July 14, 2013

Luke 10:25-37

“What was the Question, Again?”

What was the question, again? By the time Jesus finished telling his story about the man who fell into the hands of robbers, his listeners might have been ready to ask, “Jesus, what was the question, again? Why did you tell us that story?”

After all, the whole conversation had been prompted by a question. It was a lawyer who stood up to ask Jesus a question. Luke’s Gospel explains that the question was a test… maybe a test to see how well Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures… maybe a test to see if Jesus’ interpretation of the law would be orthodox or not.

The lawyer wasn’t the kind of lawyer we think of today – a Real Estate lawyer, or a divorce lawyer, or a corporate lawyer. He would have been a religious lawyer – a scribe, an educated man who knew the Jewish Law and advised others on how to live righteously and according to God’s commandments.

So the lawyer asked a question to test Jesus: “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But instead of answering himself, Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer. “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks him, “What do you read there?”

And without batting an eye, or pausing to look it up, the lawyer quotes, word for word, from the Book of Deuteronomy. Of course HE knows the correct answer… It’s the answer he was trying to test Jesus about: “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 neighbour as yourself.”

And Jesus says, “Well done! You’ve given the right answer. You know what the law says. You know how God wants you to live. Now all you have to do is do it, and you will live forever.”

So the lawyer’s test kind of backfired. Instead of putting Jesus on the spot, the lawyer ended up being the one who was tested. Because Jesus didn’t respond to the question like it was a test, but instead treated it as an honest question… as if the lawyer truly wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Of course the lawyer knew the answer, but Jesus subtly pointed out that knowing the answer is just the first, easiest step. Actually doing it… actually loving God, actually loving our neighbours is the difficult and the critical part.

So on the spur of the moment, it seems, the lawyer follows up with another question: “And who is my neighbour?” Now that’s a great test question! There isn’t a straight-forward, quotable answer from the Hebrew Scriptures to that one! The lawyer just thought of the perfect way to put Jesus on the spot. Surely he’ll be stumped by this one, or his answer will upset at least some of the people, and Jesus will lose face, and the lawyer will gain honour and status.

That’s the question: “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied with a story. Let’s hear it again from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in the Message Bible:

30-32 “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What was the question, again?” By the time Jesus finishes telling his little story, some of his listeners may have been wondering what the question had been. Because, in fact, Jesus doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s question. Like a skilled politician who never really answers the questions that either the reporters or his opponents pose, Jesus grabs everyone’s attention, tells them an interesting story, and moves them well away from the question that was asked.

But I don’t really want to compare Jesus to a politician… especially to the kind of politician who never gives a straight answer, who babbles on with a bunch of rhetoric and side-steps the important questions that are actually being asked. In fact, Jesus is more like a parent, or a good teacher. He knows that the lawyer is asking the wrong question, and he expertly leads him and the rest of the people listening to what is a much better question to ask.

You see, the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbour?” To put it bluntly, the lawyer wants to know how much he REALLY has to do to get into heaven. How far does this “loving my neighbour” thing really have to go? Just the people in my immediate neighbourhood? Just the folks who gather at my local synagogue? Certainly it can’t go beyond the people of my nation, or my racial or religious group?

So instead of defining a neighbour, setting out a minimum amount of loving that we are required to do, and justifying unloving behaviour to those who may fall outside that boundary, Jesus tells a story and changes up the question that’s being asked.

Instead of “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Instead of “Which people, exactly, am I required to love?” Jesus invites the lawyer, and the crowd, and each one of us today to ask ourselves, “How can I be a neighbour to someone who needs my love, my help, my care and concern?”

I think that one of the reasons why people of faith come to church week by week, and why we read and study the scriptures, is because we want to live according to God’s will. Like the lawyer, like the people of Jesus’ day, and like many people around the world today, we want to experience God’s blessing and we want to live forever too.

Every Sunday, when we pause at the prayer of confession, we become very aware of the ways in which our lives do not measure up to God’s desire for us. We do want to be more like the Samaritan who stopped to help, but very often we are the ones crossing over to the other side of the road. We are too scared, we are in too much of a rush, we are too focussed on our own goals. There’s got to be someone else to take care of these people, this situation, this need… that’s what we’re thinking.

And it is good for us to be here – to pause and reflect on our daily lives – and to ask ourselves the question that Jesus invites us to ask: Not “WHO is my neighbour?” But “How can I be a neighbour to someone who needs my love, my help, my care and concern?”

I was reading the summer issue of the Presbyterian Record the other day, and I flipped to an article written by my former preaching professor, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Farris, who now teaches at the Vancouver School of Theology. Stephen’s article was a timely reminder of what every preacher should already know – what every Christian should already know – that the gospel is good news. Literally, that’s what the word “gospel” means. It means “good news.”

And it is the preacher’s responsibility, when preparing a sermon or reflection or homily to remember to look and listen for the good news in the biblical text and to preach it. Of course, preaching will sometimes challenge us, and often call us to live more and more in the way of Jesus. And today’s story invites us to become more and more like the kind man who stopped to help his neighbour who was in trouble.

But Jesus’ stories and parables are always full of layers of meaning. We can’t just read them once and figure them out completely. Indeed, I cannot count the number of times I have read, preached, discussed, and acted out the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but this week I began to wonder about another layer of meaning to it.

You see, I have always imagined myself in Jesus’ story as one of the people coming along the road after the robbery and the beating was over. Things are okay for me. I’m on my way somewhere, and I’ve got a choice to make… hurry along and pretend I don’t see what has happened, or stop and do what I can to help.

But maybe I’m missing the point of the story if I don’t recognize that I could just as easily be the one at the side of the road. I could be the one beaten up by a gang of thugs. I could be the one who lost my job and found myself homeless. I could be the one trying to choose between paying the rent and feeding my kids. I could be the one going through the cancer treatments – losing my hair, and my hope with each passing day. I could be the one working day and night, and wondering what it’s all about. I could be the one struggling to get out of bed in the morning, suffering with debilitating depression that just won’t seem to let me go.

I could be the one lying at the side of the road in Jesus’ story, and so could you. Perhaps today you feel a little more like that man than you do like the folks who come along and just have to decide whether or not to lend a helping hand.

The good news seems to come in Jesus’ story in the fact that eventually someone did stop to help. It wasn’t necessarily the person you expected. It may have even surprised you a little… that this person cared enough to take the time for you, that this person was a neighbour to you.

But Jesus’ stories – indeed, Jesus’ own story – was full of surprises like that. Jesus was born – a tiny, helpless child, to a poor family, living in an ordinary town. But we believe that Jesus was God – God coming to us in human form. In his life, in his ministry, in his death and resurrection, Jesus demonstrated over and over again that God is for us. God is the one, who in Jesus Christ, saw our need and did not pass by on the other side of the road.

God is the one who came to us in Jesus Christ, and who comes to us again and again by the power of the Holy Spirit. God finds us wherever we are – at the side of the road, or wandering aimlessly in the wrong direction – and God picks us up, tends our wounds, and brings us to the place where we may heal and regain our strength for the journey.

God doesn’t check to see how faithful we have been first. God doesn’t evaluate whether we deserve to be helped. But God sees our need, and loves us, and redeems us.

What was the question, again? Who is our neighbour? Jesus Christ, who loves us and who gave himself for us. Let us gather in thanksgiving and praise at the table that he has prepared. Amen.