August 25, 2013 Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity
Joshua 24:14-28, Psalm 104, Galatians 3:16-22, St. Luke 10:23-37
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho . . . Jerusalem perches at 2,500 feet above sea level, Jericho squats at 800 feet below sea level. The route connecting them corkscrews through the wilderness of Judah.
Seventeen miles of bad road. A six-hour trek through country the first-century historian Josephus called “waste and stony.” From the Fountain of the Apostles an hour out of Jerusalem to the Well of Elisha near Jericho, not a drop of water to cool the tongue. Rocks and caves afford cover for men of evil designs.
A certain man . . . fell among thieves. Traders plied the route between the capital of Israel and points east -- Jericho and other cities along the Jordan valley as well as the lands across the river. Merchants make plump targets.
When grabbing plunder is as easy as picking figs, local robbers hold no exclusive franchise. East of the river dwelt the descendants of Ishmael, that wild donkey of a man. “His hand shall be against every man,” the Angel of the Lord had told his mother Hagar, “and every man’s hand against him.”
Mounted raiders from the nomadic Bedouin tribes that issued from Ishmael’s loins would fall upon pilgrims, sudden and deadly as a desert storm, then to vanish with their loot into their hidey holes in the untamed expanse.
In a time of perilous travel, this road gloried in an infamy all its own. The church father Jerome dubbed it “the bloody way.”
A certain man . . . fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
The man was probably a Jew. Certainly, a Jewish audience would have understood him to be one. A priest and a Levite, descending this bloody way, came upon him. In all likelihood, they were returning to Jericho after completing their rotation in the temple service. Jericho amounted to a garrison town for priests and Levites; 12,000 of them lived there.
They did not stop to render aid. Another traveler came upon the fallen pilgrim, this one a Gestapo major. The Nazi had compassion on the desperate Jew.
He took of his own provisions of wine and oil and ministered to him, ripped his uniform shirt into strips and bandaged him, dismounted his donkey and used it to transport him, took money from his purse and purchased safe lodging for him. Then he promised to pay any extra expense for the care of this battered stranger when he returned.
Or was he a Samaritan? No matter. Centuries may separate Samaritan and Nazi but both hate the Jew.
Samaritans did not come to the rescue of Jews. Yet this one did.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a lesson in limits – God’s and man’s. It turns on the question: Who is my neighbor? Seeking an answer, we grapple with another question: What is love?
Our Lord has just proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God to His disciples when a lawyer braces Him: What shall I do to inherit eternal life? St. Luke reports that this man is testing Him. The rabbis taught that eternal life – which is blessed existence in the Kingdom of God – hangs on one’s performance under the law.
Now, a lawyer will catch out this dissident rabbi from Nazareth. The lawyer wants Jesus to quantify salvation, to provide a list of its requirements according to a legal formula. Jesus’ answer is distilled divinity, so pure it almost makes me weep. “What is written in the law?” He asks.
Unlike many a preacher of our day, He will not abolish the law. The answer, He is saying, is indeed found in the law of Israel.
The law is decisive in all matters, including eternal life. The lawyer knows the law. He recites it in a formula that appears to have been common in his day, combining Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. It is certainly common in ours. We use this summary of the law each time we gather for Holy Communion: Love God unconditionally, love your neighbor as yourself.
(Our version is taken from the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark, in which the Lord gives it; in this gospel, Jesus elicits it from the lawyer who is testing Him.)
“You have answered rightly,” the Lord says. “Do this and you will live.”
Life is in the law – but the law is the law of love. Put another way, the grace that pours itself out by faith in acts of love has always been the way of salvation. In Moses’ day and in Jesus’ day – as in our day -- the law is just and right and true.
Yet then and now, men chafe at God’s commandments. They bind our freedom. So we hide our eyes. If we take our hand away, we must see that God’s law reveals His purity . . . and our filth. We must have His law as we must have His air.
If He should relax His standard of perfection, we would have what we want: the license to determine each for himself what holiness is. And in that freedom is death. Eternal life in the realm of a perfectly holy God who will tolerate no sin in His presence demands purity of us.
God cannot allow our failure to measure up to His standard to compromise that standard. So doing, He would invite sin into His eternal kingdom, and the wages of sin is death. His kingdom would become the abode of death. We have a name for such a place. We call it hell.
