5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 14th, 2019
"Who Is My Neighbor?"
There’s a lot of law in today’s readings. You look at Leviticus and it’s like the second table of the 10 commandments written in an expanded form – with law about sexuality, stealing, courtroom justice, and more. It sums it all up, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And amidst the pleasantries of Paul’s greeting in Colossians 1, there’s some fine law, too, including the encouragement to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord”.
And then you come to today’s Gospel reading, in which we have the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. We will get to that in a minute. But first notice that Jesus tells this parable in the context of a conversation with a young lawyer about – the law. The man asks that universal question of the human soul, “What must I do to be saved?” and Jesus refers him to the law – something he is, as a lawyer, well familiar with. He sums up the law perfectly, too – in much the same way Jesus once summed it up – Love God, and love your neighbor. Jesus even commends him for answering correctly.
But then the hitch: “Do this and you will live!” And here’s where the man should have stumbled. Here’s where he, and all of us, could fall down under the crushing weight of the law’s demands. Where we can and should admit, “I haven’t done this. I can’t do this. And for the most part, I don’t even WANT to love God and my neighbor as myself. I mostly want to love myself. Me first. You second, and only if I have time and if it makes me feel good. But I know that’s not right, and I know I should do better. If I have to do this law to live? Where does that leave me? Where can I go for help, consolation, mercy? Or am I simply doomed to die?”
But not this guy. Instead he does what sinners so often do: he seeks another way out. A loophole. An addendum or exception by which he doesn’t really have to do what the law demands. He seeks to define away, “who is my neighbor”. He presses Jesus on the question. And so Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Now, many preachers and theologians have treated this parable from a rather law-oriented perspective. They see this Good Samaritan character as an example for us to follow, a standard of treating our neighbor in kindly ways when even the supposedly “good” people of the world do not. Loving the unlovable, those people who we don’t really identify with – as Jews and Samaritans were like oil and water. And so the sermons and bible studies that run this way end up heaping on more law, digging you further into the grave, because which of us can say we’ve been a good Samaritan? Which of us can say we’ve loved our neighbor even close to this?
But there is another perspective from which to see this parable. And that is to consider Christ. Where is Christ, you say? Well look a little closer at this figure of the Good Samaritan.
Here’s someone who comes from the outside. Here’s someone who brings healing, binds up wounds, shows compassion. He takes the poor man to the inn and provides for his ongoing care. And he promises to come back. Do you see Jesus?
And then think again about the man left half-dead in the ditch. Maybe you can identify with him. For we are beset by enemies far worse than robbers. We are under the assaults of the devil, the sinful world, and even our own sinful flesh. We are far worse off than half-dead. The ditch in which we lie is far deeper.
And yet our Good Samaritan comes and pulls us up out of the muck and mire, heals our every wound with the balm of his grace and mercy, and brings us to the church, where his appointed servants care for us. And Jesus doesn’t pour oil on us, but he does wash us in Holy Baptism. And he gives us wine and bread that are his true body and blood.
In fact our Good Samaritan goes even further, for he takes our place. He becomes subject to beating and theft and indignation in our place. He goes to the cross, obediently, in our place. He becomes the one who is beaten and bloodied and left for dead, in a borrowed tomb.
All this to show his mercy to sinners. All this to win for us healing and wholeness. Thanks be to God!
And seeing Christ and his work for us first – and coming to the parable in a Gospel framework – now the example of the Good Samaritan can stand for us – not as a terrifying indictment of our failures, but as an encouragement to do likewise for so Christ has loved us.
So who, then, is your neighbor, Christian? We now ask the question again, but not from the stance of, “How can I wiggle out of this?” but in faith, “how can I serve, who can I best serve, who would God have me love and serve?” And the answer might surprise you.
Some Christians might answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” by simply saying, “everyone!” And while there’s a good intention there – and I think it’s well-meaning, it isn’t quite right. In fact it makes the word “neighbor” mean nothing. Rather, your neighbor is simply whoever is near you. That’s the only qualification.
While in a very tenuous sense the starving beggar thousands of miles away who you don’t know or know of is your neighbor – for he’s a fellow human on the same planet – he’s not nearly your neighbor like the needy friend down the street, or coworker in the next cubicle, or your fellow church member, or even family member.
We might want to qualify who “deserves” to be our neighbor, but that’s not how it goes. Don’t love people because they deserve it anymore than we deserve Christ’s love. But we do it simply because we are given to do it. The Samaritan in the parable didn’t plan on helping the man who was robbed – but God placed him there and so he did what he could. What neighbor has God placed before you?
And then think also of the question, “who is my neighbor?” through the lens of vocation. This can help us discern not only who is my neighbor, but how I might serve him. Am I a father, husband, brother or friend? A mother, daughter, co-worker, or citizen? A pastor or hearer, an office or magistrate, a solider or nanny? Each vocation has its appointed neighbors to serve, and its way of serving.
I saw a bit of humorous wisdom this week: a sign said, “Forget world peace; visualize using your turn signal!”
And maybe the point is made well: Christian love and mercy for the neighbor begins with the simple, the everyday, the lowly forms of love and service. It means caring first of all for your family, raising children in the fear and nurture of the Lord. It means supporting the grieving, encouraging the fearful, even just listening with a friendly ear. It might mean a denarius out of your own pocket here and there, or a little of your own oil or wine. But whatever the means of service, and whoever the neighbor, you’ll never do it better than the author of the parable who is the ultimate Good Samaritan from above.
Which really brings us back to Paul’s prayer for the Colossians, and a good prayer for you and me, that we would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.