The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
“Who is my neighbor?” just might be the most loaded question in scripture. We often think about the other questions that Jesus was asked were more inflammatory: “Are you a king? Are you the son of God? Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” All of them direct and piercing questions, but none of them were as meant to snare someone as much as, “Who is my neighbor.” The man in the story was asking it to justify himself, and those listening were ready to do the same.
If Jesus said, “The person who lived in your town.” Then everyone could let out a sigh of relief, “I volunteer at the soup kitchen, I have followed the commandment.” If Jesus said, “Those who agree with you politically.” Then the Centurions watching in the back could relax, “The Jew I kicked into a ditch didn’t count, I’m still a God-fearer.” And, heaven forbid if Jesus had said, “Your neighbor is the person you like and get along with.” Because then we could all say, “Surely, I will inherit eternal life.” Afterall, as Jesus says elsewhere, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? Even sinners do that!”
Instead Jesus puts something before us that we might look at and say, “Oh that’s too much.” Jesus gives us the charge to, “Love our neighbor as ourselves,” but is sure to define neighbor as God intends neighbor to be known. Jesus takes the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and transforms our understanding of it. The question is not, “What kind of person should I love,” The question becomes, “What kind of person am I?” The man who was trying to justify himself in talking to Jesus was hoping to be told – help this kind of person, and instead he was told what kind of person he should be.
The story is backwards from what people would expect. People who heard the story would have insisted that Jesus should have made the man who was beat up the main character and had him find each of the other characters and help them. The version they would have expected would go something like this, “ A man was walking along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the way he saw a priest in trouble, and he helped him. Then he saw a Levite in trouble, and he helped him. Finally, he saw a Samaritan in trouble, but he did not help him.” The lesson of this parable, and I would say of a great deal of preaching, is that the people you have helped up to this point are your neighbors and no one else. The Lawyer acted the same way we do today, he was looking for a message that would condone his behavior and condemn everyone elses.
Jesus goes beyond what the man asked, which is essentially, “Who am I allowed to ignore?” and gives the real lesson. We should not go through life asking, “Who do I have to love?” Instead the question is, “Am I loving?” The man asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response at the end of this passage tells him, “You are a neighbor to anyone you show mercy to.” In other words, the only way to love your neighbor as yourself, is to be a neighbor to all the needy.
In the parable it is not power or lineage that determine a persons status as neighbor. Levites were attendants to the temple, descendants of Jacob like any good Jew would be. Priests spoke on behalf of God, at least in theory. Yet, these people did not show mercy to the injured man. These people who were theoretically the most shining example of what it was to be a faithful Jew, they lost their participation in God’s kingdom by refusing to show mercy. The Samaritan enters in as more than an example of unlikely help, he is an example of God’s grace working in us.
The Samaritans were not just foreign people to the Jews. They were the descendants of survivors from the Assyrian massacre of Israel long ago. They were part Persian, part Israelite. They practiced different religious traditions than the Jews, they still do today. Jews at the time did not like them because of these differences. Even though they both worship the same God, they could not stomach having someone worship God differently. It reminds me of when I went to my first Catholic mass and someone I knew looked at me and said, “I just don’t know why you would experiment with other religions.” To me, it looked like a cross at the front of the church and the ministers were still reading the scripture, but to this person the other differences were unacceptable.
Jesus tells this story in a way that sets people up and constantly makes them question their expectations. We have to imagine him tell this story like any good storyteller, he is trying to get the audience interested. We can hear in his words the build up and the fall. “Now by chance a priest was going down that road…” Oh good, our hero! “and then he saw him by the side of the road and…” This is where he helps him! “he passed on the other side.” The crowds would be disappointed – that isn’t the right ending.
Jesus repeats the disappointment with the Levite. Then comes the Samaritan. The crowd would have expected at this point that everyone in the story was going to abandon the man, that Jesus was going to talk about how all people failed to keep the law. However, the Samaritan went above and beyond what was expected. Carrying the man from the road to a hostel, paying to take care of him, and opening a tab for anything that might the man needed. This man may have objected to the help, to having a Samaritan do all this for him, but regardless of whether or not he got credit for his good work, the Samaritan in the parable carried it out. The crowd would be confused, they might even be angry. “How can he say these people get it more than we do.”
Jesus wanted to speak to two tendencies which we in the church face today. The first is that we like to be selective in who we help. We take the command to love our neighbor and the command to share things in common and we relativize them. We can do that, but not for such and such a person or only in such a such a scenario. We have no commitment to doing the work of God at all times to all people. Here though, Jesus has insisted that we are not only to work for good always and with all people, but that we cannot limit who God can work through. When we think the only people who can do right are the ones we agree with, who look and act like us, then we have forgotten what God has told us before.
Our text from Deuteronomy touches on the second excuse we in the church cling to. Namely, that it is impossible to follow God’s command. We look at the people we know and the world we live in and say, “It would be great if we could follow that commandment, but that’s too hard!” This is when we fall into empty truisms, things that while not wrong can easily become excuses. For example – “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” Is true, but if we use that as a reason not to do good then we fall into sloth, we give up before we even started. To prevent any such talk, God speaks through Moses and is very clear.
God tells us directly, “This commandment I give you is not too hard.” Translated another way, “It is not a mystery.” God tell us, “It is not far away from you.” I did not hide it Heaven or in a distant land so that you would not be able to get it. The language used here is telling. God reassures them that they do not need a great man like Moses to guide them to do good. God tells them, “You don’t have to send a man up a mountain to know what you have to do, it should be obvious to you.” Indeed, this word is very near, it is in your mouth and in your heart. The most essential parts of the Christian life are evident to us – they do not take much thought. God does not say, “It is in your mind,” as if it takes a lot of thinking to figure out – it is in your heart that you will feel it and know it, it is in your mouth that you speak blessings and not curses.
When we are called to act as a neighbor to those around us, God does not put a burden we cannot handle on our shoulders. If we believe that Christ’s, “Yoke is easy, and [his] burden light.” Then we cannot say it is impossible to do good. We will definitely fall short of the example Christ lays before us, and at the end of the day what we do does not save us – only our faith. However, we must commit ourselves to a better goal, to doing the work of God which is in our heart. We have the assurance that God will see us to our goal, and the assurance that our short-comings will be forgiven, now let us live out both these realities.
We are like Christ, we are like the Samaritan, we travel a world in which we do not belong. We must take the time to help those we meet along the path. Our destination is Heaven, but who will we send down the same path as us? The ones who we become the face of mercy to, the ones who we show the path to, those who we are able to become Christ for. We must go forth into the world and proclaim the word of God, but we must go forth and do it, but we don’t have to go far to find it. This word is very near, it is in our mouth, it is in our heart. We must go now, and put it into the world. – Amen