so surprised that Jesus would talk to her. Not only was he a Jew and she a Samaritan, but He was a man and she was a woman. On top of all of that, Jesus a clean Jewish man was asking her, an unclean Samaritan woman for a drink. It was a double breaking of tradition and ceremonial cleanliness laws.

I don’t know if there is even a good comparison of the relationship of the Samaritans and the Jews today with Christians. I know a pastor friend of mine was debating how to express this giant rift between the Jews and Samaritans and he considered for a modern parable substituting the Samaritan with a member of Al Queda, or a homosexual couple. Those may be shocking comparisons for some of us, but I think that what Jesus sad in this story was supposed to be shocking. Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He told this story.

A Jewish man is walking down the road, gets jumped by thieves and we see the Priest come by. He is not willing to be a neighbor. He passes by on the other side, too concerned with cleanliness to come near blood and possibly a dead body. So multiple choice answer A is off the table. This is shocking because Priests are those offering sacrifices, serving in the temple, handling sacred objects and privy to all the inner workings of the sacrificial system. They are clean, holy guys with important work to do. But this is not the person Jesus says to imitate.

So we see the Levite come by. Levites were set apart unto God. They served in the temple from age 30 to age 50, some were priests others managed day to day affairs. The Levite comes by and passes by on the other side as well. Some could argue that the Priest has to keep himself ceremonially clean so that he can do his job in the temple. You could feasibly make an excuse for him, but the Levite is not a Priest. He has a job to do, but it is not nearly as integral as the Priest’s, and yet, here he is forsaking his brother Jew and crossing to the other side of the road. Multiple choice answer B is out as well. Jesus is saying, “You may expect me to tell you the Priests and Levites are your examples for neighborliness, but in this case they are not.” These men left a person to die because he might make them unclean.

Then here comes the Samaritan. Samaritans were the villains in the story. If they had first century melodramas, this would be where everyone would go, “boo-hiss!” The Samaritan, hated and despised and shunned by the Jews, comes by and picks up this wounded man. He binds his wounds, he puts him on his own donkey, walks him out of the way to an inn, pays for his care and promises more if the bill exceeds the payment. Multiple choice answer C wins again. I don’t know if we can grasp this story. The Samaritan in the story, the unspiritual and idolatrous enemy, is the example we are to follow.

Jesus asks the religious expert, “Who was this man’s neighbor?” The expert of the Law can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” Instead he says, “The one who had mercy on him.” He can’t wrap his mind around the answer. This is not the way that religious stories are supposed to go. The good guy is the Priest, the bad guy—the Samaritan. It’s Heroes and Villains. It should be an easy answer. Your neighbor is the person like you. We expect Jesus to say, your neighbor is any good person in your church or your family or your town or country who shares your faith and values. But that is not what Jesus says. Jesus asks the question, “Who acted as a neighbor to this man?” He does not ask, “Who should this man be a neighbor to in the future?” Jesus is not asking the religious expert to be a neighbor to Samaritans, worse, he asks him to place himself in the shoes of the Samaritan. Jesus does not ask him to love the one he hated before because he thought the man was unclean.

Jesus is asking him to consider this Samaritan and all he would have to overcome to be a neighbor to the Jewish man. The Samaritan knew that the Jewish man probably hated him. He knew that his act of kindness may be misinterpreted and misunderstood. He knew he would never get a thank you card for helping. The Samaritan, the outcast, the discarded person in this story becomes the hero that Jesus tells us to emulate. It is not enough to go to those we have disliked and help them. We must go to those who hate us. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are insulted, persecuted, and slandered because of me.” Jesus says, “Love your enemies, so that you can be perfect like your Father in heaven.” Jesus says, “Go and be like this Samaritan and show unbelievable kindness to those who insult, persecute, and slander you.”

To us today, Jesus might say we are to love the terrorists. He may say we are to show kindness to those who are antagonistically atheist. He would definitely tell us that we are to be like that Samaritan—loving, caring, going beyond the call of duty, going out of our way to help those who are hateful toward us, whoever that might be. Not those we consider enemies, but those who consider us to be their enemies. That is who we are to love. That is who is included in Jesus’ command to love our neighbor. It is the extreme case of crazy, sold-out devotion and love for God. Loving those we don’t like, or those we have a grudge against, or those who have wronged us is a given. That is just a starting place. But we know that Jesus calls us above the status quo, beyond the elementary stages of devotion to be completely consumed by the same kind of love he has for us. Romans 5:8-10 tells us that while we were enemies of God—while we despised him—he loved us enough to bridge the gap between us with the death of his only son. It is that love we are to have for others. It is that love Jesus shows here in this parable of the Good Samaritan: the love that gives sacrificially on behalf of the one who hates us.

This is not a feel good sermon. It was not a feel good parable. It is, instead a stark contrast to the way we think things ought to be. It turns our world upside down and asks the impossible of us. But Jesus tells the story anyway. He does so knowing that the only way we can love like this is with the love he himself pours into our lives. We can only love like Jesus if we have given him our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength. Surrendering to God produces in us love for our fellow man, even those who are our enemies, even those who consider us to be their enemies. To love those who hate and persecute is the love of Christ lived out in our lives. I challenge you to so surrender your lives to Christ that he can bring about this transformation in your hearts and lives today.

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