March 5, 2017 Sermon
1st Reading – Luke 10:25-28
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
2nd Reading – Luke 10:29-37
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
When I was in high school, I was a good student. I doubt that surprises you; I’ve always enjoyed research and the acquisition of knowledge, even trivia. And so it also probably doesn’t surprise you that I spent the first three of my four years in high school as a member of the debate team. And, since high school debate relies heavily on research, I was pretty good at debate, as well.
Then, at the end of my junior year, I got tired of debate. I wanted to do something more fun, more artistic…and so I tried out for our school’s ensemble or show choir: a group of young men and women who sang songs while dancing and were regarded well enough in the community to perform somewhere close to 50 shows each year. I was a little surprised when I was chosen for the ensemble – no doubt I received the last available spot…certainly more for my singing ability than my dancing ability, and maybe because I was one of the few guys to audition who was big and strong enough to do some of the things the director wanted done that year.
I will never forget my first extended time spent with that group. It was at a summer show choir camp in Oklahoma. And all week long, the people in my ensemble laughed and laughed and laughed at me…not when I was singing or dancing but just when I was interacting with them. When I asked why they were laughing at me, they told me it was because I was at the same time the smartest person they had ever met AND the person with the least of what they called “street-smarts”. In other words, I knew tons of stuff, but I had no idea what to do with it. And my new friends enjoyed pointing it out to me over and over and over again. And they played all kinds of tricks and pranks on me, and I fell for them each and every time.
Which brings me to our scripture reading for today….and the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he asked.
As I consider Jesus’ answer, especially in light of the teenage version of myself that I remember, I can imagine the excitement building inside the lawyer. Jesus responded by asking the lawyer what was written in the law. Jesus responded by asking the lawyer to recite his KNOWLEDGE…something a lawyer would have been well trained to do.
The lawyer had read the scriptures. The lawyer KNEW what was contained in the scriptures…for Jews the laws were based on the scriptures. The lawyer could recite the scriptures on command and even locate and recall a great summary of the law: “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”
But…as we discover from the continued unfolding of the story…it wasn’t enough. Studying wasn’t enough. Reciting the correct answer wasn’t enough. KNOWLEDGE wasn’t enough.
Jesus didn’t respond to the man’s knowledge with the words, “Go, by your knowledge you will be granted what you seek.” NO. In Jesus’ response, he pointed out what the lawyer lacked: actions consistent with his knowledge.
“You have given the right answer; DO this, and you will live.”
Folks, this past week, the liturgical season changed from Epiphany to Lent. The lingering reminders of Jesus’ youth, represented by the visit of the magi, have been removed. On Wednesday, worshippers received ashes on their foreheads to remind them of human sinfulness. And we begin today 6 Sunday mornings in which our focus shifts from Jesus’ identity made known to our self-reflection on the job we’re doing as individuals and as a community with regard to ACTING on what we learned about Jesus’ identity during Epiphany. Lent is often described as a season of penitence or repentance; that is, a season of turning toward God. And in order to turn toward God, we’ve got to get in touch with the ways that we’re currently turning toward something else.
Lent is also a season during which we ponder the question of the lawyer in today’s story, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As we approach Jesus’ crucifixion and the resurrection that follows, our minds logically drift to what is required for us to be resurrected with Christ, what is required for us to inherit eternal life.
I was raised in a congregation that taught that the answer to this question can be found in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Question answered. Case closed. “Believe in him,” and you will receive eternal life. Of course, the leaders of that congregation forgot to mention that Jesus actually answered the question directly someplace else, in Luke 10, and in that answer Jesus provided an important clarification about what is meant by the word that gets translated as “believe” in English.
In Jesus’ answer to the direct question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” , Jesus revealed that the “believing” he talked about in John 3:16 isn’t just a head thing. Remember what I said a while ago: knowledge is not enough. In Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s direct question about the requirement for eternal life, Jesus taught us that the “belief” he talked about, the turning toward God and entering the kingdom of God that formed the core of his message, requires ACTION.
Studying the scriptures, believing in Jesus with your heart and mind, knowing ABOUT God, even KNOWING God…y’all, THEY…ARE…NOT…ENOUGH.
But what is enough? What action is required to turn toward God? What action is required to enter into God’s kingdom?
The lawyer said to Jesus, “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 your neighbor as yourself.” And the lawyer was right. Jesus said so. But Jesus didn’t stop with the words, “you have given the right answer”; Jesus added the words, “do this, and you will live.”
It sounds to me like Jesus was telling the lawyer that he KNEW the answer in his head but wasn’t LIVING the answer with his actions, his whole being.
That can happen to us, can’t it?
I remember the first time I ever heard about a game called Trivial Pursuit. I was a teenager, and my parents had returned home from a party where they had played the game, and they absolutely loved it; Trivial Pursuit was all they talked about for days. And I remember my father saying that the most difficult questions were in the history category…because some of those asked about things that happened thousands of years ago. And so he told me that, based on his experience, if the question asked about something from thousands of years ago, if you answer with either Jesus or Moses, you will more than likely get the answer right.
