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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Loving My Neighbor (Luke 10.25-37)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
October 4, 2009
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Sometimes the delivered sermon varies quite a bit from the early written version. This is one of those times and I encourage you to listen to the audio version, if possible. There is nothing wrong with the written version; the Holy Spirit just led me in a slightly different direction during the worship service.

Today we begin a five week series on grace, truth, and love to follow up on our study of John 1:14 from the past few weeks. From John 1:14 we have talked theologically about how Jesus enables us to experience God’s presence or “glory” through words and acts of grace, truth, and love. For the next five weeks we are going to look specifically at Jesus’ words and actions and see how he embodied the claims made about him in John 1:14. Today we are going to talk about love and how living out godly love creates a true witness to God.

Today’s texts are well-known. The first is the “Great Commandment” – a summary of God’s Law and teaching in the Old Testament. The second, which follows immediately in Luke 10, is the story of the “Good Samaritan” – told by Jesus to illustrate his reference to “neighbor” in the Great Commandment.

Many, many times, when Jesus told a story or gave a teaching, he took topics that were very familiar to his listeners and somehow flipped them around for a kind of “surprise” ending or punch line. By doing so he challenged the conventional wisdom and caused people to wrestle directly with God’s will and word.

I want to give some brief background, then look with you at not one, but TWO surprises in the story of the Good Samaritan. From those surprises, I want to find two corresponding applications for our own lives together.

Love and the Stranger Next Door

There are several important things to know about the context here. First, Jesus is speaking to a “lawyer” – that is, and expert in Jewish Law. Think of the beginning books of our Old Testament – not just the Ten Commandments, but the many, many laws about conduct, food, and purity. On top of that there were centuries of interpretation and application. The lawyer was a spiritual leader who knew the Law of Moses backwards and forward and was instrumental in interpreting it for the Jewish people.

We are told in verse 25 that this lawyer was “putting Jesus to the test.” In other words, he was trying to trip him up, or at the least see what this popular traveling teacher knew about the Law. So the lawyer asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Religious leaders at the time debated this fiercely, even whether there was a resurrection of the dead. Jesus turned the question back around and to the area of the man’s expertise: the Law.

The man gave a good answer, according to Jesus – and how could the man argue with Jesus when he had provided the answer to Jesus? Jesus affirmed that in faithfully keeping the Law one might indeed live, both in this life and eternally. But Jesus only paused there for a moment, and then went on to build on the intellectual completeness of the man’s answer to speak to the need to embody or live out that answer. It is Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” that we are going to focus on this morning. I mention all this context because it is important and necessary to place the definition of neighbor in the fuller context of worship of God through love of God and neighbor and to what it means to live here and now as well as eternally with God. It is also important to realize how and where the lawyer would identify with the characters in the story.

Surprise #1: love outside the community

There are two significant questions addressed by Jesus’ story. Interestingly enough, neither is the original question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

The first significant question Jesus answers is spoken by the lawyer in verse 29. He asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This is the part we most easily take away from the story. A man is beaten by robbers and is dying on the side of the road. Two religious leaders pass by and do not help, even moving further away to avoid the man. Finally, a third person passes by. It is the third person who helps the wounded man in a clear act of compassion and mercy.

The first surprise for the lawyer would be the portrayal of the religious leaders as missing the clear intent of the Law as he has just defined it. The priest and the Levite were understood to be holy men and keepers of the Law. And yet they not only didn’t help the wounded man, they actively avoided him, crossing to the other side of the road. Possible reasons for their actions about: they may have avoided him as “unclean”; they may have not wanted to get involved; they may have had high and holy tasks and didn’t want to be late. While it is easy to blame them for being hypocrites, it is even easier to see reflections of ourselves in them!

And without naming these reasons or explicitly pointing the finger, Jesus’ portrayal of these two holy men would have been a piercing challenge to the lawyer and any other religious folks listening in, including us.

Now most times I’ve heard this story taught, this is where it stops. And the application stops there as well: we should help those in need, like the man beaten by the side of the road. We all understand the cautions and the reasons for passing by, and we hear this story and feel a little to a lot guilty and think, “Well, if I encounter a homeless guy or see someone broken down, and it’s not too terribly risky looking, maybe I’ll try to help in some way next time.” And by the time that situation arises again, this text and lesson are long past.

