Richard Maxwell

Proper 10 C
14 July 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus is a pretty tricky guy, isn’t he?  I’m sure you’ve noticed that.  He’s always turnin’ everything all around.  Ya ask for one thing and ya get something else.  Ya think ya have a pretty clear issue that ya want him to address . . . and suddenly he’s talkin’ about something else.  But it’s not like he’s ignoring your question or avoiding the subject . . . it’s not like he’s trying to pull a fast one . . . he’s not a con man.  It’s more like he’s answering the question you really SHOULD have asked.

This is a little bit of what’ goin’ on in today’s Gospel story . . . the oh-so-familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  We all know it practically by heart, right?  Some poor guy is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and he’s attacked, robbed, beaten and left half dead.  A priest and a Levite, high-status folks, come along one after the other and each ignores the guy.  Then a despised Samaritan, a low-status person, comes along, sees the guy and stops.  He bandages his wounds, takes him to an inn, gets him all set up, leaves some money for the guy’s care, and then goes on his way.  And we all know what the lesson of the story is, right?  Whenever we come into contact with someone in need we’re supposed to help them as we can . . . even if they’re not “one of us” . . . even if they’re part of a group we despise.

Well, that’s done.  I might as well sit down, right?

Remember, Jesus is a tricky guy . . . so let’s look at the story again, just to make certain that we haven’t missed anything.

Today’s passage begins with a lawyer asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  The answer to the question is the summary of the Law we heard at the beginning of mass today:  “Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  But his answer doesn’t seem to satisfy the lawyer.  So he asks another question, “And who is my neighbor?”  Just like a lawyer to want some definitions, right?  But don’t skip an important detail:  we’re told WHY the lawyer asks his second question . . . he wants to justify himself.

What’s that mean?  Well, on the surface, it probably means that the lawyer is embarrassed and now he’s trying to save face.  He’s trying to vindicate himself . . . to show that he was right to pose the first question he asked, even though it found such a simple answer.  “What do I have to do to have eternal life?”  “Love God and your neighbor.”  “Oh yeah?  Come on . . . it can’t be that simple.  Who’s my neighbor?”  This is a pretty believable exchange, isn’t it?

But let’s look a little more deeply at this business of the lawyer wanting to justify himself.  Because then we may understand more deeply Jesus’ answer to the second question, “Who is my neighbor?”

When we encounter someone in need . . . say a friend who’s going through a rough patch . . . maybe he’s getting a divorce . . . or maybe she’s lost her job and is having a hard time financially . . . maybe our friend has a problem with a teenage child . . . or is suffering with depression . . . when we encounter a friend in need what goes through our heads?  Pity?  Compassion?  A desire to make the problem better?  The thought, “Thank God it’s not me”?  Be honest.  And if we consider trying to help, isn’t there a kind of calculation that goes on?  How much is it going to inconvenience me?  How much is it going to cost me, financially?  Emotionally?  Physically?  How much time is it going to take?  We all do this, right?  After all, we have to take care of ourselves.

Looking out for number one is a pretty basic instinct.  Even in our spiritual lives.  When we come to church, when we say our prayers, when we take on some spiritual practice or ministry, mixed in with all the motivations and reasons for doing these things, isn’t there some element of self-service?  Isn’t there at least a tiny part of us that’s calculating our own holiness?  Gauging our own sanctity?  Perhaps we look at our prayer practice like an exercise regime . . . praying regularly, increasing the number of repetitions and the difficulty of the practice; we believe we’re improving our spiritual health.  Or, perhaps we look at our prayer as a kind of bank account . . . we make deposits and build up our balance of goodness.  However we look at it, I suspect that we all have some degree of self-regard . . . of self-consciousness . . . in our spiritual lives.  It’s unavoidable.

And THIS, I think, is what Jesus is addressing at a very deep level in the story of the Good Samaritan.  The lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”  He doesn’t ask, “What must one do?” or “What must we do?”  He goes on to ask, “Who is MY neighbor?”  The lawyer is interested in his personal salvation . . . not in much else.  Of course, Jesus doesn’t answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” directly.  He tells a story.  And the answer to the question that we THINK we know so well can be implied:  a ‘neighbor’ is anyone in need with whom we come into contact.  But Jesus is a pretty tricky guy, he doesn’t provide an answer, he asks a question.  The question Jesus asks at the end of the story –  “Who was a neighbor to the man who was robed and beaten? – changes things.

You see, Jesus does not define our neighbor as someone in need we can help.  The question that the lawyer asks . . . and the answer we think we know so well . . . both make our neighbor into an object . . . into one who receives our beneficence.  Jesus uses the word ‘neighbor’ differently . . . he uses it to break down walls, to ignore boundaries, to remove the divisions that separate us one from the other.  Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with another question “Who are you a neighbor to?”

Perhaps this difference in wording seems unimportant to you, a splitting of hairs – but I don’t think so.  The way the lawyer would like to deal with the situation . . . the way that WE would like to deal with it . . . leaves us above the fray.  Leaves us in a situation of “us” and “them.”  We encounter some poor person with a problem . . . we deal out some largesse . . . we go on our way.  Maybe we can just write a check and send it to some organization that deals with the unfortunate.  These are not bad things to do.  But they leave us in a situation of “us” and “them”.  Jesus drops us right down into the middle of the mess . . . where there is no “them” . . . there’s only “us.” 

As T. W. Manson once put ii in a commentary on this text, “The principle underlying the question is that while mere neighborhood does not create love, love does create neighborliness.”  No concrete definition of ‘neighbor’ emerges from the story Jesus tells, because such a question is really out of place.  Loves does not define its object.  Love . . . loves.

The lawyer is looking out for number one, spiritually speaking.  He’s rather like us, when we calculate our holiness and gauge our sanctity . . . when we want to know what we have to do to earn God’s favor . . . and how much it’s gonna cost us.  The lawyer is like us when we want to forget that love is the basis for everything . . . he’s like us when we want to step out of the mess of the world . . . away from the problems of our state . . . of our neighborhood.  The lawyer goes astray because his primary concern is with his own spiritual welfare.

What a simple, yet difficult, lesson Jesus teaches.  He is teaching the lawyer . . . and us . . . that our fundamental concern is not with our own holiness, but with other people’s happiness, health, and well-being.  Jesus is teaching us that we are all responsible for each other’s happiness.  There is no “us” and “them” . . . we’re all in this together.  And we must all BE neighbors . . . we must, as Christians, pay attention to the myriad ways in which God puts us in each other’s paths . . . the ways in which God makes us each other’s concern.

Fortunately, we are not usually confronted with half-dead people in the road.  But nevertheless, God puts people in our paths all the time . . . people who could use a neighbor.  Jesus is a pretty tricky guy . . . we face incredibly complicated problems all around us . . . we yearn for solutions.  We pray to Jesus for some answers, and he says, “Sure! . . . I can help you out.  It’s really easy.  Love one another!”

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