In our gospel for today it says that the lawyer was trying to test Jesus. The implication here is that his intentions were less then honorable, that he was trying to trick Jesus, paint him into a theological corner, show him up with the questions he asked. And that may have been the case, but as I think about this passage for today, which includes the most well known of all Jesus’ parables, I have to say that there is a part of me that sympathizes with the lawyer and his questions. I want to cheer him on like he is my lawyer and I am his client and he is out there asking the hard questions on my behalf.
This lawyer as described in Luke was in fact a religious scholar and not a professional in civil law as we think of lawyers today. In 1 st century Palestine there really was no civil law apart from the faith, all Jewish law was in fact religious. This lawyer, this religious scholar, approached Jesus and asked him the most fundamental of all philosophical and theological questions – what must I do to attain eternal life. In other words – what is the purpose of life, what is worth doing in life, how should one live in order to please God? Jesus, in classic rabbinic fashion, did not answer his question but responded with a question of his own – what do the scriptures say? Now our lawyer was nobodies fool. He’d been thinking about this question for sometime and he was ready. First, he said, we must love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind. This was the expected answer, part of what is called the Shema, which every Jew knew. It’s Christian equivalent in familiarity might be something like the Lord’s Prayer. But the lawyer does not stop there. He adds to the Shema by tacking onto the end – “and your neighbor as yourself.” This second part of the answer must have pleased Jesus immensely. I imagine that Jesus smiled when he realized that the lawyer understood that loving God was integrally connected to loving one’s neighbor. Much of Jesus’ ministry had been spent trying to show people that love of God means nothing without that love being translated into a love that cares for people. And so Jesus said to the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”
Now, our lawyer should have quit while he was ahead. He’d given the right answer, he understood the connection between love of God and love of neighbor when many others didn’t. But he couldn’t help himself, he just had to push it just a little further and ask another question – “And who is my neighbor?” This is the part of the story where, if I had been standing there eavesdropping on their conversation, I would have silently cheered the lawyer on. I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to ask the question myself, but I’d be glad he’d asked it. It’s a great question. O.k., fine, we have to love our neighbor to really love God, but what does that mean? Come on Jesus; let’s get more specific. The word neighbor can be taken pretty broadly. How do we know who our neighbor is? Do we have to love everybody or just those within close proximity? Does this include total strangers, or just those folks with whom we are acquainted? It’s a big world out there. What about the people in the next village, the next city, the next country? What about those folks on the other side of the world? We come across a lot of people in our everyday lives; you can’t mean that we have to love all of them? Who’s got time for that? How would we ever get any work done?
I like this lawyer who wanted his terms defined, clarified. I appreciate his desire for a few parameters on this word “neighbor.” He wanted Jesus to spell it out for him, to say these are the people who are your neighbors; these are the situations in which you have some responsibility to act in love. Clarification is good . . . right?
But then, then you realize that our lawyer’s question can be turned around. Was he asking, “Who is my neighbor?” or did he really want to know – who isn’t my neighbor? Did he want clarification or did he want to know when and how he could get off the hook? Who don’t I have to love, who don’t I have to treat as neighbor, who can I avoid, ignore, when is it all right not to care?
I think Jesus knew instantly the dark flip side of this simple question and so he didn’t answer. Instead, in classic Jesus fashion, he told the lawyer a parable, a parable about a good Samaritan. He told the lawyer a surprising story where the good guys, the priest and the Levite, don’t save the day and where a member of a group hated by the Jews, a Samaritan, rescues a wounded traveler. In so doing, he tells the lawyer two things: one, if you want to love your neighbor then act like the Samaritan did, two, even the people you most despise, Samaritans, can be a good neighbor. Therefore your assumptions about them don’t count. It’s a great story.
The other day, my brother told me about a priest friend of his who paid a visit to a member of his parish who had a very large farm. As they visited they walked and talked and the farmer told his priest about the difficulties of making a living farming. He explained how he had had to sell several hundred acres to developers in order to stay in business. As they walked around the perimeter of the farm the priest noticed a huge and badly rusted combine broken down and left near the edge of the property. It was covered in weeds and sat right against the farmer’s fence only about 300 feet from a large hotel that had been built on what must have been at one time land that was part of the farm. “What’s that?” the priest asked his parishioner. “Oh, that’s my hate piece,” responded the farmer. “Your what?” asked the priest. “My hate piece. Those people I sold my land to built that hotel right where I asked them not to and I left that combine there to let them know how much I dislike them. It’s my hate piece.”
In our gospel for this morning Jesus let’s our Lawyer friend know that there is no room in the Kingdom of God for the hate pieces we erect in our hearts for the people we would rather not consider our neighbors. We don’t get to build monuments of dislike or disdain that keep us from loving certain people. Whether they are Samaritans or Al-Queda, cross-dressers or drug addicts, ex-husbands or ex-wives, old business partners or estranged friends. When it comes to loving our neighbor there are no grudges, old wounds, or bad politics that get us off the hook. We can’t ask Jesus who is our neighbor because there is no way to say who isn’t. To love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, means that we have to struggle to love all as neighbor whether they are right in front of us or on the other side of he world. It isn’t easy but it’s the way of the Kingdom, it’s Jesus way.
I want to close this morning with an ancient story from the Greek Orthodox Church. “There was once a monk who had long planned a trip to Jerusalem to see the Holy Sepulchre. He finally began the journey with the money he had saved over forty years. Soon after he left the monastery, he passed a field along the side of the road where a pale emaciated man was digging roots out of the ground, and he said to the monk, “Good morning, Father. Where are you going?” The monk replied, “I am going to Jerusalem to see the Holy Sepluchre, where Christ was buried, and I am going to march around it three times and pray.” The man in the field said, “That trip will cost much money.” “Yes,” said the monk, “all my life’s savings.” Then the man suggested, “Father, why not march around me three times and give the money to me so that my wife and children might have food?” And the monk did. He never saw where Christ was buried. But he did see where Christ was risen and alive . . . in fact he participated in the resurrection himself.”1 Amen.
1 Nikos Kazantzakis