Monday, July 12, 2010

Sermon on Leviticus 19:9-18 and Luke 10:25-37, for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, "Become a Neighbor!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon today is based on our two readings from the Old Testament and Gospel. Perhaps you already caught the connection between them. The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is quoted from Leviticus chapter 19. Also, though it wasn’t part of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, Leviticus 19 shows us what it means to be a neighbor to someone else. Today we’ll see in these two readings how Jesus answers the question of “who is my neighbor?” and how they teach us to exercise love to the neighbor. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Gospel reading is a two-part dialogue between Jesus and a lawyer. Not a personal injury lawyer, but an expert in the Law of Moses—the Old Testament commands. The first part of the conversation is about what someone must do to have eternal life. The second part is when Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach the lawyer who is his neighbor. I’m going to focus mainly on the second part of the conversation, but first let’s briefly look at how the lawyer got started off on the wrong foot.

The lawyer wanted to test Jesus, perhaps trip Him up in His words, maybe find some evidence that Jesus didn’t fully honor the law of Moses. His question was: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Did you catch the flaw in his question? It’s a good example of how not all questions can be answered correctly in the way that they are asked. Sometimes the question itself needs to be fixed. The flaw was that you don’t do something to inherit anything. You can’t earn an inheritance, or merit it, it has to be given. “Inheritance is not a payment for services rendered” (Bailey 286). It comes as a gift to family or dear friends as a gift—just like our salvation comes to us as a gift, by our adoption as children of God. So Jesus doesn’t answer directly, but first asks a question back to the lawyer. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer answers well by quoting Jesus’ own summary of the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all you strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus answers the lawyer’s original question by saying: “Do this, and you will live.” Essentially Jesus told him: “You want to earn eternal life? Fine. Follow your own advice. Live up to those standards and you will indeed inherit eternal life” (Bailey 287). So is Jesus advising us that salvation can be earned, and the Law is the guide? Well, a person who could unfailingly keep the law of Moses to that degree of perfection wouldn’t need grace. But what Jesus has shown the lawyer and us, is that this is an impossibly high standard for us sinners to keep. The problem isn’t with the law, but with us and our sin. But the lawyer didn’t catch on. He accepted Jesus’ answer and likely presumed that he was keeping the Law pretty well, but just needed some clarification on who exactly his neighbor was, so that he could go about earning his acceptance before God on his own (Bailey 288). So he asks the second question that leads us into the main discussion: “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well-known teachings of Jesus. And as the hearers of the story listen to how a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead, they probably would have recognized a few things. First, they would assume that the injured man was a Jew. Next, Jesus described three traveler’s who came upon the injured man. A priest was the first and belonged to the most prominent class of people in Israel, because of their service in the Temple. The second traveler, a Levite, belonged to a second class that assisted the priests in the Temple. Following the progression, the hearers would have expected the third traveler, the expected hero of the story, to be a Jewish layman. But here’s the hidden surprise of the parable. It’s not a “good Jew” who is the hero of the story, but a hated outsider: a Samaritan. This struck a nerve of racism, and showed the boundaries or definitions of “who is my neighbor” go further than someone who looks, acts, and talks like me.

In ancient Palestine, it would be a simple matter to identify who were the “us and them” by clothing, language, and accent. But the first person, a priest, to come upon the injured traveler has a problem: the man is naked and unconscious. He can’t identify if this man is a Jew or a Gentile. If a Gentile, then he wouldn’t feel responsible to do anything. What’s more, there’s a risk in getting involved. Maybe this guy is actually dead. If so then he would be ceremonially unclean for at least a week. In other words, it would temporarily disqualify him from work, and create a burden of money and time on him to take that risk. He did the cost-benefit-analysis and decided it wasn’t worth the risk to help this man. The costs outweighed the benefits. Actually, what motivation really was there for him to help this man? He walked on.

Do we pass by need or suffering in the same way? The costs outweigh the benefits? Nothing in it for us? Maybe a risk involved, or a loss of time and money? Where do we see needs and suffering? Or are we looking? The parable is a call for us to have open eyes to the needs of our neighbor. To not pass by suffering when there is a way that we can help. If you cannot help alone, perhaps you can find someone who can meet the need, or get assistance for a person. A sad modern day parallel to the Good Samaritan parable is the recent case of a homeless man who was stabbed by a thief after he rescued a woman in NYC who was being robbed. While he lay dying for more than an hour before firefighters accidentally discovered him, more than 20 people walked by on the sidewalk. Most stopped and looked, a couple shook or rolled him over, but not a single one did anything to help, even to call 911. Tragically, while Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was the Good Samaritan for that woman, no one was willing to be a Good Samaritan to him.

