by Ellen Sims
By the time we came to the end of today’s finely wrought Gospel story, we may have forgotten what prompted its telling. Do you remember? It was a question posed by a lawyer in a scene that may feel as if Jesus is on trial. The lawyer’s important question led to three other questions–and the beloved story of the “Good Samaritan.”
The lawyer’s final answer prompted Jesus to challenge him to DO something. All the big questions in life challenge us to do something, to live differently, to answer the questions with our lives rather than with words alone. Jesus invited the lawyer to live a more merciful life, to become, in essence, a Jesus follower.
Before we explore the lawyer’s questions and answers in detail, let me make a brief observation about Jesus’s ability here to create invitational, non-adversarial dialogue—-a skill desperately needed as much today as it was back then. I do realize the Gospels occasionally depict Jesus rebuking questioners and detractors when sensing they were just baiting him. Yet in today’s story Jesus sought common ground using a gracious tone. Jesus did so by respecting the mutual love of the Torah he and the lawyer shared, by asking the lawyer for his insight, and by responding to that disputatious lawyer with a story instead of an argument. Let me say that again: Jesus’s peace-making, bridge-building communication strategy consisted of 1) finding common ground, 2) listening to the other, and 3) responding with a story rather than an argument.
This healthy communication strategy deserves to be studied in a workshop or as the entire curriculum for a course in healthy relationships or international diplomacy. Lessons in honest but respectful conversations among folks with different perspectives are so needed. But today I’m offering it merely as a pre-sermon sermon: Jesus teaches the lawyer and us to communicate by 1) finding common ground across our cultural/political differences, 2) listening deeply to the other, and 3) telling stories and asking questions rather than debating.
However, we’ll focus today on the two questions raised by the lawyer. I am suggesting that the Jesus Gospel can be summed up by Jesus’s responses to the lawyer’s questions:
1) What must I do to inherit eternal life?
2) Who is my neighbor?
I used to assume that the first question—-what must I do to inherit eternal life?—-was about how I get into heaven when I die. I’d been told the answer to that question was to believe that Jesus died for my sins. But obviously Jesus offered the lawyer the promise of eternal life before the crucifixion and without any mention that his (Jesus’s) death would become the means by which sinners would be made right before God. Besides, Jesus was a Jew working within his religious tradition while reinforcing the lawyer’s religious training. Jesus wasn’t trying to convert him to a new religion, nor was the lawyer asking for or expecting to be given an initiation into a new religious sect.
Jesus in fact assumed the lawyer already knew the way to “eternal life” or “abundant life” (to use the Gospel of John’s term) and that way was at the core of the Torah teachings: love of God and neighbor. When the lawyer and Torah expert gave the correct answer, Jesus confirmed it. Eternal life in God is available whenever we love God and neighbor. It’s not deferred until after our deaths. It is in relationships of love —- love of God, of neighbor—-that life is experienced as eternal and abundant. Experiences of love stretch life out beyond our little individual selves and narrow timespans. That is real life. That is life felt deeply and broadly. That is the life that God intends for us beyond borders. We have no idea what life in God is like until we love expansively and selflessly.
And we have no idea what love is until we learn to love our neighbor. Having explained that eternal life is available for those who love God and neighbor, Jesus answered the lawyer’s second question, “Who is my neighbor?,” with the most demanding definition possible. Our neighbors include, shockingly, even those we’d consider our enemies. Jesus’s illustration of that point moved from the vaguely theoretical idea of enemy to the disturbingly specific example of a hated Samaritan embodying selfless loving kindness
Poet/novelist/environmentalist Wendell Berry believes the Samaritan, who “reaches out in love to help his enemy, breaking all the customary boundaries, [does so] because he has clearly seen in his enemy not only a neighbor, not only a fellow human or a fellow creature, but a fellow sharer in the life of God . . . a life that is not reducible by division, category or degree, but is one thing, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. [Jesus] is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified “Christians,” [or “saved” as some put it] but rather to become conscious, consenting and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all” (Berry, Wendell. The Burden of the Gospels. https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-burden-of-the-gospels/).
