July 14, 2019. Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy
One was a nomikos, an expert of the Hebrew law, a lawyer. Not a lawyer in our sense of the word. His job was to study the Torah, think about deep, complicated, theological, ideological and philosophical theories: What is the purpose of life? What does it mean to rest on the sabbath? What are your responsibilities if your cattle injure or kill someone? What happens when you die? What is eternal life and how do you earn it?
He loved to discuss these deep theoretical issues. He was of course not the only one who discussed these kinds of topics. Greek philosophers and Gnostics did too. The lawyer, liked to test his theories by asking others questions. He did not necessarily weigh their answers or was really interested in their views. Their answers would most likely never change his own opinion. No, in his own view, he already had all the answers, his own answers, the right ones. The main reason he asked people these kinds of questions was to see if their answers measured up to his orthodoxy. His reason was to examine or test them!
This is exactly what Luke says, the lawyer did to Jesus: “He stood up to test Jesus! What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This was not an unusual question to ask in the Jewish and Greek world. So, the lawyer thought: “Let’s hear this man’s response”.
Jesus responded with a counter-question and we become witnesses of a verbal game of chess: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” “Love God and love neighbor”, came the response. “Good move! You are right.” “Now do this and you will live”, Jesus replies. But the lawyer was not done yet. He had one more move that may give him the prize in their dialogue. “Ah! And sir, who exactly is my neighbor?”
You see this is a brilliant question. Why? Because scholars did not agree on the answer.
Some say: My neighbors are only those who are fellow Jews, fellow countrymen.
Pharisees are inclined to exclude non-Pharisees as neighbors. Another group, the Essenes actually require that a man should hate all the sons of darkness, which in itself leaves one with your own definition of who sons of darkness are. A rabbinical group have a saying that heretics, informers, and renegades should be “pushed into the ditch and not pulled out.” So these are not neighbors. Another group embrace the view that is expressed in this proverb: “You shall love your fellow countrymen but you need not love your enemy.” These “enemies” include your personal enemies and therefore they are not neighbors. No need therefore to love them.
So, this question is indeed a very good one. As NT scholar Joachim Jeremias writes: “Jesus was not being asked for a definition of the term friend or neighbor, but for an indication as to where, within the community, the limits of the duty of loving were to be drawn. How far does my responsibility extend?”
So now with the stage set for the parable, let me just summarize two quick points for you to hold onto: First of all, the lawyer asks theoretical, ideological and philosophical questions about eternal life. Jesus, on the other hand connects eternal life with action: “Do this and you will live.”
Secondly, the question about who is my neighbor is not to be answered in a restricting or limiting way. The lawyer, and other groups want to restrict or limit who my neighbor is. Certain people and groups are, others are not my neighors.
Then Jesus tells the most famous and best-known parable about the Good Samaritan. Even non-Christians know this parable. Good Samaritan laws offer legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to those who are, or whom they believe to be, injured, ill, in peril, or otherwise incapacitated.
The setting of this story is familiar to all: A man travels from Jerusalem to Jericho, falls in the hands of robbers, they strip him, beat him and leave him half dead. A priest passes by, sees him and crosses the other side of the road. A Levite does the same. Some have tried to find excuses for the Priest and Levite: “They may have considered the unconscious man dead and according to Lev 22:1 they are not allowed to touch dead people for that would defile them.” But remember that they are traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. So they finished their ritual duties in Jerusalem and therefore could have helped.
Then a Samaritan approaches the man. He sees the poor man and he “was moved with pity.” This third character, the Samaritan was the punchline, so to speak. As you know, the relations between Jews and Samarians were not good. Jews despised the mixed peoples, the Samaritans. In fact, the relationship during the time of Jesus had become much worse. You see, the Samaritans between 6-9 of the CE at midnight, during Passover, had defiled the Temple court by casting dead men’s bones in that area. The result was irreconcilable hostility that existed between them. Jesus of course knew this but used this extreme example intentionally. Why? He compares the failure of the Jewish Levite and Priest with the unselfishness of the hated Samaritan. Jesus wanted his hearers to notice the absolute and unlimited nature of the duty of love.
This despised human being became involved: the Samaritan bandaged his wounds, he used precious resources, wine and oil to comfort the victim, he shares his belongings with him by putting him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, pays for his accommodation and he took care of him. He pays the innkeeper to take care of him and to do everything possible to make sure that he gets well – even if it costs more. He will pay for all expenses.
