July 14, 2019, Loving Recklessly, the Good Samaritan – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000144
We know that the whole law of God hangs on just one commandment – Love. Love God, love your neighbor. We read in Deuteronomy today: “The word of God is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” That means, in part, that we already basically know what is right and good – and we practice it instinctively with the people we love. A parent will give her life for her child without a second thought. A husband or wife will stay by the side of the person they love no matter what. We do everything we can for our mother and father when they are old and in need of help, without a second thought.
The lawyer in the gospel reading understood that; he understood that the whole law of Moses could be summed up in that one great command to love. Jesus commended him for his answer. But then, just to make sure he had all his boxes checked, the lawyer had a follow-up question. “I know the commandment is fulfilled by loving God and my neighbor,” he said, “so tell me, who, exactly, counts as my neighbor?” It was a very lawyer-ly question. He was looking for some definitions, some boundaries, some restrictions on who he did and did not have to love. All people who follow God? All people who live good lives – or at least try to live good lives? All citizens of my own town? State? Nation?
But instead of giving the lawyer a direct answer, Jesus did what he so often did. He told a story, a story about a man who was attacked by robbers and left for dead along the side of the road, and about the three men that came along that same road and saw him lying there. The first two men were a priest and a Levite. I think we can assume that they were both basically good men, who knew how to be loving people. When they were at home, or in their own community, we can we pretty sure that they treated their family and their good friends with care and compassion. But when the priest saw the man lying in his own blood on the roadside, he didn’t react as he would have if it had been his father or his child lying there. He didn’t look at that suffering human being and see a person who needed him. He looked at a suffering human being and he saw exactly the kind of rules and regulations the lawyer was looking for.
He saw a body lying in a pool of its own blood and he remembered the laws about avoiding contact with a dead person to avoid becoming unclean – because who knew if the man was still alive anyway? He saw a person who might even be a Gentile, in which case his very touch would make the priest unclean. The priest and the Levite were men whose whole lives were dedicated to upholding the perfect law of God, who sought to keep themselves pure by everything they ate and drank, by their every action. Much better, they thought, much better they should cross over to the other side of the road and not risk becoming unclean and unable to perform their ritual duties to God. Because serving God, after all, was their highest duty. The first commandment is to love God. The command to love one’s neighbor comes second to it.
But just consider now – and this is taking a little bit of liberty with Jesus’ original story, I know – but just imagine if that priest or that Levite were walking down the road, and they saw their own little child lying still by the side of road, badly hurt, maybe dead. Consider what he would have done. Can we have any doubt that he would have run as fast as he could to his child’s side? That he would have taken his child in his arms without a second thought? Is there any doubt that he would have carried his child to the nearest village, crying out for help as he ran? Is there any doubt at all? What would you do if you saw your child or your grandchild, your brother, your good friend, your mother, lying hurt on the side of the road?
God’s law of love is as near to us as our mouth, as near as our own heart. Every human being knows what it is to love. Every human being knows how to love. Even people who have serious psychological or mental problems because of illness or trauma, even they know what it is to love, even if it might be only love for a dog or a cat. The ability to love, even the need to love, is part of our human DNA, part of the image of God in which we were made. But – as powerful a force as human love is, our natural human love is fatally limited by our inability to love without boundaries.
We all love our family, even if they drive us crazy sometimes. We love our friends. We love the people we worship with, for the most part. We love our neighbors – or at least our good neighbors, who don’t play loud music at night, who don’t neglect their children or abuse their pets, who keep their lawn mowed and take care of their trash. We love our pets – sometimes more than we love our neighbors. Love does comes naturally to us human beings, but our human love doesn’t stretch very far at all before we start setting some reasonable limitations for it.
And that’s how love can be as near as our own hearts, but at the same time entirely alien to us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to the people, “You know what they say, ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ But I say: Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! That’s how you act like true children of your Father in heaven. He shines his sun down on the evil and the good. He sends his rain to water the crops of the good people and the crops of the bad people too. If you only love the people who love you, what good is that? Even scoundrels do that much.”
