Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 10, 2016
Luke 10:25-37 Commentary
If you are a baseball fan, you remember that bizarre play in Game 5 of last October’s playoffs between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers. The game was tied 2-2 in the 7th inning and Texas had a man on third base. The Toronto pitcher had just thrown a pitch to the Texas batter at the plate who did not swing at the pitch. The Toronto catcher then threw the ball back to the pitcher as usual except that he accidentally threw the ball into the batter’s bat, causing the ball to bounce out into the infield. The Texas player who was on third saw this, knew what it meant, and ran home to score a go-ahead run. Pandemonium ensued but . . . as it turned out, there is a rule that covers this. When the ball hits the bat—even if thrown by the catcher—it is a live ball and is in play. The runner on third was correct to run home and score the run. Only the keenest of baseball experts knew that that rule existed.
But there are always experts in rules around.
Take Luke 10. We begin with a lawyer. True, this man was not a lawyer in the contemporary sense of that term. Rather, this was a religious man trained not at law school but in a seminary. He became a lawyer not by taking the bar exam but by taking a Bible exam in which he had to demonstrate his nimbleness in stringing together long and complex verses about God’s rules for life. It was a perfectly legitimate area of scholarship but it did have one drawback: when you spend your life parsing rules, commands, statutes, and laws, you sooner or later conclude that the life of faith is all about doing certain things and not doing other things.
It really is like the person who devotes himself to learning every last rule of baseball: there is finally only one reason to pursue such a goal and that is gaining the ability to make judgments on what is fair and what is foul in an actual game. Understanding the infield fly rule or what constitutes a major league balk is totally boring if it is just a theory. That knowledge does you no good when you are shopping for groceries or shoveling snow off your driveway some morning. No, you need to see a game before you can use what you know. That’s why people who know the rules the best tend to be the same people who watch the most baseball!
So also with people like this lawyer: he had spent his whole career pondering laws and regulations. There had to be some payoff for knowing all this, and so life became a giant game in which lawyers were the divine umpires who made all the religious calls.
Given all of that, it is no surprise to hear this lawyer say to Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” If there is one thing the gospel makes clear, it is that in the long run, the answer to that question is “You don’t have to do anything.” On this occasion, however, Jesus lets that go because he knows that if he plays into this lawyer’s hand a bit, he can make a strong point. The lawyer asks what to do, and so Jesus goes straight for what he knew this man already regarded as the biggest “To Do” list in the world: the Law of God.
“Well,” Jesus says, “what is written in the Law? What’s your scholarly assessment of it?” Without missing a beat, the lawyer reels off Deuteronomy 6:5 as the summary of the whole Law of God. And he’s right. On another occasion when someone asked Jesus for the greatest commandment of them all, that same verse was also Jesus’ own answer. So in this situation, what else can Jesus say to this lawyer except, “You are absolutely correct. Do this and you will live.” Of course, Jesus meant do this perfectly, which was his none-too-subtle way to force everyone back to grace again. No one who is honest would claim he has always led a life of perfect love. So if perfection is the requirement for admission into the kingdom, then each one of us is in very dire straits (unless there is such a thing as grace, that is).
This man unwittingly goes on to prove that very point. As a sharp lawyer, he paid attention to and defined every word. It is said that someone once came up to a lawyer and said, “If I give you $100, will you answer two questions for me?” The lawyer immediately replied, “Sure, now what’s your second question?” Similarly here, the lawyer is watching every word and so seeks a definition for the term “neighbor.” Preferably it will be a definition that will get him off the hook. You see, he is aware that there are people in this world whom he has not loved as a neighbor. But he could justify himself provided that the people he had unlovingly ignored hadn’t counted as his neighbors to begin with.
“Who is my neighbor?” the man asks. And his hope is that Jesus will say something to the effect (in Frederick Buechner’s wonderful embellishment), “Very well: henceforth a neighbor (hereafter referred to as the party of the first part) shall be defined as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence, unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as the neighbor to the party of the first part and one is then oneself relieved of all responsibility of any kind to the matters hereunto appertaining.”
Well, if you are looking for a loophole to maintain the fiction of your perfect love for God and neighbor, then that type of reply would help a great deal indeed. The people who would then count as your neighbors would be restricted to a handful of folks whom you already know and probably also already love. But to state the incredibly obvious, that is not the answer Jesus gave. Jesus does not give a legal definition but instead tells a story.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem . . . .” That’s how he begins. The Greek text says anthropos tis, which could be translated literally as “a certain man” or could more colloquially be translated as “some guy.” Some guy, some anonymous fellow of indeterminate age, of unspecified ethnicity, and of unknown origins was taking a trip. He could be anybody, and just that is Jesus’ point: he is anybody. The lawyer probably wanted to interrupt Jesus right here. “Hold it, Jesus. What man are we talking about? Can you describe him? Is it anyone I might know? Is he Jewish? A Gentile? Gay, straight? Roman or Greek? Slave or free? What man?”