And then the conclusion of the story: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The answer is obvious- “the one who showed him mercy”.
Bear with me for what is coming is important! The lawyer in his question “who is my neighbor” is focused on the object of his love (whom must I treat as my neighbor?). Jesus on the other hand in v. 36 asks about the subject of the love (who acted as a neighbor?). The lawyer was asking: “What is the limit of my responsibility?” Jesus says to him: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? When you do this, you will see that love’s demand knows no limit!”
Before we think about the implications of this parable let me remind you that the lawyer was interested in the question about eternal life from a theoretical point of view. Jesus on the other hand illuminates the question with a practical example.
Jesus tells his questioner that while the “neighbor” is certainly his own countryman, the meaning of the term is not limited to your own. The example of the despised half-breed was intended to teach him that no human being was beyond the range of his charity. The law of love called him to be ready at any time to give his life for another’s need.
The boundless nature of love finds expression in Luke’s Gospel in the fact that following Jesus’ example, it turns towards the very people who are poor and despised, helpless and insignificant.
So, what are the practical implications for us as Christians today? Let’s go beyond the theoretical that normally end with “Yes true —but…”
The text guides us to think about the practical implications:
We could think about loving and caring for others in either a theoretical, ideological or philosophical way or in a practical way. And please know that what I am about to suggest is an effort to get all of us thinking about the practical implications of this parable. My thoughts are not the final words.
The question about eternal life obviously has to do with the question about what God wants us to do. and according to this parable God wants us to love and care for others – by doing it and not simply speculating or theorizing or speculating about the complexities of our world.
Let me be specific: Three examples at the moment are world-wide problems and not limited to the USA. Refugees, inequality and poverty.
These are world-wide problems and they are not going away. Furthermore, all three of them have become highly politicized. So, when they are discussed they become part of the theoretical, ideological and partisan verbal chess game. And the church generally has also approached these problems in a theoretical way. You cannot allow refugees in for they take our resources, they threaten our identity. You cannot change the distribution of wealth for it will harm the system. You cannot address poverty for people will take advantage of the system. Very interesting and challenging, theoretical points.
In the meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for refugees points out that almost 66 million individuals have been forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. There are now more vulnerable and displaced people in the world since perhaps immediately after the Second World War. And it is a problem that is not going away.
Someone said this about inequality: “It’s hard to find a political or business leader who doesn’t say they are worried about inequality. It’s even harder to find one who is doing something about it”. Since 2015 the richest 1% of the world has owned more wealth than the other 99% of the wealth of our planet.
Nearly 1/2 of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — on less than $1.25 a day. 1 billion children worldwide are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
A May 2018 report highlights that in the USA 40 million people live in poverty and over five million live in what is described as “Third World conditions.” About 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, a measurement that has been shown to underestimate the needs of families.
These are complex problems and I don’t know what the solutions are.
However, I believe that the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most challenging and shocking stories in the NT. And this parable is speaking to us in a highly politicized and divisive moment in our history. But it is also speaking to us in a moment where the problems are immense. It is challenging everyone, but especially those people who confess Jesus as Lord for it is He who shares the parable with us.
And the challenge lies in how we ask the question: The lawyer in his question “who is my neighbor” is focused on the object of his love (whom must I treat as my neighbor?). The Lawyer was asking: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”
Today Jesus is challenging us to ask a different question. “To whom can I be a neighbor”. It is a tough question. Jesus in v. 36 asks about the subject of the love (who acted as a neighbor?). Jesus says to him: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? When you do this, you will see that love’s demand knows no limit!”
How would it be if all Christians today would ask: “To whom can I be a neighbor? In whose place can I put myself, who needs help from me?” How would it be if we, as people of faith consistently tell politicians: We are not interested in theoretical, ideological or philosophical questions or problems. You do what you need to do. We will do what we as Disciples of Christ need to do: We will act as neighbors for everyone. We will put ourselves in the place of the refugee, the poor child, the vulnerable woman, the man who feels alone and forgotten. We will ask: “Who needs help from me?”
When you do this, you will see that love’s demand knows no limit. Jesus ends this conversation by saying to him and to us: “Go and do likewise!” Amen.