A sermon preached on July 10, 2016, by Associate Pastor, Family Faith Formation – Matt Cook.
Love. It is perhaps one of the most powerful and familiar words in the English language. We love chocolate, flowers, and cars. We love our parents, children, and friends. We love our spouse, and we love our new iPad mini. Within the community of Christianity, we are no stranger to love. We have heard Sunday school lessons, hymns, and sermons which all gravitate on this word: love. Love is familiar. Love is what we broadcast out to the world. We highlight that “for God so loved the world.” We quote Paul in Corinthians that the greatest of all is love. Many of us have grown up knowing the Greek words for love: philia, from which we get Philadelphia (city of brotherly love) and agape. The Greek word agape has truly become the flagship word for love in popular Christianity. We have heard it in sermons and in Sunday school how agape means unconditional love. How sweet. We celebrate love in our churches, but yet, does our familiarity and vocabulary reflect our deeper understanding? Does our use of love in church mean that we in fact love? Do we really know love is? For Jesus, love is the pinnacle of Christian life.
A lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks how to gain eternal life. Luke’s account of this encounter parallels that of the other Gospels with a key change; in the other Gospels, Jesus is asked, what is the greatest commandment? The question of eternal life has a far more encompassing meaning than our traditional understanding. The lawyer is not asking about life after death. Judaism, in fact had no belief in life after death other than Sheol which is mostly a repository where all people, good and bad go when they die. Instead, eternal life referred to the end of times when the dead would be resurrected into the Kingdom of God. This notion of the kingdom of God occurs frequently throughout Luke. Notably, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to inaugurate the kingdom through healing and casting out demons. So, the lawyer asks Jesus, how does one be a part of the Kingdom of God in the end times?
In response, Jesus throws the question back on the lawyer with, “well what do you think?” Now here is where Jesus is trapping the lawyer because he knows what response he will get: the Sunday school answer. The Sunday school answer is the ready-made response to questions when asked in church. It is the response that a little child gives when they are called upon. “Why did Jesus die?” “Because I’m a sinner and Jesus loves me.” What must you do to go to heaven? “Accept that I’m a sinner and that Jesus loves me. The Sunday school answer is almost automatic. It’s so familiar and engrained in the thoughts of the lawyer that it comes out so naturally. The first part is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. For Jews, especially one so knowledgeable about the law, the Shema from which this comes was recited twice daily. They said the Shema first thing when they woke up and was the last thing before bed. The Shema was an integral part of Jewish life and would have seemed as familiar as anyone of us saying, “Jesus loves me this I know.” It was familiar. The second part would have been familiar as well. It comes out of Leviticus 19:18 which was a part of the holiness codes. Any expert of the law would have known the holiness codes well. The lawyer’s response to Jesus was familiar and predictable. Yet, does the lawyer really know what this means? Does he know what it means to love?
The conversation continues as the lawyer presses Jesus further. Jesus then tells a parable: perhaps the most familiar parable that we would all know. I would summarize the plot line, but I’m afraid I would put most of you to sleep. In fact, I’m sure that many of this congregation heard the passage and said to themselves, “ehh, been there, heard that sermon” and have proceeded to tune out everything else. This is the story of the good Samaritan. Isn’t this familiar? Oh, we all know how this goes, a man gets injured and thrown in the ditch. The priest walks by, the Levite walks by, but oh, not this Samaritan. The Samaritan was a real neighbor because he helped the man in the ditch. We’ve heard our sermons on this parable, been to our Sunday school lessons. We’ve even made the story a part of our popular culture when we refer to someone as being a good Samaritan? Lovers of Seinfeld will even remember that the series ended on an issue of the gang breaking a good Samaritan law. It’s everywhere. It’s familiar and predictable.
Still, it must not escape us that this parable would have been drastically different to its earliest audience. A priest goes walking by. Ok. I’m listening. A Levite goes walling by. Ohhhh. Maybe this is some anti-clergy story (a Levite would have been the second in command right under the priest). A Samaritan goes walking by. I’m not following. The Samaritan helps him? Wait what? That’s strange. In describing a Samaritan, a person reviled by the Jewish community as their neighbor, would have befuddled the lawyer. For the lawyer, a neighbor would have typically been thought of as another Jew. Love your neighbor a.k.a love your fellow Jew. Love the person next to you that looks like you, talks like you, thinks like you. Love the person that agrees with your politics. Love the person with the same ethnicity. This is who you should love.
