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God’s Neighbors

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 10 July 2022 [Proper 10]:

Amos 7:7-17; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Parables are the way Jesus taught.[1] As Mark says in his gospel account [4:33-34], “With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did jot speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” And the thing about Jesus’ parables is that by design their meaning is left open. For their parts the Gospel writers wisely did not provide the interpretations because the real point of Jesus’ teaching through his parables is to have the reader or listener engage with these stories, “as they were able to hear [them].” While the parables of Jesus always have a point (namely, what life with God is like), to reduce the parables to a single meaning destroys their intent and purpose. The true point of Jesus’ parables (as with any good story) is not to grasp and possess the “right” answer, as it is to accept God’s invitation to live and grow in the stories’ meaning and specifically to engage in the life and reality of God.

The thing about parables – Jesus’ parables specifically – is that they are much more than intriguing stories, much more than crisp, little morality tales. Interesting and intriguing as they are, Jesus’ parables unavoidably also have a bite to them. The bite we are meant to feel concerns the way folks like us think and how addicted we are to what is familiar to us. Consequently, parables are invitations to begin to see the world around us and other people, in particular, with Christ’s eyes.[2]

So, what do you make of today’s gospel parable: “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”? What meaning do you attach to it? Moreover, what invitation into the God-life do you perceive it offering? To what extent is that invitation hard for you to accept because its challenge seems to be too much?

In her compelling book, entitled, Short Stories by Jesus, Any Jill Levine (an Orthodox Jew who is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School) reminds Christians specifically that the parables of Jesus are rooted in the Jewish biblical context, which means that the parables are not whatever we want them to be but rather have their roots in the covenanted reality of Hebrew scripture and experience. So it is that the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”, for example, speaks with a real bite about the issue of who is our neighbor.

A large part of the challenge laid out by the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” centers upon getting beyond the domesticated meaning most of us have known. In its common and familiar usage, being a “good Samaritan” is synonymous with being a “charitable do-gooder”.[3] From naming hospitals with the label “Samaritan” to the organization that is dedicated to preventing suicide (or in Australia, for example, there is an organization called “the Good Samaritan Donkey Sanctuary”, whose purpose is to provide sanctuary for abused donkeys), the interpretation of this “Good Samaritan” parable has been tamed down to refer to a person who aids a stranger in need. And while aiding strangers in need is important, the problem with this domesticated reading is that it is so convenient to see ourselves as the charitably aiding Samaritan who helps “them”, the other, those who are needy and who are not “us”. Or worse, some followers of Jesus interpret conveniently that the “Good Samaritan” is Jesus and the priest and Levite symbolize the stereotypic legalisms of Judaism, a deadly and historical trope for antisemitism.

So, how would you tell this parable? What’s the “moral of the story” for you? Moreover, where is its bite? Where is its invitation? What does this story have to do with the God-life you and I need to come to grips with?

I think the lynchpin of the parable stands with the lawyer’s two questions: “Who is my neighbor?’, preceded by his testing inquiry, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” They are inseparably linked one to another but not like the lawyer – or many of us --thinks they are.

The first thing to say is that Jesus (at least in Luke’s presentation) does not hold a high opinion of lawyers – or at least this lawyer. The lawyer’s snarky regard for Jesus is hidden in plain sight with his disingenuous, condescending formality in calling Jesus “teacher”. Clearly, this lawyer has no intention of learning anything from Jesus, as his manipulative motivation to test Jesus indicates. Be that as it may, the deeper and more important issue is that the lawyer is asking the wrong question about “eternal life” and consequently about who a “neighbor” is. In terms of “eternal life”, there is no answer to what one “does” to “inherit eternal life” because life on God’s terms is not something one earns because it is a “gift of God for the people of God”. And here we are once again at the reality of our theological mantra. Remember? God-in-Christ has given us what we need but cannot give to ourselves; say “thank you” for the gift; share the gift, don’t hoard it. One does nothing to “inherit” life on God’s terms. save to work on receiving it thankfully and then share what has been given.

Consequently, the lawyer’s question about “eternal life” is way off base. His question evidently regards the issue of the God-life as a matter of a single action (as in getting “it” right and succeeding) rather than engaging in an ongoing relationship of being “righteous”, that is, being in right relationship with the Maker of heaven and earth and, thereby, having Communion with the Source of all life. The lawyer focuses on his own private salvation as if it were a trophied possession, as opposed to focusing on loving God and neighbor, as Judaism and Jesus teach.[4]

So, in typical rabbinic fashion Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a question, hence the parable. Playing with the lawyer’s ego and providing him with the opportunity to display his legal expertise in public, Jesus essentially says, “Surely, sir, having gone to law school and being professionally trained, you know the answer. In his own prideful way, the lawyer provides the case law from scripture: What we Christians call “the Summary of the Law”[5]. Of course, the lawyer’s answer is correct, but for all the wrong reason.

