Neighborly Love

Deut 30: 10-14; Luke 10: 25-37

The gospel we hear today, the Good Samaritan, is one of those passages that is really hard to preach on. We’ve heard it a thousand times and so we know it and then have a tendency to tune it out. It makes it hard to hear it different and it makes it hard to says something different about it as well. Because it’s so familiar, even in our laws, we view it from our own particular lens. All of our lives and our baggage is viewed through the lens of the story. There’s also the backdrop of the revolving door of violence that we once again see in this city and country that really challenges us to look at the question of who is our neighbor and in what ways are we neglecting others. Lastly, there is the backdrop of the gospel itself and what was happening at that time when the story is told and written down that influences why it’s told. So there’s a lot going on to understanding and yet being challenged to hear and live in a new way through the story of the Good Samaritan, bearing in mind all of these backdrops that influence the story. Quite honestly, it would have been a whole lot easier if the story ended after the first question and answer, but Luke, unlike the others, has this way of throwing zingers into the story that make you stop, just as he does by adding the story of the elder son in the Prodigal Son parable.

One of the main backdrops of the gospel itself is this law of what it means to be clean and unclean. As a matter of fact, if you read the gospels through it’s as if they were obsessed with this law. The reality is, according to the law, the priest and the Levite in today’s gospel did nothing wrong. They did what the law had prescribed at crossing the street and avoiding the person that was beat up, robbed, and now half dead. However, their obsession with the law stands in the way of the essence of that very law of loving God and neighbor, as the scholar of the law asks of Jesus. Everything becomes about separation. They learn to separate themselves from the unclean, the impure, what they perceive as wrong and bad, all for the sake of their own self. Their entire relationship with God was tied up in this belief and still is for some, thousands of years later! As long as I separate from it and stay clean then I’m good with God and good with others. If the scholar of the law wasn’t so hung up on tripping Jesus up and winning this argument, he would have left it go at that point rather than posing the real question, then, who is my neighbor. The scholar opens the door and Jesus walks through.

In comes the Samaritan. The one the scholar would have considered the most unclean and the one that is hated enters the scene with the largest heart. There are probably a variety of reasons that we can say on behalf of the Samaritan. The Samaritan really has nothing to lose. Although the Pharisees would try to hold them to their obsession with the law, they don’t. That’s not to say that the Samaritan is perfect. They have their own issues with the Jews but the difference is, the Samaritans are already unclean and on the bottom of the barrel and they really have nothing to lose. The culpability comes on behalf of the Pharisees who are the holders of the law and have the perceived power; the Samaritans, not so much.

The one that really would find themselves in a bind is the one lying on the side of the road, beaten up, robbed, and half dead. They’re most likely a Jew coming from Jerusalem and now they have been cared for by the one hated the most and the one who is unclean, the Samaritan. We can only believe that there would be a crisis of faith on his part as to how to reconcile this obsession with the law and the experience of the essence of the same law by the one who had been separated from the rest. You know, it’s one thing to consider myself neighgor to the one that talks like me, acts like me, talks like me, looks like me, believes like me. But, you got to believe that was never the intention nor the demand of this gospel. Quite frankly, that plays from the place of comfort, from the place of the priest and Levite of ourselves. When we do this, that’s how so much violence continues to happen around us because we continue to separate and divide ourselves and deciding for ourselves who will be our neighbor rather than seeing all, especially those who are hurting the most as our neighbor. We can be complicit in violence simply by our lack of responsibility and empathy towards the other.

In his own farewell discourse today, Moses tries to convey that to the Israelites. They think they can’t do it without him, that somehow he’s the one who takes responsibility for their lives. He says in such a beautiful way that it’s not his responsibility! You don’t need to cross the sea or go up into the sky, the gift to bridge these divides is already within each of you. It’s the responsibility of all of us. We can choose to blame and not take responsibility for our own violence in our lives when we fail to forgive and reconcile or when we choose to cross the street out of fear of the one who may make me unclean, but deep down we’ll start to feel as if something is missing, something is separated and is yearning to return and unite.

