Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Wrong question. . .
There is a certain Japanese American professor at one of our seminaries who is known to answer a student’s errant query with the words "Is wrong question." In the Gospel for today, a man came to Jesus and asked what about eternal life. Jesus answered him and the man answered well. But the next question was different. "Who is my neighbor?" the man asked Jesus, desiring to justify himself. To this, Jesus answered "Is wrong question." `
Who is my neighbor? It is the right question to us, the one we want to ask when we are not sure we want to love our neighbors. Instinctively we throw up all sorts of barriers to loving the people we do not want to love. They are the wrong color or the wrong gender or the wrong religion or the wrong kind of people or have the wrong address... This is the wrong question. Every time we ask the question "who is my neighbor" we try to divide the world around us into the deserving and the undeserving, those who merit our love and those who do not. That is always the wrong question.
Jesus responds with a story which is perhaps one of the most familiar stories in the whole Bible, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now only Luke talks that much about the Samaritans. They were an unintended creation of an exile when the Jews who were left and pagans mixed it up, intermarrying and interweaving their faiths. They were not Jews and they were not completely pagans. They accepted part of the Bible (the books of Moses) but not all of it. They worshiped on a different mountain (remember the Samaritan woman to whom Jesus spoke) and they had a different history and identity from the Jews.
The Samaritans were typical modern day style religious folks. They kept their faith private and went with the flow. Because of this, the religious zealots hated them even more. Not really believers and not really pagans, the Samaritans had a religion even the Romans could like.
Into this Jesus spoke a parable that made the pariah of a Samaritan into a heroic figure. The point of Jesus was not to elevate the social status of the Samaritan but to draw attention to the surprise of God’s grace visited upon the world in Christ, the true Good Samaritan.
God has no enemies except those who make themselves His enemies. Such is the radical nature of God's love. For the Lord everyone is a neighbor. The unworthy, the undeserving, the hateful, the sinful, the hard to love – all these the Lord has loved enough to become the Good Samaritan and walk across the road to us in Christ. The Lord does not love as a distant admirer but has come near to us and to a world made His enemies by sin and marked for death. He comes near not to judge but to save, not to condemn but to redeem.
Where Christ the Good Samaritan is, there is life – even in the midst of death. Such love is as foreign to our eyes, ears, and hearts as the idea of a Samaritan being a hero to the Jew. Our Lord has come to us while we were yet sinners and His enemies, waiting not for us to repent but enabling our repentance by His Spirit, loving us before we were lovable. Sin has so corrupted our hearts that none of us can think apart from the lens of "me first." Though we may learn to hide our curved into self sinful natures, we cannot eliminate them. Jesus is the opposite. His nature is love, love willing to serve, to suffer, and even to die for sinners. We may be tempted to see ourselves as women sometimes see husbands – raw material that could be made into good. God loves us not for what we might become but as we are – sinners worthy of death – yet He cannot leave us as He found us.
Our Lord has not come to demand love of us or to insist that we be loving but rather to gift us with that which we do not deserve. It is in this love given that the Spirit works. God does not demand a new law of love from us but to bestow this free love upon us that it may teach us what the commandments could not – the love that puts God first and others before self. This parable is not about marching orders but about sinful hearts laid open and bare that we they may be made new in Christ. As soon as we turn the words of this parable to us, the Gospel melts away and this becomes one more impossible demand placed upon us. But because it is about Jesus, the true Good Samaritan, the Gospel predominates through this story.
Now if we get it right, our eyes will not be upon us or upon the needy but upon Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see everything else clearly. That is the perspective of faith. We do not look for our good works – not because they are not there but because we see only Jesus and what He has done for us. Faith focused upon this love also manifests this love and love manifests mercy and this mercy is freely given, not earned; willingly expended and not hoarded.
The priest and the Levite may be the convenient villains here but we dare not take it too far. It is more about God's charity than about our lack of it. The Church is the arena of God's charity – where we receive His love in the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments. This is the house of the Good Samaritan. Here we die our death to sin in baptism and are reborn as new people in Christ. Here we are transformed from enemies of the Lord to His own sons and daughters by baptism and faith. Here we are fed the privileged food at the privileged place of His table. And here we are set apart for mercies work to every neighbor. We come here week after week so that our own unworthiness may be left in the shadow of Christ’s redeeming love. We come here week after week so that we may learn to focus our hearts on this unrelenting love and when we get that right, this love has its way with us and bears its fruit in our daily lives.
From the charity of the Lord we experience here in this place, we show forth God's charity to the world. From the love that has no enemies, we learn to call everyone neighbor. From the fellowship of the Gospel, we show forth God's fellowship to the world. Who is my neighbor? Is wrong question! All of us are unworthy and undeserving of God’s mercy and yet it is our confidence in that mercy that bids us come today and go forth in the world to be Christ to our neighbors. Amen