When the lawyer asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” he was asking Jesus to set the boundaries for him. So, OK, tell me, who is technically my neighbor? Everybody in my family? Every person in the synagogue? Everybody who lives in my village? The whole nation of Israel? That would be getting pretty extensive, but I imagine the lawyer was willing to stretch that far in his definition of neighbor. But he had no idea how big a love Jesus was talking about – infinitely big.
This past Friday evening there were candlelight vigils all across the country calling for the end of immigration policies that are holding hundreds, or maybe thousands, of men and women, of children and tiny babies, in concrete cages like animals. Being a neighbor means hearing the cries of those people as you would hear the cries of your own brothers and sisters. It means seeing those little children in cages as you would your precious grandbabies. It won’t come naturally to us. And it will be much more painful than a nice, comfortable sort of sympathy that we satisfy by sending a check and saying a prayer.
The story of the Good Samaritan has become so familiar to us that it’s easy to miss what Jesus is saying. We use the phrase “Good Samaritan” casually, to refer to somebody who does a good deed: something like carrying somebody’s groceries out to their car for them, or returning a lost wallet. But for the Good Samaritan of the story, being a neighbor meant having compassion on a complete stranger, setting aside his own business, washing the stranger’s wounds and carrying him to a safe place, spending whatever was needed to see that he would be well cared for. Being a neighbor will cost us. It will cost us time and comfort and freedom. It will cost us financially as well as emotionally. Being a neighbor means entering much riskier territory than most people ever realize, because it means breaking through the tidy, careful little boundaries of our natural human affections, of family and friend. Being a neighbor means daring to love and treasure every single human being with the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.
But – the point of the story is not that we are supposed to go home and try to work ourselves up to feeling exactly the same about a homeless man as we do about our own father, or feeling exactly the same about a migrant child as we do about our grandbaby – or worse, to pretend we feel the same. Jesus told this story for the same purpose as all of his stories – so that we would understand better who the Father is. We thought God was like the priest and the Levite, holy and perfect and distant, too busy to be bothered with the likes of us, much less a bunch of dirty migrant kids. But it turns out, Jesus tells us, the Father is like that Samaritan guy instead: leaving everything behind to take a complete stranger in his arms, wounded and filthy and helpless – going out of his way to care for him, lavishing his riches on him.
Jesus wants us to know what the Father is like because we are his children and it is the true purpose of our lives to grow up to be like our Dad, ready and willing to drop everything to care for the needs of the stranger and the orphan, because that’s what he does. That’s what he did. Because, of course, that’s where we find ourselves in the story: we are the stranger on the side of road, and he didn’t pass us by.
It was no accident that Jesus made the hero of his story – the third man, the one who ended up being the true neighbor – it was no accident that Jesus made him a Samaritan, an age-old enemy of any self-respecting Jew. G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same person.”
When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, it was like making him a Russian during the days of the Cold War. It was like making the hero a Muslim in New York City right after 9/11. It was like making the hero of the story a black man, in an all-white neighborhood in Alabama. Jesus was deliberately bending all the boundaries that lawyer might have had in mind, not as far as they would go, but farther; so far that they would shatter and break altogether. Because the love of God is as different from the natural, reasonable love of human beings as a gentle breeze is different from a category 5 hurricane. God’s love is unbounded, unconditional, unlimited, unreasonable even. God’s love is exactly the kind of love that runs to embrace a bleeding enemy as if he were his own beloved flesh and blood.
There’s a worship song that goes:
“O, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
O, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
O, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God”1
The main point of the story of the Good Samaritan, of course, is that Jesus turned the lawyer’s whole question on its head. It isn’t a matter of setting rules for who qualifies as our neighbor, Jesus said. It’s a matter of whether or not we are being a neighbor, no matter who we come in contact with. There is no “other.” There is no “enemy.” There is only us being a neighbor – or not. There is only us learning to love with the reckless love of our Father – or us passing by on the other side of the road.
1Cory Asbury 2018