Modern and ancient Christian mystics call us to recognize our oneness in Christ, a unity that gives us our only means of transcending our tiny lives and living larger. As Richard Rohr explains, “To be one with everything is to have overcome the fundamental optical illusion of our separateness. We establish boundaries to try to reinforce individuality, but what we get is isolation and alienation. . . . We distinguish between our self and the natural world, and we end up exploiting the environment from which we feel estranged. We think we are separate from other people, and the result is a breach in our knowing of our underlying shared humanity. Boundaries disrupt the flow of participative energy between elements of creation that can be distinguished but that are intimately interrelated.” (Rohr, Richard. “Oneness.” Center for Action and Contemplation. https://cac.org/oneness-2019-03-29/.)
In the web of life, if one thread of the web is touched, the entire web vibrates. We cannot live with ethical and spiritual maturity unless we see how we are connected to the larger whole. As Rohr warns, “It’s because of our smallness about this world that we fail to see all people as neighbors.”
And it’s because of our disconnectedness from one another and from creation that we enable the destruction of our planet. On this very day when national news outlets have reported that ICE will be making “raids against the undocumented in major cities,” (https://www.msnbc.com/am-joy/watch/trump-plans-ice-raids-starting-sunday-63839301584) we are not recognizing the plight of “neighbors” seeking refuge at our southern border. Of course, I’m not calling for an end to national borders, but we want to be humane in how we draw lines God never drew and how we build and enforce walls that do more than just define national borders but in effect label some of our neighbors, but not others, as deserving of our love and God’s. The smallness of our souls is showing. The limits of our faith are exposed. The narrowness of our care and concern are evident in the cages in which we’ve placed children torn from their parents’ arms.
And as we consider the climate crisis, we must recognize across our plastic-strewn, over-heated planet the overwhelming evidence of our mistreatment of fellow creatures. This unneighborliness to nonhuman creatures may be our undoing. Returning to Wendell Berry: “To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty of desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty. . . . If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in [God’s] work and in all [God’s] creatures?”
Let’s hear again Jesus’s simple closing words to the lawyer: “Go and do likewise.” That means we are to go and, like the Samaritan, show mercy. What could have devolved into a debate resulted instead in the possibility that the lawyer who posed the questions—-maybe insincerely at first—-was heard and then perhaps HE heard a call to live mercifully. He might even have eventually responded to Jesus’s call to a life of loving kindness even for enemies and even for future generations (whose fate on this overheating planet is in our hands). How many Jesus followers who are committed to loving their enemy would it take to turn this world around?
How significant that Jesus gave attention to a religious leader, perhaps recognizing that religion itself is sometimes the greatest barrier to God’s mercy and compassion. Religious scrupulosity too often produces meanness, judgment, unkindness when God-pleasers mistakenly placate a mean God rather than emulate a gentle God who “is moved with pity.” Like the Samaritan, the God we know in Jesus rescues us and binds our wounds and meets us in whatever desperate state we are to be found.
The lawyer’s first question and Jesus’s final answer are connected.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Go and do . . . .”
I’m not saying we work our way into heaven or into a right relationship with God and others–unless you think of love as “work.” But certainly Jesus did not tell the lawyer to “go and believe certain doctrine.” He did not say, “Go and memorize scripture” or “Go and worship God at your synagogue” or “Go and preach against immorality in your community.” He said, “Go and do.” DO the saving work of the good Samaritan who put love into action. Go and LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR . . .
who might be a Samaritan
or a Republican
or a Mexican
or a black man
or a member of the Ku Klux Klan
or someone living in a van.
These you are to love actively by showing mercy.
The story doesn’t tell us if the lawyer did “go and love” his neighbor. But that’s not the story’s purpose. What’s important to the Gospel writer is if WE respond by loving our neighbors.
Berry, Wendell. “The Burden of the Gospel.” https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-burden-of-the-gospels/
Rohr, Richard. “Oneness.” Center for Action and Contemplation. https://cac.org/oneness-2019-03-29/.)