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“What If I Let You Be My Neighbor?”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 10, July 14, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

Why did Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed cross the road?

And that is not the beginning of a joke this time. They crossed the road because they had compassion.

They all spoke of compassion. They were not afraid to go over to the other side of the road and meet the stranger. To meet The Other. They were not afraid to cross the road and greet, meet those that they were culturally or religiously conditioned to fear, or mistrust, or hate, or not want anything to do with. In Jesus’ time, for the Jewish people, the Samaritans were the bad people. For many, the Romans were the bad people. They didn’t want anything to do with Rome because it was occupying their country. But today, maybe it’s the Muslims. Or sometimes even women. Palestinians. Homosexuals or transgendered people. The homeless. And the battle between the conservatives and the liberals. The pro-choice and the pro-life. between what one side calls the gun nuts, and the other side calls the gun haters. The list goes on. These people maybe that you would rather not meet.

But Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, crossed the road to meet those people because of compassion. This translation that we read (the NRSV) said that the Samaritan was moved with pity, but one could also say compassion or a number of other words here. And that is an interesting word, compassion. Especially the word that is used in the Greek here in relation to the Samaritan. I will talk about that later on.

But first, let us spend some time tearing down Jesus’ adversary, this scholar of the law. He is an expert in the religious law, the Jewish law. He was a Jewish scholar, and Judaism has The Law, the Torah, given to Moses up on the mountain in Exodus. The law found in the book of Leviticus. So this was an expert in religious law, not civil law, though he might have known that. But he comes to test Jesus. To test Jesus’ religious thinking, to make sure that Jesus is thinking in the right way and so he comes up to Jesus and he says what must I do to inherit eternal life.

On one level, that’s kind of a dumb question. He asks, “What must I do to inherit?” But inheritance is up to the giver, not the recipient. There is nothing the recipient can do to ensure an inheritance unless the giver of that particular inheritance is a horrible person that would demand that the recipient become their circus performance monkey that has to do certain things to get the inheritance. And so to say, “What must I do to inherit?” has the answer, “Nothing.” There is nothing you can do. It is up to the giver. Nothing you do or don’t do will affect that, especially when God is the giver, because God doesn’t make us jump through hoops to receive. You have it. God gives it. That is God’s nature.

And the scholar’s question here about eternal life isn’t asking about Heaven, per se, as we often think of heaven as the place that we go when we die. That’s not a Jewish concept, and it’s not much of a concept in Jesus’ time. That is something that comes more out of Medieval fantasy and morality plays and other places. Not that there isn’t an eternal or other life after death. But that is not what the gentleman is asking about here. He is asking about eternal life. Eternal life meaning proper life. A life that is worthy of eternity. A life that’s worth living. A life that is aligned with God’s life. A life of intimacy with God. A godly life. A faithful life. That’s what he is asking about. And it is a life in the here and now. A life in this world, because this world is what God is going to redeem. Eternal life is life in God’s time, in God’s way, in God’s space. And this end point of God’s vision is the redemption of creation. It’s not just something elsewhere, or an after life redemption, but a redemption in the here and now, this earthly, material world of the here and now. And not just the world in terms of this planet, but of all creation, the whole universe, the realm of matter and flesh and blood. All of creation. God is working toward the redemption of it, not the destruction of it or to replace it with what we sometimes think of when we think of Heaven. So he is not asking about eternal life in that way. What does it mean to be faithful? What is God life? How do I live this vision of the perfection of everything, and how do I create that now.

And Jesus likes to turn things on their heads. Jesus likes to turn thing upside down, and he is going to do so in his response to the man in the parable. But he also gets topsy-turvy in that he rarely ever answers any question posted to him. Maybe 95% of the time or more he just respond with another question, “Well, you tell me? What do you think?”

And so Jesus does that here. The religious scholar asks about inheriting eternal life, and Jesus says, “Well, you’re the expert, you tell me. Clearly you have studied this and have an answer. I am not going to fall into your trap. You tell me first what you think.”

So the scholar takes that bait and answers with lines from what we would call the Old Testament, but for he and Jesus would just be called “scripture” because there was no Old or New Testament, just scripture. He says, “Love God with all your mind, and all you heart, and all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” That is in there a couple times in the Old Testament. And Jesus says, “You’re right. That’s the answer. Do that, and live.”

Now notice that the man had asked about eternal life. Jesus just says, “Do that and you will live In the here and now.” Present time life. Not some future day of life after death, but live right now as God wants.

But the scholar is not particularly satisfied with this. And he wants to justify himself, as the word says. The translation called “The Message” from which we sometimes read our Psalms, the more contemporary language version, translated it here as “he looks for a loophole”. He knows there has to be a loophole in the law about how we define neighbor. And the Greek word here is a word that means to be made innocent, vindicated, or set free or released from guilt. And it is a word that shows up a few times in the Gospels. Luke uses it in a neat way. In Matthew and Mark when Jesus is on the cross, the Centurion, the roman soldier who was the agent of Rome, looks at Jesus and says “Clearly this was the Son of God”. But in Luke’s Gospel, the Centurion says, “Surely this man was innocent.” And he uses the same word that Luke uses here for the lawyer wanting to justify himself. He wants to make himself innocent. I imagine he felt kind of guilty and convicted by the answer that he gave. Maybe he realizes he hasn’t loved perhaps as fully as he ought. So if he can narrow the definition of neighbor, then maybe he’s okay.