The law says: Don’t worship other gods or make idols; don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie. Summing up: Love God, love your neighbor – without the limits sin imposes. That’s bad? It sounds like heaven to me.
But how to arrive there? The lawyer has gone all-in on the wager that he can do what the law says must be done to enter the kingdom. Regarding the law, Jesus asks, “What is your reading of it?”
And now we see that the problem is not with the law but with the interpreter. The lawyer says, “And who is my neighbor?”
By law, he must love his neighbor. His response is to shrink the definition of “neighbor.” Legalists among the Jews had seized on the undeniable truth that theirs was a nation God had set apart for a holy purpose and put that truth in a centrifuge a 21st-century political spin doctor would love to own.
Their well-spun mission was not to live out a witness of the God of glory before the other peoples but to hold themselves aloof from them to preserve a purity they claimed to have earned. Their “neighbors” could be only other Jews. But not even all of them. As we have seen in our gospel lessons this Trinity season, the high and mighty rebranded the lowly in their midst in such a way that they could not be called proper Jews at all.
Who is the lawyer’s neighbor? The Lord answers in a parable. The priests conducted the temple service, or worship; the Levites assisted them. Their work involved offering the sacrifices God had ordained to keep before His people their need for a Sacrifice that would restore their loving relationship with Him. The animal sacrifices they offered did not achieve that reconciliation but only pointed the people to it.
Had not God told the Jews repeatedly, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”? The mandate to sacrifice held the requirement of personal holiness up to the standard of divine holiness. It did not overturn the law of love.
Christ addresses to a lawyer who knows not the true law of God a story about a priest and a Levite who know not the true love of God.
The hated Samaritan is the vessel of love. The Jew spilling his blood into the dirt needs his wounds tended. The Levite might have rendered first aid, but did not. The Samaritan applies wine as a disinfectant and olive oil as a balm. The Jew needs transport to a place of safety and recuperation. The priest, a member of the upper classes and undoubtedly mounted, could have borne him to an inn on his animal. The Samaritan provides his donkey.
The Jew needs time to mend and gain strength. The robbers had left him savagely beaten and penniless. The Samaritan pays for his lodging and other needs. The Jew may need more care. The Samaritan pledges payment for anything and everything that may be required to save the man.
He puts no cap on his generosity for this stranger. He provides from all that he has with no hope of gaining anything in return. He places no limitation of race or social position on the object of his love. Love does not assess its objects; it overtakes them.
Some years ago, I heard a man preach in prison. He knew his audience. He had served 34 years behind bars himself. Now an ordained minister and a seasoned preacher, he knows the cadence that can carry his words into the hearts of the men in Texas prison whites arrayed in ranks before him.
Jesus in me . . . gonna love the Jesus in you . . . and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it . . . You hearin’ what I’m sayin’? . . . Nah, you ain’t hearin’ what I’m sayin.’
You hear me now, you hear what I’m sayin.’ Jesus in me . . . gonna love the Jesus in you . . . and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it . . . You hearin’ what I’m sayin’? . . . Nah, you ain’t hearin’ what I’m sayin’. . .
I think I’m hearin’ what he’s sayin.’ He’s sayin’ love does not accept limits dictated by its object. Some will mock the preacher to his face. Some will crack wise behind his back. Some will hate him for his assault on the worldly philosophies and the fleshly desires and the demonic powers they have allowed to lodge within them.
And the preacher will love them. He has given his oath to his Lord to impose no limits the Lord does not impose. He can do no other.
The God of creation sets no limit on His love for His creature. He causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. The God of redemption does not restrict His love for those lost in sin. He desires not the death of a sinner but that he may turn from his wickedness and live.
The Father of all places no restraint on his children’s love for one another. He strips away all limits on it. Only man draws a line in the sand and says, “These on this side are my neighbor and those over there are not. I will love these I choose . . . but only as far as my patience and my budget will allow.”
Man refuses to see that to curtail life is to dabble in death.
My neighbor is mankind, my parish is the world. When the Lord says, “Do this and you will live,” He is speaking to you. God’s law is the law of love. God sets no limits on His love, or yours.
Oh, but I believe, Lord. As long as I believe . . .