Even had the lawyer asked this, Jesus would not have answered. “A certain man, some nameless, faceless fellow was taking a trip and got mugged. They beat him half-senseless, took his wallet and then left the guy in his underwear, crumpled in the mud of a ditch.” The man is left like roadkill, and two religious figures treat him like roadkill, too, actually walking on the other side of the street to avoid seeing him, much less helping him. Jesus says the third passerby is a Samaritan, and at this point I picture the lawyer clenching his teeth. A Samaritan. Today it would be like hearing the word “Nazi” or “Taliban.” Samaritans, of course, were not like Nazis, but they were regarded almost that darkly.
Nevertheless, Jesus uses a Samaritan as the parable’s hero. He approaches the man in the ditch, does first aid in the field, and then takes the man to a hotel, where he puts him up, pays for everything, and promises to return in a day or two to see how he’s doing and again settle the account. We don’t even know in this story if the mugging victim ever regained consciousness to see who was helping him. But it doesn’t matter: the Samaritan is not thinking of himself. His focus is on the other person (and in this way he stands in stark contrast to the lawyer whose focus seems to be mostly on how good ole’ #1 is doing. Remember, Luke already told us that the lawyer was seeking to justify himself).
Now at this point you assume that Jesus will say, “You asked who your neighbor is, and now I’m telling you: your neighbor is that anonymous man in the ditch.” That would make sense for Jesus to say that. The man had asked, “Who is my neighbor” and so Jesus shows a faceless and nameless crime victim as his parabolic answer to that question.
But take very careful note: that is not what Jesus says.
Instead, Jesus turns things around and asks, “Now, which of the three passersby acted as a neighbor to the mugging victim?” This is a subtle shift in emphasis, but it packs a wallop! You see, we tend to think like this lawyer: we think that what we need to do is scan the society around us to see who out there counts as my neighbor. But here Jesus says that figuring that out is less important than making sure that you yourself act as a neighbor to everyone you meet. Who those other folks out in society are, how they treat you, what they look like, whether or not they seem like folks with whom you have some stuff in common is not nearly so important as making sure that whoever they are, you are their neighbor.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. In the end Jesus says, “Nevermind that: are you a neighbor?” Of course, the two questions are related: the implication of the parable is that indeed, everyone is my neighbor and that is why I must be a good neighbor to them. But the shift in emphasis in verse 36 reveals again Jesus’ desire that we become bearers of love everywhere we go. If our hearts are full of grace, mercy, compassion, and love (for both God and everyone else), then we won’t ask, “Who is my neighbor” because it won’t matter: the question becomes irrelevant if you are yourself already being a neighbor.
In the Greek of Luke 10:30, the phrase “anthropos tis” is very generic. What is not generic in this story is the identity of the person who, in the end, even this conniving lawyer is forced to admit is the one who demonstrated mercy. So when you think about it, when Jesus says his famous line “Go and do likewise,” he is not propping up some gospel of works righteousness after all. No, he is telling this very proper, very Jewish, very pious man to go and be a Samaritan. He’s telling him that what the gospel is all about is becoming what you once despised. It’s becoming what you have never been and for a long time at least never even wanted to be. Coming from the lips of an incarnate Savior who let himself become human . . . well, such words gain a great poignance.
President Franklin Roosevelt spent a good deal of his life concealing the fact that polio had rendered his legs useless. FDR developed a battery of techniques to keep people from seeing him as physically helpless. He always wore dark pants cut long to conceal his leg braces–steel braces painted black so they’d blend in with his pants. Sometimes for a speech in a stadium the Secret Service would build a large ramp so that FDR’s entire car could drive up to the level of the lectern. For press conferences Roosevelt invited reporters into the Oval Office so FDR could remain casually seated at his stately desk.
Above all Roosevelt perfected the illusion of walking. He would lock his steel braces at the knee and then, with a cane in one hand and his other hand holding onto the arm of a Secret Service agent, Roosevelt would swing his legs from side to side, propelling him forward. This was tremendously difficult work which typically resulted in FDR’s shirt and suit coat being soaked with sweat. Yet all the while FDR smiled, bantered casually, and gave that characteristic toss of his head as though he were just taking a casual stroll.
Yet one day FDR compassionately did the exact opposite of hiding his disability. It happened while visiting a veteran’s hospital which had a ward filled with soldiers who had lost limbs to Nazi and Japanese bombs. On this occasion FDR insisted the Secret Service push his wheelchair very slowly through the ward even as the president displayed his useless legs. He wanted the amputees to see his vulnerability and so convey the message that if he could rise up from his own handicap to become president, their lives were by no means over despite the tragedy that had befallen them.
When we exercise compassion, we participate in the greatness of God. God is a compassionate giver of life whose compassion so floods his heart that it sometimes overwhelms what even God suspects may be his own better judgment! Of course, these days compassion is a darling trait in the “back to virtue” and “return to character” movement. Politically we now hear about “compassionate conservativism.” The Century 21 real estate folks recently ran an ad in which they claimed that the realty agents with the golden jackets really care. “It’s not just listings, it’s listening by the real estate company with compassion.”
But these casual references to compassion probably serve to empty the word of its real meaning. So what is compassion? Neal Plantinga defines it as a genuine distress over another person’s suffering accompanied by a firm desire to relieve that suffering (and then to actually relieve it if possible). Compassion involves a gut-level, emotional response to another’s hurt followed by a desire to relieve the person of that hurt.
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