Friday, March 3, 2017

“Lawyer vs. Jesus” - March 5, 2017

Text: Luke 10:25-37

It has already started. My favorite time of year. 

How could Lent be your favorite time of year, you ask? Nothing wrong with Lent, but it is a kind of somber time – you’re not really supposed to enjoy it, are you? 

Well, if you know me very well, you may have guessed that when I say this is my favorite time of year, I’m not talking about Lent; I’m talking about tournament time in college basketball. This year, for good or ill, March Madness lines up almost exactly with the season of Lent. 

As I looked at our scripture texts for the coming weeks, all seemed to contain themes of controversy and adversarial viewpoints. There are rivalries. There is struggle. So, I decided to just go with it and give our series of sermons during Lent the theme of “March Madness.” 

Now, I do not mean to be glib about the season of Lent, and I don’t mean to put it on the level of something like a game. And don’t worry, while today is Lawyer vs. Jesus and in a couple of weeks it will be Fox vs. Hen, we won’t have a Jesus vs. Hen in the Final Four. But in the coming weeks we will explore some of the conflicts, some of the opposing views and characters we find in the scriptures. And in doing so, we may come to grapple with the sometimes competing tendencies and leanings and habits within our own hearts.

Our scripture today begins when a lawyer puts a question to Jesus. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

For his part, Jesus answers the question with a question of his own. What does the law say? How do you read it? The lawyer answered with the commandment, “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 says simply, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.” But the scripture says that the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” There is a question behind this question. “How far should my concern and compassion extend? Where do we draw the line?” 

In response, Jesus tells a story that we are likely all familiar with – probably the best known of all of Jesus’ parables. A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was known as a dangerous road and sure enough, the man on this journey was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch. 

Fortunately, a priest was coming down the road, and he saw the man. But we are surprised to hear that he walked on by. And then a Levite, a temple official, came traveling down the road. He saw the injured man, but he too passed on by. 

Then a third traveler comes down the road. Most everybody knew how the story would end. The priest didn’t stop and the temple official didn’t stop. The high-up, important people didn’t stop, but an everyday Joe would stop and help the man. 

But that is not how the story went. A third traveler came along, but this man was a Samaritan. It wasn’t the priest or the Levite, but a despised Samaritan who helped this man. He bandages his wounds, puts him on his own donkey, and brings him to an inn. He cares for him that night, and the next morning he pays the innkeeper to take care of him, promising to pay any additional bill. 

After telling the story, Jesus put the question to the lawyer: which of these three travelers proved to be a neighbor to the man in need? It’s glaringly obvious, and the lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” 

Two good questions had been asked. “How do I inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Two good answers have been given. Jesus and the lawyer totally agree on the answers. But Jesus’ response, “Go and do likewise,” highlights for us that this is not a theoretical exercise. It is not an abstract idea. What really matters is the way we live. 

This is a story that is so familiar to us that it can lose some of its power. It can lose some of its punch. Even folks who are not religious know about the Good Samaritan. In popular culture, being a Good Samaritan means helping somebody in need. There are Good Samaritan laws in many states. These laws say that if you see a stranger in need and offer assistance, you are protected from liability in case there are unintended consequences of your efforts to assist a person. 

This is all well and good, and we definitely could use a few more Good Samaritans, as this is understood. But the story Jesus tells goes deeper than that. And to get at how this story was heard by Jesus’ hearers’, we might go back to our March Madness theme and consider the opposing players and opposing claims found in this story. 

First, we have Lawyer vs. Jesus. It appears that the lawyer is one of many who disapproved of Jesus and was trying to get Jesus to say something that would get him in trouble. Because when Jesus agrees with this man’s reading of the law, he couldn’t leave it at that. “Wanting to justify himself,” we read, “he asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” This man basically can’t take yes for an answer; it appears that is he is trying to compete with Jesus more than learn from Jesus. 

So it is a contentious conversation, and the question is about how wide our concern is to be. Who is my neighbor? 

A major struggle we find in this story is Jew vs. Samaritan. This is maybe a part of the story that we have a harder time grasping hold of.

If you were with us back in the fall as we made our way through the Hebrew scriptures, you may recall that at some point – well, it was after the reign of King Solomon – the Hebrew nation divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. In time the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria, and the leading citizens taken into captivity. The Assyrians forcibly settled people from other nations into Israel, and these new arrivals intermarried with the Jews left behind. They came to be known as Samaritans. 

The southern kingdom of Judah was in time conquered by Babylon, and the people taken into captivity. But the Jews in Babylon were allowed to return to Jerusalem, and when they did, their conviction was that their northern neighbors had been corrupted and were no longer Jews – they were heretics. The Samaritans built a temple at Mt. Gerazim. Jews and Samaritans worshiped the same God, but there was a bitter rivalry. 