Many probably had the same impulse that the second traveler, the Levite in the story. He also passed by the injured man. Maybe he was the assistant to that first priest, knew he had passed by, and didn’t want to upstage his superior. Commentators on the death of the man in NYC talked about the “bystander effect,” that people typically won’t do anything more than anyone else in a public place. Someone else can take responsibility. But how easily the buck gets passed and finally no one is found to help. But whether the phrase “bystander effect” is really just a psychologist’s term for cowardice or indifference, it’s easy to criticize those people’s actions, but harder for us to face similar situations and step in ourselves to help. Perhaps there’s a little fear to overcome. What’ll happen if I get involved? Fortunately in our cell-phone age, it’s much easier for us to call professional help when a situation seems dangerous or questionable. But sometimes quick action is needed, and we might be the only one available or brave enough to step in and help. In such a situation may we, like the Good Samaritan, feel compassion & act.

The surprise of the parable, as I said before, was that the hero turns out to be a Samaritan—a mixed relative to the Israelites, who were despised and hated by the Jews. Yet he is the one who has compassion and stops to help the wounded man. He makes no cost-benefit analysis to decide his involvement, but compassion made his decision. This man is dying and needs my help. Using oil and wine may sound strange to us, but would have been an ancient way of disinfecting and treating a wound. The Good Samaritan immediately assumed the risk of helping this man, assumed the cost of his care. It was a costly demonstration of love and service to a stranger. It cost him oil and wine, material for bandages, the delay of his trip and the cost of the inn. Likely he even was facing the risk of entering hostile Jewish territory with an injured Jewish man, which would have made him suspect. And his closing act of kindness went above and beyond the call of duty—to pay the full bill to the innkeeper and make a pledge to repay any excesses in cost when he returned.

What a pattern for us to follow, what a model for compassion, concern, and costly love and service! The rescuer who came from the outside to save a dying man. He took on great cost and risk and did more than was expected of him. We cannot miss the parallel to the greater example of Jesus’ rescue. The theme of the Good Samaritan is most fully seen in Jesus coming as God’s rescue agent from the outside, coming to the weak, the dying, and the wounded. Coming to help the suffering and those afflicted by sin. What greater example of compassion, concern, and costly love and service is there than Jesus? He gave the most costly demonstration of love by giving up His riches to become poor for our sake, that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). He binds up our wounds, cleansing our sin and guilt, pouring on us the oil of gladness, giving us the wine of His blood to drink for our forgiveness and cleansing. He provides for all our needs and pledges to do even more for us when He returns. Truly in the inn of the church we are fed and nourished with the gifts of God at Christ’s expense, and when He returns to earth, He will take us to His Father’s heavenly mansions. Jesus went above and beyond the call of duty to win salvation for us. It was nothing we could earn or merit on our own.

Now Jesus was ready to answer the lawyer’s question about “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus changes the question and asks: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” So the turn is this: Jesus challenged the lawyer to consider who should he become a neighbor to? The answer the lawyer is led to is that he should become a neighbor to anyone in need, regardless of their language, religion, or ethnicity (Bailey 297). That’s the call for us today, to become a neighbor. Who is it that you can become a neighbor to? Time has run short to fully consider the Leviticus passage, but look at the chapter later for all the practical examples of how we should become a neighbor. Jesus saw, as Leviticus 19 makes clear, that the command to love the neighbor is broad, not narrow. The neighbor includes the sojourner (a traveler or foreigner staying in your land) who is under God’s protection. It includes the poor, the oppressed, the worker, those with handicaps, etc.

Finally there is no limitation on who can be our neighbor—or better, who we can become a neighbor to. And the motivation to help doesn’t come from any reward or benefit for us, least of all the thought that our good deeds would earn us the eternal reward of heaven. Eternal life comes as pure inheritance and gift. While the lawyer thought the Law would earn him life, if he had studied Leviticus 19 carefully, he would have seen that God said: “You shall be Holy for I the Lord your God am Holy” (19:2). The Law shows us the model of God’s costly love for us to imitate. And only by receiving God’s costly gift of love through Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection, do we have that example of costly love living in our hearts. Reborn and being renewed after Jesus’ image, we’re motivated to love our neighbor as ourselves with the same costly, self-giving love of our Savior living in us. We’re motivated to love out of pure and astonished thankfulness and love for the One who gave His all to show us mercy in our need, so that we…can go and do likewise. Become a neighbor, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What was the flaw in the lawyer’s original question? How did he understand the purpose of the Law? How can you correct the question?

2. How does Jesus answer the question: “Who is my neighbor?” Who can we become a neighbor to? Are there limitations? Why might the lawyer have been looking to limit the definition of who was his neighbor? What are some ways that we put limitations on who our neighbor is, or who we are willing to help?

3. What are some real needs that you see around you? In your community? Family? Church? How is compassion your greatest resource to help? What are ways that we excuse ourselves from action? How can we overcome cowardice or indifference? Why is a “cost-benefit analysis” a selfish way to evaluate if we should help? What is the contrasting attitude?

4. How is Jesus the quintessential example of the Good Samaritan? How is the parable fully expressed in His rescue to us from outside? 2 Cor. 8:9

5. How is the costly love and service of Christ created in us, so that we model God’s holiness? See Leviticus 19, especially vs. 2. What refrain echoes through this reading?

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