I’m curious – how many of you went to Sunday School when you were kids? . . . Have children who went to Sunday School? . . . I’m guessing you probably remember this story about the Good Samaritan from Sunday School days? If not at the very top of the list, it’s probably one of the best known of all Jesus’ parables.
You may have learned early on that the Good Samaritan is a model for how we should live a Christian life . We’re expected to help people we come across who are in desperate need – and to help generously and without expecting anything in return. It’s the Christian thing to do.
And then in addition to that we learn that it’s the least likely character in the story who ends up helping the beat-up guy in the ditch. The two religious leaders, the priest and the deacon in this story, walk on by. We don’t know exactly why they don’t help: On first reading we might assume they are to busy to be bothered – or reluctant to get their hands dirty. Or maybe they’re just plain afraid of what might happen to them if they get involved. But it’s the foreigner, the outsider, the “bad guy,” who becomes the unexpected hero of the story. He’s the one who gets it – he understands what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
This is the surface level meaning of the story of the Good Samaritan – an interpretation that we can all pretty much agree on for starters. But as you live with this story over repeated hearings over the years, you’ll find that there’s a lot more to it than that. The meaning of this story grows on you – and it grows with you. We continue to be moved by this story of love and compassion and never hear it the same way twice in many repeated tellings. That’s the way it is with God’s Word – it’s a living Word, and we are followers of that Word Made Flesh – Jesus Christ . . . Each time we hear the story, the word becomes flesh again – and it inspires new hearers to ask new questions about how to live out – how to live into that word in the world.
If you look back to the beginning of the gospel reading today the lawyer has a question for Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Notice: this is a “do” question . . . not a “be” question . . . and not even a “believe” question. . . it’s a “do” question . “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now this lawyer is not a legal lawyer – he’s a religious lawyer, an expert on the law of the Jews, the law of Moses. And like Jesus, he’s been raised on Torah which is all about how to live, not what to believe. His question is about what he should do . . . not what he should think and belief. He wants Jesus to tell him in plain, straight away language what kind of life he should be living now so that he can live in God’s presence and in God’s favor forever. . .
It’s a good question, even he is asking it to try to trip Jesus up. I’d like to know the answer, wouldn’t you? But we don’t get an answer from Jesus — the only answer that interests Jesus is the lawyer’s own. Jesus asks him: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
Jesus answers the question with another question. (Did you ever know someone who does that – instead of answering a question they fire back another question?)
Anyway, both Jesus and the lawyer know what is written in the law. They both know the source in Deuteronomy and Leviticus – but Jesus isn’t asking for chapter and verse: He wants to hear the living word come out of the lawyer’s own mouth. And the lawyer says: “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.” Jesus likes this answer and tells him: “You have given the right answer, do this, and you will live.”
There’s almost a ring of smugness in what Jesus says. His underlying meaning here is that getting the words right is not the same thing as giving them flesh. In the end, verbal answers carry about as much weight as the breath it takes to speak them. A right answer has never hugged a frightened child, or held the hand of a dying friend. A right answer has never volunteered to feed hungry people in a soup kitchen … and the truth is that a right answer without a follow-up doesn’t change anything.
Jesus says: “You have given the right answer, now do this, and you will live.”
Love God . . . love your neighbor. . . Do love. Put the words into practice. Bring your Love to life . . . . . . . . . Do love, and you will live.
This opens the door to a couple more questions: We might want to ask what Jesus means by “do.”
Is the eternal life that the lawyer is looking for conditional on what he does? This is not a question the lawyer asks at this point and not a question that Jesus addresses here . . . But if you remember the gospel lesson last week – I talked about the importance of the motivation for our actions:
Authentic loving action is a spontaneous response to the love God has for us. And until you know and accept God’s love, you can’t give love . . . We can only love because God first loves us. And further: There can be no love of God that does not express itself in love of neighbor.
Perfect love — we can’t just do it ourselves. We can’t save ourselves – only Jesus Christ can do that.
We can’t justify ourselves – but that’s exactly what the lawyer in the gospel is trying to do when he asks Jesus the next question: Who is my neighbor, anyway? If he can clearly define who is neighbor and who is not, the needed action is clear cut.
When the lawyer asks Jesus the question “Who is my neighbor” Jesus answers him with the story:
A man lies dying by the road. He has been robbed and beaten and left to die. Three men walking the same road come across the dying man: two of them turn immediately away and walk on by. The third sees him . . . he comes near to him . . . and then — moved by pity and compassion – he comes to his aide.
So which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? You know the right answer, because you’ve heard this story more times than you can remember. But if you really want to know what you must do to inherit eternal life ?? . . . The answer becomes clear in these words: Come near.
In the first reading today we heard God say:
“Surely, this commandment . . . is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. . . . No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Come near. . . That’s what God does in Jesus – the Word made flesh . . . It’s who Jesus is — — Immanuel . . . God with us . . . God near us.
So come near — near enough to see, near enough to feel,. . . near enough to recognize your neighbor in the one, any one and everyone, who is needing a neighbor. Come near — — near enough to love . . .
It’s where the kingdom is — so near. . .
Jesus says: “Do this and you will live.”
*Inspiration from sermons of Barbara Brown Taylor.