Who Is Your Neighbor?

Text: Luke 10:25-37 (Lev. 19:9-18)
Date: Pentecost 7 (Proper 10) + 7/11/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

I met a pastor friend of mine for lunch Friday at the airport, on his way to the LC-MS convention in Houston. He told me of one of his parishioners who said, “Pastor, we like your sermons, but could your preach some more ‘practical’ sermons? You know, sermons about how to live.” This has happened before, and pastors then look at each other with a knowing smile as we did—knowing that such a question reveals that they prefer the Law of God and possibly don’t fully know or appreciate the Gospel. In a similar vain, as I sat down to finish today’s sermon yesterday an email alert came from the Issues, Etc. radio program asking, “What did St. Paul mean when he said, ‘We preach Christ and Him crucified?’” And then it went on to say, “Today we hear Christ the therapist, life-coach, helper or lover preached in many pulpits. How do these fall far short of Christ the Savior presented in the Bible?” Then it noted a five-part series beginning tomorrow called “Christ Alone.” Today’s Gospel shows us how even well-meaning believers can get confused or fall short of hearing, knowing and believing the Gospel, the good news of salvation that is totally and completely a gift and not the result in any way of our own preparations or works. Jesus tells a story to address this and asks, “Who Is Your Neighbor?”

Before we get to the parable in today’s Gospel reading, however, let’s get to it by means of the Old Testament reading chosen to go along with this
Gospel. It is from that section of Leviticus called “the holiness code,” and gives what our earlier friend would agree is “practical” advice for daily living as a believer in God. A complete treatment would, of course, require a review of the entire Ten Commandments. Here we have just a portion describing what it means for an Israelite to be a good neighbor.

It begins with your relationship with the poor and the sojourner. It says that, when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap right up to the edge of the field nor strip the vineyard bare, but leave a little on the edges or on the ground “for the poor and for the sojourner.” Since most of us are not farmers or vineyard workers, we can extend this to include our offerings or gifts to the needy or other agencies. The sojourner was the “resident alien,” and as such this text does not have anything to say about the current U.S. controversy of illegal aliens.

Then it moves to advice among equals, among the fellowship, the family of faith. “You shall not steal” ought to almost go without saying. Dealing falsely or deceiving someone, or lying to one another on the other hand may be worth the reminding. There is always room (it seems, annually!) for a good “anti-gossip” sermon in the church. Swearing by God’s name for falsehood (which is where the need to swear by God’s name usually occurs) profanes the name of God. Showing partiality by ignoring the poor and showing greater honor to the more important negates the way of righteousness and justice. All hatred of your neighbor is forbidden but rather rebuking or reasoning frankly with your neighbor is commanded. The same goes with taking vengeance or bearing a grudge against your neighbor. And finally there is the famous summary, “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Now, it is very probable that the expert in the law or “lawyer” in today’s Gospel was pretty sure that he had been faithful, that he had been doing pretty well when it came to living according to God’s law. When it says that he stood up to put Jesus to the test, there may have been a little hostile intent to trap Jesus in his words, but it may have also been a question from a heart that was not quite sure that he had done enough or lived God’s law well enough. “Teacher,” he asked Jesus, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And you can hear how his very question is like the question of my friend’s parishioner, revealing a lack in his understanding. He doesn’t yet realize that salvation is not a result of your doing anything.

But Jesus first answers the question straight up. What must you do? That’s a Law question. So Jesus answers with a Law answer by asking, “What is written in the Law?” And not only that, but, “how do you understand it?”

The man was good. He knew his “catechism.” He answered almost automatically the Word of God he had learned by heart, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” and Luke reports that the man added “and with all your mind,” “and your neighbor as yourself.” The love of God must be total involving your whole life and being. Love of God is the fulfillment of the first table of the Ten Commandments. Love of neighbor is the fulfilling of the second table of the Ten Commandments. Jesus says, “You have answered correctly.” If you want to be saved by doing the Law, “do this, and you will live.” The unanswered question is how well, how perfectly, to what extent must I love God and neighbor. Notice that the lawyer does not ask a qualifying question about the love of God. He apparently thinks that is the easy part. But he is troubled by the love of neighbor part. And he doesn’t realize that the more problem you have with the love of neighbor part, this has a direct effect also on the love of God part.

