I love Jesus’ interactions with people, one-on-one. Sure, maybe he was standing there in the middle of the synagogue or field, and someone challenges him, but it’s Jesus and this person, head to head. Sometimes, the other person wants to make it a versus thing, but Jesus always finds the way to make the conversation a with kind of thing. He’s always pointing the person back to their own reflections, their own issues, their own thoughts, their own experiences.
And so it is with the expert in the law stands up to test Jesus. He’s the ‘religious right,’ the one with all the answers, and he’s out to show that Jesus doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. So, he asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, apparently, the religious leaders haven’t figured out the whole “answer a question with a question” method Jesus has mastered. He asks the teacher in return, “how do you read the scriptures to explain inheriting eternal life?”
The religious leader comes back with the textbook shema: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“Attaboy…” says Jesus (or at least, that’s a close approximation).
But the religious leader goes for broke: “And who is my neighbor?”
Wow, how often do we push the envelope until the envelope pushes back? Here’s Jesus, minding his own business, and not picking a fight, and suddenly, the man asks a question that Jesus is willing to answer… with another question.
More often than not, I find these parables to simply be more interesting if we make them ‘modern.’ So here’s my spin on the story that Jesus tells- check it out:
“The kingdom of God is like…” After working late one evening in his office, a young college student was travelling from VCU to Dinwiddie, but along the way, his engine failed and he found himself stranded on 85 one night. He flagged down a passing car, and found himself beaten, robbed, and stripped of his cellphone, identification, and other documents, lying along the side of the road.
A Republican church elder was traveling by, and he saw the flashing lights and the huddled mass of the man along the side of the road, but he’d volunteered at the soup kitchen, and his wife was expecting him soon, so he called 911 and reported it in.
A Democrat choir leader soon came around the bend, but knowing all of the warnings about picking up hitchhikers, and figuring it was much too dangerous, he averted his eyes, but said a quick prayer that someone would come by soon.
A pastor was driving home from midweek service and saw the man finally sitting up by his car, but his car was clean AND there was that church policy about the pastor not being one on one with a young person. So, he knew God would forgive him because he was following the rules and kept driving.
Finally, a van with a broken tail light, traveling just at the speed limit to avoid attention, came around the bend and slowly came to a stop. Three men of small stature got out of the van, their well-worn clothes a distinct difference from the college student’s well-manicured appearance. They bent over his semi-conscious body, muttering to each other in a language that he couldn’t understand and rough but careful hands carried him to the back of the van. A first aid kit was opened, and he felt water brought to his lips. In a delirium, he tried to thank them but passed out.
The next morning, when he awoke in the small county hospital, he was told that some men had pooled their money to pay his registration fee, and he had been cared for thanks to their generosity.
And then there’s the question from Jesus: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
There’s nothing the expert in the law can say is this: “the one who treated him with compassion.”
Jesus nods, and tells the expert in the law to go and do the same.
Jesus told the expert of the law, who could’ve related to one or all of the men who walked by, that he was walking by people he was supposed to love as his neighbor every, single day. And that if he wanted to experience eternal life, he was going to have to toss his preconceived idea of brotherhood and neighborhood out, and start over.
Reformed Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller wrote, “I see many who do not let their social concern affect their personal lives. It does not influence how they spend money on themselves, how they conduct their careers, the way they choose and live in their neighborhoods, or whom they seek as friends.”
In other words, I see many who say they care about people but don’t change how they think about them, how they spend their money on them, or how they make decisions that affect them.
And yet, as far back as Jonathan Edwards, the Plymouth Plantations author of the “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” sermon before we weren’t actually British, the church has understood that its involvement with the poor and its need for classical Biblical doctrine were intertwined.
Jesus has been banging a socially proactive drum from the very beginning of his ministry. His first sermon began when he stood up and read from Luke 4:17-18: “the spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
Whoa! Jesus is getting his mission on, isn’t he? Preach good news to the poor, free captives, share the light? But we don’t always recognize that the people they need freed from is us.
Jesus proceeds to preach and teach and heal all over Israel and Judea, sharing the news about God’s grace. And then he lives out his message on the cross, sharing God’s grace instead of God’s justice. Seriously, without the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection, we DESERVE death. We DESERVE to pay for our sins in the presence of an ALMIGHTY and holy God.
But the same God who required acting justly and loving mercy, and walking humbly too, shows us mercy even when we didn’t deserve it. (The term for mercy is “chesedh,” God’s unconditional grace and compassion.)
Over and over, the Old and New Testaments come back to an understanding that God expects us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” That’s a quote in Proverbs 31! God clearly has ideas in mind about how we should treat the immigrant, the disabled, the widow, the orphan, and those were brought up over and over again by Jesus.
Roman Emperor Julian despised Christian faith but said “Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of Christians as their charity to strangers… the impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” Are we that kind to people we aren’t expected to like?