As Professor Levine puts the biblical tradition, love of God is the ground of one’s being and the guide for one’s life…They mean that the [Torah’s] love commandments become the touchstone by which all other actions are assessed.[6] The biblical implication is this: “Do this and live; do this and have real [i.e., “eternal”] life.” The “this” is not a one-time inoculation, an achievement to be possessed, much less bragged about, but an ongoing experience of relationship. Communion, as we all know, is not a one-and-done reality.

So, given this understanding of what it takes “to have eternal life”, what impact does this have on the second question: “Who is my neighbor?” Of course, the lawyer being so self-focused and self-righteous is really asking, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” and therefore “Who is NOT worthy of my love?” Or put more bluntly, “Who can I ignore?”[7] We all know what Jesus’ answer is: Love cannot be restricted. Like so many of us when we are striving to prove the strength and merit of our own positions, the lawyer was not listening.[8] He couldn’t afford to listen. So, the lawyer, hard of heart and hearing, was about to encounter one of Jesus’ parables.

The road between Jericho and Jerusalem was notoriously dangerous. Weaving its way through a serpentine pathway, the high cliffs on either side perfectly hid armed gangs as they planned to fall upon their over-matched prey. And, in Jesus telling, a man was thusly traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. What happens next is the crux of the parable and a point at which interpretation can easily go awry.

A priest and then a Levite (a Temple “sacristan” if you will) came along the nearly dead man; but neither of these notables stopped to tend to him. At this point, Professor Levine makes it clear that Jewish Law mandates that the faithful save lives. No issue of purity or uncleanness could possibly override this basic, legal commandment. She points out this is not about what many Christians have taken as interpretation: namely, that the Jewish Law is rigidly demanding but not life-giving. Rather, Levine simply calls a “spade a spade” in that these two men failed to be faithful because they were afraid.[9] How universally human of them!

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on this point in his well-known “been to the mountaintop” sermon. Dr. King posed that in their fear, the priest and the Levite asked an understandable question: “If I stop, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan arrived, and the question changed. “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” Of course, as Levine soberly points out, after this sermon, King went to Memphis, where he was assassinated. “There are bandits on the road,” she writes.[10]

But the biting point of Jesus’ “Good Samaritan” parable is not left to an unexpected source of aid. The Samaritans were neither strangers nor an oppressed and marginalized group. They were Israel’s enemy from ancient of days. Hatfields and McCoys. Red Sox and Yankees. Therefore, to Jesus’ audience – a Jewish audience – the idea of a “good” Samaritan would be as jarring to their sensibilities as hearing (for us and them) about a “good murderer” or “good rapist”. As a result one of the messages from Jesus to his listeners is this: The historic cycle of violence and hate can be broken through the little things each of us can offer. Following this central point, the interaction between the Samaritan and the innkeeper prove revealing and instructive.

The care that the Samaritan offered was not a one-shot deal but the offer of long-term involvement. His sense of neighborliness meant continuous action, not a checking off of a moral “to-do list”. Additionally and for his part, the innkeeper (whom I assume was Jewish) trusted the Samaritan to keep his word, that he would return from his journey to make good on the costs of the innkeeper’s care of the injured man. How to re-establish trust between us in our social, political, economic, national tribes of fear is what restores relationships; and restoration begins with our willingness and ability to acknowledge and touch the fear within that holds all of us in chains and death – whether the scene is immigration at our southern border or the issues surrounding abortion or gun violence or war.

The hard and challenging question implicit in this parable is this: Where is the humanity in our enemy? Will we share our humanity with them in trusting demonstration of our common need to trust and to have some life-giving connection? The true and lasting question seems to be this: How do we choose life in all circumstances? There is no one, clear answer, save to put ourselves in the story and to live its questions.

This is precisely what Jesus the Christ of God did, when it came to coming to our aid. We call it “the Cross”. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] I ground my basic perspective of Jesus’ parables with reference to Amy Jill Levine’s, Short Stories by Jesus, and will give specific reference to this book when appropriate. [2] Br. Robert L’Esperance, SSJE: “Parable” in daily “Give Us A Word”. [3] Levine. p. 78. [4] Levine. p. 86. [5] the combination of Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. [6] Levine. p. 88-89. [7] Levine. p. 93. [8] Levine. p. 89. [9] Levine. p. 102. [10] Levine. p. 102.

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