I chuckled to myself when he said this. And then, throughout my early ministry with children and youth, I was reminded of that conversation over and again. As a Sunday School teacher and Youth Group leader, it seems like the kids had figured out that if I asked an Old Testament question, answer “Moses”. And if I asked a New Testament question, answer “Jesus”.
And sometimes I feel like that’s what’s going on with adults in the church a fair amount of the time. Whatever questions might come up in our faith lives, we know the answer is probably “Moses”, or “Jesus”, or “God”. And that’s a nice start, but what does it have to do with the rest of our LIVES? What does it have to do with LIVING? Y’all, if all you’ve received from a lifetime of faith is the ability to answer a few Bible Trivia questions with greater accuracy than your friends…what’s the point? Do we think that’s what Jesus meant with the words, “do this, and you will live”?
So…it sounds to me like Jesus was telling the lawyer that he KNEW the answer in his head but wasn’t LIVING the answer with his actions, his whole being. And then, the lawyer confirmed that to be the case. When that lawyer asked a second question, he truly revealed what he was lacking. “And who is my neighbor?”
I hope you GET what he was really asking. If he’s supposed to love God and love his neighbor, what’s the boundary he can put around the definition of “neighbor” to LIMIT who he has to ACTIVELY love…because active love is a whole lot different than passive, in our heads and in our hearts, love, isn’t it? Loving everybody throughout the world in our heads and our hearts is easy. We can simply THINK that kind of love into existence. But that’s not the kind of love Jesus was talking about. Jesus was talking about actively living in ways that seek the best interests of our neighbors…so the lawyer needed to understand exactly how far out from himself that kind of action extended.
Is it enough to just work for the best interests of my parents and my children and my siblings, Jesus? Is it enough to serve my family and my close circle of friends, Jesus? Do I really have to give some of my hard-earned money to the family across the street or across town who’s head-of-the-household hasn’t worked a day in the last year, Jesus? And what about my enemies, people who seek to do me harm, and the enemies who seek to harm God’s people? Surely I don’t have to work to show acts of love to THEM, do I Jesus?
So Jesus responded to this question, this desire for a clear limit, a clear boundary, regarding WHO we must actively love in order to truly live…with the well-known parable of the good Samaritan. Quite a bit of interpretive work has been done with regard to this parable, work to help us modern folks understand the significance of the road upon which the traveler was robbed, and the particulars about why a priest or a Levite might feel tempted if not required to pass on by, and even the nature of the dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans. It’s all helpful stuff…but sometimes it can get in the way of the point Jesus was making with the story. And remember, a parable is a story told to make a point. For us today, it’s the POINT of the story that matters. You’ve probably heard that the point of the story is that EVERYONE is your neighbor, EVERYONE is who you’re supposed to actively love, even to the point of expending your time, your energy, and even your money on behalf of a complete stranger who comes from an enemy land. And that’s CLOSE to the point – maybe even HALF the point, but it’s missing a subtlety that’s often overlooked.
Did you notice Jesus’ question to the lawyer after the parable. If Jesus was simply trying to make the point that the lawyer should try to help everyone, he would have asked the question from the perspective of the Samaritan: how did the Samaritan answer the question, “who is my neighbor?” But Jesus went in the opposite direction: who was a neighbor to the man who was robbed? In other words, who ACTED like a neighbor. And then Jesus told the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
Y’all, by his answer, Jesus made not one but TWO things clear. First, from God’s perspective, everybody is our neighbor, YOUR neighbor. And second, when it comes to people, WE declare with our actions toward others and on behalf of others who we truly believe is our neighbor.
That distinction is important. Back in Jesus’ time and place, people tended to use many different criteria to define their neighbors: family, social class, ethnicity, religion, and others – really doesn’t sound that different from today, does it? But Jesus communicated that from God’s perspective, these distinctions don’t matter, and we, each of us, will show who we believe to be our neighbors – and whether or not our understanding is consistent with God’s understanding – based on our acts of compassion and mercy on behalf of others…all others…especially those in need.
You might recall that this whole passage of scripture started with a lawyer asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. By his answer, Jesus revealed that some DOING is, indeed, required. Thinking, believing, desiring the best for all humanity, is simply…not enough. R. Alan Culpepper, Dean of the School of Theology at Mercy University, wrote a commentary about Luke’s gospel, in which he stated the point of today’s text this way: “those who show mercy show that they belong among the heirs of the kingdom.”
I began today’s sermon telling you a story of my high school life, how I was a book-smart kid with little experience putting what I knew into practice. As we begin this Lenten season, our journey toward the cross, I encourage you to evaluate your faith-life, and compare it to your day-to-day life. Is your faith-life something that exists in your heart and your head? Is your faith-life something manifests itself in Sunday morning worship and fellowship events with a few of your close friends? Or does your faith-life look like a compulsion, a compulsion driven by the love of God to seek out those who have need – even for, especially for, people who are nothing at all like you and who you didn’t even know before you decided to help them – and to perform actions of mercy on their behalf? Amen