I know every time I see something about Westboro Baptist Church, picketing the funeral of another dead Marine, proclaiming that these deaths are the result of God’s judgment on the U.S. for lax moral standards, especially around homosexuality, that my job to share God’s love just got harder.
My pace quickens, my heart pounds, I get chills—and not the good kind. Isn’t this exactly the opposite of every reading we’ve considered today? Every story that we hear about Jesus?
But we’re the church—and we share our title with some real winners. And if we’re not careful, people have a hard time separating the two.
The “Parable of the Good Samaritan” reminds me of the Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears A Who, incarnated again as an animated film a few years ago. There, Horton (an elephant) hears the cries of a small town that is blown about on a thistle. He does everything in his power to save the town, to protect and keep it, to advocate for it, because he says “A person’s a person no matter how small.” Nevermind that Horton is an elephant! But he changes the minds of his community by asking them to consider their lives from a new perspective. Jesus is constantly challenging our intellectual understanding of our faith, and demanding we go deeper into a fuller, riskier life than we ever imagined.
In Luke 12:33, he tells them, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Another writer and theologian, Miroslav Volf, wrote an essay, “Shopkeeper’s Gold”:
Imagine that you have no job, no money, you live cut off from the rest of society in a world ruled by poverty and violence, your skin is the “wrong” color – and you have no hope that any of this will change.
Around you is a society governed by the iron law of achievement. Its gilded goods are flaunted before your eyes on TV screens, and in a thousand ways society tells you every day that you are worthless because you have no achievements. You are a failure, and you know that you will continue to be a failure because there is no way for you to achieve tomorrow what you have not managed to achieve today. Your dignity is shattered and your soul is enveloped in the darkness of despair.
But the gospel tells you that you are not defined by outside forces. It tells you that you count – even more, that you are loved unconditionally and infinitely, irrespective of anything you have achieved or failed to achieve, even that you are loved a tad bit more than those whose efforts have been crowned with success.
Imagine now this gospel not simply proclaimed but embodied in a community that has emerged not as a “result of works” (Eph. 2.10). Justified by sheer grace, it seeks to “justify” by grace those who are made “unjust” by society’s implacable law of achievement.
Imagine furthermore this community determined to infuse the wider culture, along with its political and economic institutions, with the message that it seeks to embody and proclaim. This is justification by grace, proclaimed and practiced.
Could we be that kind of community?
I John 4 says, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Put aside people we don’t like for a minute: Are we loving of each other? Are we loving to the point of swallowing our frustration and bearing patiently? Or are we quick to judge, quick tempered, even hostile? Our inner attitude is often betrayed by our actions, isn’t it?
If we say one thing in church but really treat each other and others differently, then it doesn’t matter what hymns we preach, what clothes we wear, what Scripture we know. Our faith must be a living breathing thing.
The Social Principles of the UMC can sound like they’re something super complex (and I encourage you to read the unedited version in the Book of Discipline) but they’re actually pretty basic. They’re the kinds of things that will get focused on over the next two years as elections ramp up and people become statistics.
The Principles say that:
We’ll affirm all people regardless of race, and push for equal opportunities for all. We’ll uphold the rights of religious minorities (even those who disagree with us), of children, teens, the elderly, women, disabled people- those who are ignored!
We affirm marriage and fidelity between a man and a woman, that divorce is not ideal but sometimes a regrettable option.
We affirm that God alone should choose who lives and who dies, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God, including suicide.
We affirm that everything we own is actually God’s first. And our money, too.
We affirm that all life is sacred as it was created by God, and that the reconciliation of humanity comes through the resurrection of Christ. And therefore oppose the death penalty as we believe that reconciliation is offered to all.
All of those affirmations beg again the question, who are they for? Who is our neighbor? How would we actually apply the affirmations if they mattered to us, and weren’t just argued around the water cooler?
Would we vote for the death penalty if it was our child or spouse or parent convicted of a crime? Would we deny health benefits if it was our own family member? Would we deny the rights of genetic study if it meant that a loved one could breathe or move or simply exist without pain?
What if it was Jesus? What if Jesus was sick or imprisoned or homeless or poor? What would we do for Jesus? What haven’t we done? What should we do?
AGAIN AND AGAIN THE TEXT REMINDS US THAT THIS ISN’T ABOUT US.
We find a home in church but the church isn’t for us—it’s for everyone.
We find salvation in a relationship with Christ but it isn’t for us alone—it’s for everyone.
We come to know God’s love for us—but if we’re not treating others with the same respect we’d show Jesus if he was here, we don’t really understand it.
So let us confess our sins, both those we have committed against each other and others, and those where we have failed to act when we should have.
Let us pray that God would clean our hearts of selfishness, pride, and misplaced anger, and fill us with love, compassion, and mercy for the world.
And let us rejoice that God’s grace washes over all over sin, and that Jesus’ resurrection brings hope to the whole world. For every human, no matter how small.