Around 100 BC, the Judeans invaded Samaria. They reduced the capital city of Shechem to rubble and destroyed the temple at Mt. Gerazim. As you might imagine, this did not make for warm feelings between the two peoples. 

Jesus and his disciples were from Galilee, a Jewish area to the north of Samaria. So you had Judea in the south, Samaria in the middle, and Galilee in the north. To travel from Judea to Galilee, Jews would sometimes cross to the east side of the Jordan River, travel north, and then cross the river again back in order to avoid going through Samaria. It would be like us going through Illinois and Wisconsin to get to the Twin Cities. You would cross the Mississippi River and go far out of your way just to avoid the northern tier of counties in Iowa. 

Around 50 BC, there were Jewish travelers who decided to venture through Samaria and were killed. By now, this kind of violence was mostly in the past, but not that far in the past. This is simply to say that Samaritans and Jews did not care for each other. And the fact that they had a shared history and religious and spiritual ties made it almost worse. They each saw the other as betraying the true faith. 

Another consideration here we might call Temple vs. Ditch. In Jesus’ story, a priest passes by, and then a Levite. Here is the thing: in relative terms, clergy were paid better in that day. A lot better. Priests were powerful authorities, members of the upper class, the elite. Levites were priests’ associates responsible for music, incense, bread, and temple adornments, but also for sacrificial offerings and banking. This was big business. Priests and Levites were known to have retreat homes in the Jordan valley near Jericho. Everyday Israelites resented their opulent lifestyles. 

When the priest and the Levite in this story passed by the injured man in the ditch, we are left to wonder why. It was a dangerous road. Some have noted that touching a bloody body or even worse, a dead body would make one ritually unclean. But maybe they had just some time off and were heading for a little R and R and couldn’t be bothered. Those hearing the story did not necessarily have high opinions of the priests and Levites to begin with. 

So when the third man comes along the road, they know how the story is going to end. It will be one of them, just a regular, everyday person, who shows himself to be more caring, more compassionate, than the priest or Levite, who are too busy and self-important to be bothered. 

So imagine the surprise, imagine the shock, imagine the anger, even, when the hero of the story is a hated Samaritan. When Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man in need?” the lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” He answers, “The one who showed mercy.” 

Finally, this raises a question we might think of as Tribe vs. Neighbor. The lawyer asks, “If God wants us to love our neighbors, then who are our neighbors? Just who must we love?” 

But that is not the question Jesus answers. He tells a story and asks, “Which one proved to be a neighbor?” For Jesus, the question is not so much “Who is my neighbor,” but “How can I be a neighbor?” 

The issue is not who is a part of my tribe, who is in my circle of concern. The issue is being a neighbor – which has to do with our actions. It’s not even so much being a neighbor as it is acting as a neighbor. 

This is going to date me, but some of you will remember the “The Jeffersons.” This was a 1970’s sit-com, a spin-off of “All in the Family” that featured George and Louise Jefferson, an African-American couple from Queens who have made it big and have moved into a nice, mostly white Upper East Side apartment building in Manhattan. 

There is an episode where Tom, one of the Jefferson’s neighbors, a white guy, was robbed near the building and decided to arrange a tenants’ meeting. It turns out that there was already a meeting scheduled nearby by a group of folks who were concerned about the wrong kind of people coming into the neighborhood, and Tom was invited to attend. Tom asked if he could bring some of his friends along and the organizers said, “Sure!” So Tom brought along some other tenants in the building, including George. But as it turns out, this meeting was organized by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. 

It is immediately contentious. There is shouting and it nearly reaches the level of violence when the leader of the Klan meeting starts to have a heart attack. George stops arguing with the Klansmen and performs CPR on their leader, saving his life. But when the man is revived and learns that his life had been saved by a black man, he says to his son, “You should have let me die.” 

But the son was so moved by the sight of someone he had been raised to hate and fear saving his father’s life that his heart was changed. He renounced his membership in the Klan and became a different person.

On the day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in Memphis. In it, he talks about the Good Samaritan. He talks about how people have imagined the reasons why the priest and Levite did not stop. He talks about how dangerous the road is. And he winds up by saying, “the question that the priest asked, the question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’”

“But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”

We might even add to that, “If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to me?” If I do not have compassion, what will happen to me?

The question is not so much, who is my neighbor? The question is, “How can I be a neighbor?” Jesus’ parable tells us that love knows no boundaries. Being a neighbor means having compassion even for those we would rather have nothing to do with. And it also means seeing even our enemies as people of worth and potential agents of the kingdom of God. 

In one way or another, at some point or another, we all find ourselves in the ditch. The story of the Good Samaritan leads us to an attitude of mutuality – we are all neighbors, we all give and we all receive from each other according to our gifts and our opportunities and our needs – no exceptions. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Amen.