So, “desiring to justify himself,” to cover certain failings or prejudices, or just to lower the bar, he asks Jesus for a limiting qualification, “and who is my neighbor?” implying that there are some who are not his neighbor. So the question also comes to you! Do you put limits on your love for other people? Do you make distinctions, segregations between different “kinds” of people, some being more worthy of your love, and some less? This is where the reformed theologian John Calvin got stuck, as do all Roman Catholic theologians, reducing the meaning of this parable to mean only, “we should love those who are difficult to love.” Yes, we should. But while that may be true, please notice the little word “should.” Likewise the words “ought” and “must” all of which are Law words. Calvin and our lawyer and my friend’s parishioner, and all those stuck on the Law, looking for what they think is “practical” advice, fail to hear the freeing and forgiving, liberating Gospel. Let’s see if we can hear it.

The man asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” I imagine a knowing glance, a slight smile on Jesus’ face, and a little pause in the action before He launches into what has become known as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It’s almost like a bad joke that begins, “There was a Jewish priest, a Levite and a Samaritan going into a bar.” Instead of going into a bar, however, they were walking on a road that connected Jericho and Jerusalem. There is “a man,” a victim of highway robbery, left stripped, beaten and literally “half dead.” The story is to be as shocking as it sounds, the well-respected priest and Levite taking notice of the poor man passed by on the other side of the road. Now, if Jesus would then tell of a noble Jew helping a beaten Samaritan, the lawyer might have accepted that. But of course the challenge here is that it was the hated Samaritan that helps the poor, anonymous man; and not only helps him but Jesus goes to some lengths describing his compassion—the cleansing and binding of his wounds, transporting the man on his own animal, providing for even an extended stay at an inn, and employing the innkeeper to the further duty, above and beyond his innkeeping responsibilities to take care of the man.

Now it was time for the question that would answer the lawyer’s initial question. “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Well, it couldn’t be denied. For the sake of the story, the Law of God makes it obvious, he said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Right! “Mercy!” He was almost there. Jesus’ “punch line” was intended to bring the man all the way to the crisis of repentance, to the larger question of our complete inability to “go and do likewise.”

So we don’t know what the lawyer’s reaction was. How do you understand this?

Jesus’ question is, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The point of the Law will be, “Which of these three” should you be like? The point of the Gospel, however, will be, “which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to you?” For you are to see yourself not in the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, but in the poor, half dead man on the road!

Who is it that proves to be a neighbor to us? It is only He that comes to us when we are not only half dead, but, as the Bible says, completely “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1); who, nevertheless, in compassion comes to our aid, binds up our wounds, and brings us to the place where we will have healing. “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked thinking only who is deserving of his love. But, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers meaning the neighbor who loves him! Like the half dead man in the story, the lawyer and each of us must come to know that we are spiritually dead. We cannot do anything to inherit eternal life. Only Jesus is our “good Samaritan,” the only One who can help, who can bring healing and life out of death. That’s because He himself went through death, defeating the power of death and now has the power and authority to raise all sinners to life, new life, the life of faith that needs no codes or laws to produce purity, holiness, goodness or love because in Christ “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). This… This is the Gospel of the Lord! Praise to You, O Christ!

Now do you hear it? Now do you see it? Only the Gospel is the truly “practical” Word, if by “practical” we mean the Word that really helps, that really answers the real questions. The Law only reveals our weakness, our insufficiency, our sin and need. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ turns the tables and gives us strength and full assurance of eternal life. Only the Gospel shows Jesus to be neighbor to us so that we can bring His love and compassion to all those who are our neighbors.

When it comes to believing in Jesus as our neighbor and receiving His compassion, “go, and do likewise.”