But listen: that is stopping far short of what Jesus was teaching. For one, we’ve got to see that “need” is not limited to the homeless or those with a flat tire. The big question leading into this story was, “Who is my neighbor?” and it was asked to help understand the Great Commandment, the summary of God’s Law. It is clear from Jesus’ story that love of God and love of neighbor is not exhausted inside the realm of the holy and religious folks. While there are needs here among us, the first great challenge of this story is to say that those we are to love as neighbors are all around us in the community, whether broken down on the side of the road, isolated and holed up in the house next door, or in the line in front of us at the grocery store.

The first great surprise in this story is Jesus’ claim that to keep God’s Law we must venture outside the realm of the holy and into the world of the profane. To put that in today’s context: in order to obey and love God, we must love those who are not in here! Now that’s nothing you haven’t heard me say before, but hear it with some fresh words and with the intensity with which Jesus said it. It is his application of the Great Commandment – the GREAT COMMANDMENT! In order to keep God’s Law, that is, to be obedient to God, to love God, and to serve God, we must love our neighbors. And Jesus is explicitly teaching that our neighbors are not where the holy men were headed, but those they passed by.

That begs the question: whom do we pass by on our way to be “good Christians?”

Think about it. Do we even notice? And if we do, does our heart go out to them in love, as the Heavenly Father’s does or do we think them a little less good and godly than we are? That is the force of Jesus’ story and it hits me right between the eyes.

Here’s the first surprise and its application once more: in order to love, serve, and obey God, we must love those who are not in here, even those furthest away!

Surprise #2: love your enemy

Hard to imagine, but that was not the biggest surprise of Jesus’ story!

The biggest surprise was that it was a SAMARITAN who helped the wounded man. And the youth video got this so right. What would have been the very last person Jesus’ audience would have expected to help… especially if you were a mouse? Yes… a cat!

I’ll remind you that about 600 years before Jesus’ time, the Jews were expelled from their country and taken captive into a foreign land. They referred to this as the Exile. One of the most important things for the Jews during Exile was to preserve their identity. The Samaritans were Jews who returned (or never went) and who inter-married with other races and religions. Once everyone returned from Exile, the Samaritans were outcast as being of mixed race and mixed religion. Many Jews looked upon them as cultural and religious traitors and the Samaritans and Jews had little love or regard for each other. When Jesus cast a Samaritan as the literal and spiritual hero of his story, it would have been incredibly shocking.

But the shock of a Samaritan hero is nothing compared to the surprise of Jesus’ final question in verse 36: “Which… proved to be a neighbor to the man…?”

Most teaching I’ve heard notes the unusual nature of a Samaritan, but points to the wounded man as the “neighbor” we need to love. And that much is true. But Jesus presses beyond that to an even more shocking assertion: that the Samaritan is the neighbor who kept God’s Law and who must be loved to keep God’s Law. That’s when the lawyer’s jaw would have dropped to the ground. Unbelievable! And yet, he had to answer Jesus’ question. I even wonder at his answer – as if he couldn’t bring himself to say “the Samaritan.” He just said, “…the one who showed mercy.” And Jesus tells him to go and do the same.

What Jesus is saying is that the Samaritan proved to be a servant of God, against expectations to the contrary. We must be willing, not only to venture outside the walls of the church, but sincerely ask the question, “What is God doing outside our church and how can we be a part?”

As we venture out beyond the walls, we must recognize that we are not blazing a trail for God; rather, God has gone before us and we are following in faith. We may find some very non-Presbyterian looking (whatever that means!) people doing God’s work! They may have different color skin or different accents or a lot of tattoos and piercings. We might even learn something about being a good neighbor from one of them.

And none of this is to say that we shouldn’t ALSO be concerned about theology, right beliefs, and maintaining faithful worship of God… that is all part of the first part of the Great Commandment! Jesus didn’t set up an either/or Great Commandment, but a both/and, and his story highlighted where religious folks have often fallen short. We draw close to God and tend to cluster with each other and shut the world out.

And sometimes it takes a shocking image, whether that be finding an ally in a Samaritan, or a cat, or someone who really makes YOU uncomfortable. But God doesn’t play favorites, but goes ahead of us into the world. We can either follow after Him and be faithful, or we can look like the holy people in this story.

Get up and get out; God is on the move! Amen.

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