Isn’t this what we mean when we speak of Christian love? We want to love our family. We want to love our friends. We want to love the people that are just like us. The commandment to love another as we would love ourselves comes naturally I find when that person is just like us. It’s easy to love someone that looks like us and thinks like us. It’s easy to love someone as our self if that person is just like our self. Who do we not want to love? Muslims. In the wake of September 11 up through recent terrorist attacks, there are many who would like to keep Muslims at a distance. I remember the immense amount of controversy that arose a year or so after 9/11 in which Muslims sought to build a mosque down the street from ground zero. People were outraged. “How dare they?” “Don’t they realize how disrespectful that is?” Those comments do not speak of love. We do not want to love gays and lesbians. I have been guilty myself of making comments such as “that’s so gay.” Of course, what was meant was, “that’s so stupid, but somehow another person’s deep feelings of attraction were being thrown around and stomped on. There is no love in that. We really don’t love people of a different color. Of course, we want to say all of the right things, but then, how many of us would be comfortable with our children or grandchildren marrying a black person? How many of us invite people of a different race over for dinner?
What Jesus does in this parable is he transforms a very traditional teaching of love your neighbor and throws it on its head. He moves love away from this narcissism in which we are loving the people that reflect a mirror image of our own wants and likes and moves it to be far more inclusive. It is this inclusivity that stretches us. This is the unfamiliar territory because so often we have said to ourselves, “oh, I love them,” but what we mean is “I tolerate them.” We attempt to soften the words of Jesus and so conveniently forget the part about loving them as ourselves. This command does not apply to our friends, our spouse, our fellow church members who vote the way we do and look like us and think like us and could be our twins. We are to love the Samaritan. The Samaritan could be our neighbor because when you are the one lying in the ditch, you don’t care who helps you. You don’t care at that moment who saves your life. The Samaritan was a neighbor to the man because he did for the other what he would do for himself. He paid no regard to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. He only saw the man in the ditch as a human being in need of help. Martin Luther King described it this way:
“ The real tragedy of provincialism is that we see people as entities or merely as things. Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics, or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image. The priest and the Levite saw only a bleeding body, not a human being like themselves. But the good Samaritan will always remind us to remove the cataracts of provincialism from our spiritual eyes and see men as men. If the Samaritan had considered the wounded man as a Jew first, he would not have stopped, for the Jews and the Samaritans had no dealings. He saw him as a human being first, who was a Jew only by accident. The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.”
Our society has some people that are not like us. We talk about love, but do we embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters as we do each other? We talk about love but do we treat gays and lesbians as if they were one of us? We talk about love but is the colored community welcome in our homes? The entire conversation between Jesus and this lawyer began with a simple question; how do I participate in the future Kingdom of God here on earth? Jesus has given us the answer. Jesus opens up the capacity of love beyond the predictable, beyond the familiar answer because he challenges our concept of love. Love is not bound to those who are like us but is transformed outwards to include everyone. Love does not mean tolerating the person next to us. It does not mean tearing down another person with different ideas than us. It does not mean that we passively stand by and let bigotry win the day. Love does not mean excluding an entire religion from our society. It does not mean that we push aside an entire racial and ethnic group’s cries for help and treat them as hostile and misguided. If we were to love everyone as ourselves, we would not ignore their protests or mock them with our self-righteous Facebook quotes. Love is more than just saying, we’ll accept your right to walk in the door without fully celebrating the life of another.
Love requires making the same sacrifices that we would for our families and ourselves. If your child were feeling oppressed, would you mock her? Would you write on Facebook how ridiculous her claims were? Would you ignore her pain by saying, “so what, everyone feels oppressed”? Would you tell her that you can’t help her because everyone’s feelings are important, not just hers. Would you tell her that she was silly to try and tell you her feelings in such a disrespectful way? Or, would you feel sorrow for her? Would you look at your child and feel concerned? Would you jump to find out how you could help? Would you ask more questions so that you could understand why she felt this way?
In the wake of these tragic events this week and past several months, we have a responsibility as a church to inaugurate the Kingdom of God here on earth by how we love our neighbor. Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is the Samaritan, and it is the man lying in the ditch. Our neighbor is the Jew, and the Gentile. Our neighbor is the Christian, and it is the Muslim. Our neighbor is the gay, lesbian, and transgender person. Our neighbor is the black community that is crying out in pain. We cannot afford to act as if these “other” people are ridiculous, or stupid, or misguided. We cannot afford to ignore them or do our best to discredit them with our supposed witty pictures that we post on Facebook. Love requires us taking some very difficult steps. It demands that we treat every living person as if they were a son, daughter, spouse or parent: that we treat everyone as a human being. It means considering the ways in which we treat ourselves and extending that same courtesy outwards. Love is asking ourselves always, “what would I feel in their situation?” Would I be upset at even the mere perception that those of my ethnicity or race were being gunned down? What would I want in this situation? If a small group of Christians were terrorizing the world, would I want to be excluded too? It is not easy. Jesus never said that it would be and he never said how to do it. Jesus just said, do it. Who is our neighbor? They aren’t in here. You’re going to have to go looking. So I guess love isn’t all that familiar to us after all.