Earlier this year, I met a woman named Dru. She had worked for many years in various ministries and was teaching in a prison. She said, “I kept thinking there must be more to loving Jesus and the Christian life than this. I professed to believe in God but not much I did required real faith. What if what Jesus says in the gospels He really means? What if His commands are to be taken quite seriously?”
Dru had ordered her life in such a way, she said, that it “would not have looked much different if I had suddenly stopped believing in God. Security was a big idol for me. I came to see that as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ my life should be markedly, visibly different from those who don’t believe.”
Having invested her soul, she took the money she had set aside for her kids’ college education and her own retirement and bought an old house in the inner city and renovated it. Now she operates it, in addition to doing her day job, as a re-entry facility for men released from prison. She calls it Soli Deo Gloria House – Glory to God Alone.
She says, “It was a chance to trade in my idol of security for a secure place for others. God asked me to trust Him, to walk by faith and not by sight. What a privilege! What a Savior!”
It’s personal. God appeared in His creation in the form of a Person to live out in the midst of His people a love that is not a gauzy idea but a throbbing fact.
In the Samaritan, our Lord gives us a picture of one who loves without limits. The robbers might return and assault him, might take his life; yet he tarries. The Samaritan employs wine and oil for healing, as others did, but this was not their only use. In the temple, they were the libations the priests poured out before God as tokens of the people’s love.
The priest in this story will not cross the road for fear of coming in contact with a man who may be dead. The priest might incur ritual uncleanness. Upper-class Jews would not rub up against gentiles for fear of contamination, nor would they come within four cubits of a corpse.
The priest will offer bloody sacrifices dawn and dusk but will part with no love for a fellow man. The Samaritan recoils neither from one of another race nor one who may be dead. A love that regards every man as my neighbor is always personal. Concentric circles of holiness radiate from the Samaritan.
On the cross, it will be personal. The law of love will nail Christ to that cross. He will not ask, “Who is My neighbor?” He will offer the perfect sacrifice to which all those animal sacrifices pointed. He will fulfill the law.
He will do what the lawyer cannot do, nor you, nor I, so that all who confess our impotence in fulfilling the law may inherit eternal life. Without God’s law, we will never grasp God’s grace.
Who is my neighbor? Look up to the cross, look up to the One who became a neighbor to all. You will find the answer nailed there.
And so it must be personal between you and me. I have spoken to you as members of the church universal, the church in the West, the church in America. On this Lord’s Day I speak to you, the parishioners of All Saints Anglican Church in Durango, to Russ and Donna; to Jack, Ginny, Kati, Jaron; to Jonathan who sits in jail; to each one present and each one absent.
I am still new here but the time has come, I think, to say: the Jesus in me gonna love the Jesus in you and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. You are my flock, given me by God. You have not the power to injure me as grievously I have injured my Lord. As long as He loves me, I will love you.
I will become exasperated with you. I may for a moment rue the day I met you. But that is small beer. As long as the Lord leaves me here among you, I will love you. And that is to say I will place your interest above my own.
In the summary of the law, the commandment to love God comes first, as it must. Love of neighbor has no eternal meaning absent love of the One who opens His kingdom to His people. Those who look for loopholes in the definition of “neighbor” and in the commandment to love him place a limit on both their love for God and their acceptance of His love.
I cannot love you less without loving my heavenly Father less and turning away from the love He offers me. That I will not do to you or to me.
“So which of these three,” Jesus asks the lawyer, “do you think was a neighbor to him who fell among thieves?”
Possible answers: a) priest; b) Levite; c) Samaritan.
The lawyer’s answer: “The one who showed mercy on him.”
A good answer? Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.” But the lawyer has already betrayed his refusal. He says, “the one who showed mercy” and not “the Samaritan.”
He cannot bear to pay honor even to a made-up Samaritan in a parable. The Jews hate the Samaritans. They are ancient enemies.
The Old Testament law taught love. The lawyer has all the answers of the law and none of its wisdom. He would justify himself. To do so he must limit God’s law so he can limit his responsibility under it. The Psalmist wrote:
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes . . .”
According to the law, the one who loves God pours out love on his neighbor. The one who blesses his neighbor out of love for God inherits eternal life. Amen.