We can make this story about what we normally do about going and being kind but what the heck does that mean anyway. The demand of Jesus in this story and overall is not kindness, albeit important, but rather love and mercy. If we continue to separate ourselves, and we do it with this city, that somehow that’s their problem and not ours. No. It’s all our problem because hurt is a human problem. So much violence connotes hurting people, people wanting to be heard, a voice crying out, and if we choose to ignore it, then we are no better than the priest and Levite in today’s gospel. According to the letter of the law, we’ve done nothing wrong, but at our very essence and the essence of our humanity, we are just as culpable because they are our neighbor and our neighbor is us. In what ways am I choosing to separate, often at my own doing and out of a deeply rooted fear, that which I have deemed unclean, impure, bad, or wrong, the Samaritan within myself, that helps me to empathize with the other; not just be kind to neighbor, but to love more deeply all our brothers and sisters, both here and beyond.

The Greatest of These

Exodus 22: 20-26; Matthew 22: 34-40

Which commandment in the law is the greatest? After weeks of contention between Jesus and the authorities, we finally settle down this weekend with a rather easy question posed by the Sadducees as to which law is the greatest. Love God and neighbor as yourself. Plain and simple…yet, I dare say, so often in our lives these two responses are read somewhat independent of one another rather than recognizing them in mutuality with one another. We shouldn’t dare utter the words of loving God if we hold contempt, hatred or judgment toward anyone; yes, anyone.

Rather ironic that this reading would come up on the weekend I returned from the Holy Land. One of our first experiences in Israel was fighting going on between the Muslims and Jews. I still have a hard time understanding how after all these years there could still be so much fighting over such a small piece of land! Although we weren’t in any danger, we found ourselves looking on from the Garden of Gethsemane, hearing the yelling and tear gas being shot. A simple commandment, so it seems, to love God and neighbor, not always a living reality in the holy land or in our own lives as well.

The first reading takes us back a few centuries and speaks of the people as being orphans and aliens and how God hears their cry when they are wronged. The Lord makes the point that the Israelites should know better than to allow hatred and contempt and judgment to grow and linger in their hearts because it is also their story and know what it’s like to be alienated and distanced. They know what it is like to be driven out into the desert, searching their way and trying to find the gift of the Promised Land, which seems so far from their reality. Yet, they are allowing it to grow in their hearts. The greatest commandment is on the brink of violation and they will once again find themselves wandering in their own darkness.

If we are honest with ourselves and can see the big picture on life, we are all aliens and orphans, so often lost and finding our way back to God. We become bogged down, so often, by the things of this world thinking they are so important and the end of the world if things don’t go our way, but everything of this world shall pass because we are aliens and orphans living our way to oneness with God for all eternity into the new Jerusalem, for all that will remain is faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love…love of God and neighbor.

Yet, the fighting continues beyond and within. We can’t see beyond differences. We can’t accept that we don’t hold the measuring stick for the rest of humanity. We get hung up on little things that bruise our ego and in the larger scheme of things, don’t really matter. We fear anything that is different than what we know. We allow contempt and hatred and judgment to grow within leading us out to the desert of our own lives, seeking a way back, seeking a love that deep down we once knew and have slowly forgotten. Yet, all I can do is work at it, push through the challenges, grow and so often painfully, and be faithful to loving God and neighbor. I certainly don’t always get it right and I certainly don’t do it like God does for me or you, but I am aware that they go hand-in-hand and is a mutual relationship of loving God and neighbor as myself.

Yes, simple words to recite but we know not as easy to live. All we can do is to pray for the grace to let go of what binds and holds us back from accepting that love that is already there for me and you and strive to live it faithfully day in and day out for faith, hope, and love shall remain, and truly, the greatest of these is love.