So he says, “Well, that’s all fine and good Jesus, but you haven’t defined neighbor for me.” And so Jesus tells his parable. “Alright, you want to know what a neighbor is?” and he tells this parable.

A man is beaten up by robbers and left on the road to die. He is in the middle of nowhere. And a priest walks by and the priest doesn’t cross the road. The priest denies the victim. In contemporary terms maybe we can think of the priest as a righteous holy person, the type that always brings bags to the grocery store to reuse them, drives a Prius, helps at the shelter, rescues dogs, other good things. He passes by. And then a Levite does the same thing. He walks by on the other side and denies the victim. And for today’s world we can think of the Levite as someone who donates to NPR, is vegetarian, goes to the library, helps at Community clean up days, keeps their lawn mowed, teaches a hunter safety class. Things we might think of good and righteous things. He passes by.

And then a Samaritan walks by. A Samaritan. Oh Em Gee, these are the worst kind of people in the world. The Samaritan crosses the road. Now in today’s world think of the Samaritan as whoever your enemy is. Or whatever group of people you don’t particularly care for or group of people that you don’t think has anything redeeming about them. Who have nothing to offer you. Think of that person or that group of people. Take a moment and think about that.

Who would be your Samaritan of today? Who are the people that really yank your chain? Or that give you the heebie-jeebies when you think about them. Or the person or people that if you were dying and needed a blood transfusion and the only person available to help you out was this person, that you would think, at least fora moment, that maybe death is better than accepting the blood of this person I just loathe or don’t trust. Think of that person.

Now that is the person that has compassion and helps you on the side of the road. That person stops to help. Fixes you up a little but. Carries you to an inn. Spends the night with you, tending your wounds to try to fix you up. And then leaves money behind to cover your cost of recuperation and then promises to the person there that whatever “you spend, I will cover it. I will come back and I will repay you everything that you have spent.”

Now how do you feel about that person or that group of people?

You owe them your life, in a sense. In a literal sense. You owe them your life. Does that make you angry? Or does it fill you with gratitude? Does it change the way that you see that person or those people? If so, then that’s eternal life. That’s living in eternal life.

That is a very different question than what we often offer when we read this parable. Usually we ask. “Would you be willing to be the Samaritan, to stop and help out?” And that also is very important to be that person. But it is easy to help, because that is a position of power There is not necessarily any vulnerability involved in stopping to help people. But accepting help? That can be difficult. But in that command to love your neighbor as yourself is an equal command to allow your neighbor to love you., Even the neighbors you don’t like. That you don’t care for.

The Samaritan here offers an awful lot of help. This condition-less help that your Samaritan, your hated person or people, provided. The Samaritan gave this man no test of worthiness. He didn’t ask the beaten man how he got into that predicament to judge whether or not he deserved to be helped out. If it was his own fault, and maybe he ought to just be left there. He didn’t ask if the man would live a life worthy or in a way that the Samaritan wants him to live if he can bring him back to life. Your Samaritan doesn’t tell you how you have to change to receive help. He just helps. Your Samaritan helped you in the way that you needed help, with no thought of what it would cost him or her. He provided the help you needed. And that is the kind of help, the kind of ministry, that doesn’t come from a position of power but from compassion and vulnerability. To be willing to ask, “What do you need?” not “What do I want to give?”

“What do you need?”

The word here for compassion, or pity as translated here, I said I would talk about. And in the Greek the word that is used for the Samaritan is a very old word, goes well back into Greek history and it has a lot of consonants in a row: splagchnizomai. Difficult to pronounce but that is what it is in Greek. It is a very old word that goes back into the time of sacrifices in Greece, and it was the word that was used for the innards taken out in a sacrifice. The heart, lungs, liver, and whatever else. The innards, the guts, that were removed in a sacrifice and so a heart in Greek normally would be kardio (think cardiology) but if that heart was taken out for sacrifice, then it was a splagchna or whatever the proper Greek word is for that. It has a separate word once it has been sacrificed for something. And then over the years that word began to be used in relation to our more impulsive emotions, like anger and fear. And then eventually, coming into the time of Jesus, it was being used in relation to feelings like mercy and compassion. So it starts as a word for taking out the heart, and then becomes a word for compassion – a kind of taking out of one’s heart.

What is interesting is that the Gospels have many instances of talk of compassion, mercy, pity, and words like those. Most of the time, other Greek words are used when those words come up. But this particular word, splagchnizomai, shows up twelve times in the synoptic Gospels, and it is used only in relation to Jesus, and in relation only to Jesus. And it used to describe Jesus, or else Jesus uses the word to describe the character in a parable. Luke uses this word three times. once for Jesus, and twice by Jesus, to describe the father of the prodigal son and here to describe the Samaritan.

And then when the lawyer answers Jesus’ question about which one here was the neighbor, he says, “The one who showed mercy.” Notice he says “The one”, he can’t even get himself to say “The Samaritan”. But the word he uses for mercy is a normal one. He cannot use the special word for compassion, either.

And so compassion, this splagchnizomai, is a very sacrificial kind of love, because it comes out of that word for sacrifice. We might say “His heart went out to him”. And historically that could be a very literal interpretation of that word. To give your heart, to truly give your heart. In Jesus’ topsy turvy, where we are called to identify with the victim, the outsider, and the other, and our enemies, we don’t pull out the victim’s heart to make them the sacrifice, we pull out our own heart in sacrificial love for their benefit.

Radical, heart-ripping-out, self-sacrificial, don’t-worry-about-the-cost, give-up-your-life for others – especially those who have nothing to offer you, compassion.

That’s eternal life.


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