Homily for 7.14.13
15th Sunday in
The Lectionary Gospel Reading for today brings to our attention one of Jesus’ most famous and most powerful parables. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright reminds us, whose work we will follow closely this morning:
Parables are an integral part of Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and are one of the key ways, therefore, in which the kingdom breaks in upon Israel, redefining itself as it does so.
Parables do not merely give people something to think about, they invite people into the new world being created and they warn of the dire consequences if the invitation is refused.
The parables, therefore, disclose a subversive and dangerous message, a message designed for those who have ears to hear, and in truly hearing, they believe, and they become part of the true Israel. (from Jesus and the Victory of God)
WHAT IS THE QUESTION?
The occasion for today’s parable is quite important if we are to bring a proper interpretation. A Hebrew scholar of the Torah tested Jesus with what was most likely an often discussed question,
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Of course, this is not a question about how to go to heaven when we die. No, this question asks, at the heart of it, who are the true people of GOD, and what marks them out as such? Jesus answers the question with a question,
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
We must understand, as we said, this was not an unfamiliar line of inquiry. The concern addressed is simply: Who would be included in Israel’s final vindication when YHWH became King? And further: How does one know in the present just who would be included when the Kingdom comes to life? This, then, is a very Jewish investigation.
The lawyer, knowing in his bones that the answer lies within the Torah, explains in response:
“You shall love the Lord, your God,with all your heart,with all your being,with all your strength,and with all your mind,and your neighbor as yourself.”
His answer was a combination of the Shema:
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut.6:4-9)
and Leviticus 19:18:
18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord...
which was a common combination and a customary understanding, one which Jesus himself applied (Mk.12:28-34). And, in fact, in this instance Jesus concurs with the lawyer:
“You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
Then the text reads:
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
OK. So, the lawyer, wishing to justify himself, asks an additional question. But, just what does St. Luke mean us to understand by the scholar’s desire for justification? We do not know; it isn’t clear.
In Kenneth Bailey’s excellent book, Through Peasant Eyes, he quotes ibn al-Tayyib (go here and here) concerning Luke’s statement:
“The question put to Christ, ‘Who is my neighbor,’ is asked in order that he will answer, ‘Your relative and your friend.’ The lawyer will answer, ‘I have fully loved these.’ Then Jesus will praise him and say to him, ‘You have fully fulfilled the law.’ The lawyer will then depart, basking before the people, in praise of his good works, and enjoying a newly won honor and confidence based on that praise.”
This makes some sense, especially if we were to read the entire quotation from Leviticus. There we find:
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
It is the lawyer’s understanding, therefore, that his neighbor would be his kin, the one who worships the one, true GOD. So, his neighbor would be fellow Jews alone.
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
It is as this point, in response to the lawyer’s question,
“who is my neighbor,”
that Jesus tells the story, in parable, of the Good Samaritan. Again, following Wright, the point of the story was neither that the hated Samaritan treated the wounded Jewish man as his neighbor, so we should get beyond race issues (which is true, but not the point), nor that we should help people out when they are in trouble (which again is true, but again not the point). No, the point of the parable comes to us in Jesus’ ending question, which is meant to offer an answer to the lawyer’s original question:
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus ends the parable with this:
“Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
To which the lawyer replies:
“The one who treated him with mercy.”
And then Jesus said to him:
“Go and do likewise.”
What does this mean? In essence, Jesus is saying:
Mr. Lawyer, do you want to be part of what GOD is doing when the kingdom comes? Do you want a place in the Kingdom? Do you want to inhabit vindication and resurrection? Then you must love GOD by loving your neighbor. It is true that we must love God by loving our neighbor, but be careful because this is not what you think.
You must be ready for this astounding truth: Insiders (some Hebrews) are going to be left out of the Kingdom and Outsiders (some gentiles) are going to be included! (Wright)
This is the reality that the Jewish victim of the robbery discovered. The Samaritan was his neighbor and the other two travelers on the road, though ceremonially clean by the rules of Torah, actually failed to follow the law of GOD, and therefore failed to be included in the Kingdom which is found in Jesus.
Said differently, the lawyer is here confronted with the reality of the true nature of the Kingdom. Here he learns that, with the embrace of the Samaritan, the Kingdom would include people not normally thought of as neighbors, that the Kingdom present in Jesus did not stop with Israel’s borders alone, but that, through the work of Israel -- and one Jew in particular -- the Kingdom would eventually comprise the entire world.
Or, said differently still, the destiny of the gentile nations would pivot on the fortune of Israel. As YHWH became King and renewed the true Israel, as YHWH brought the true Israel forward into vindication by way of the new Exodus, the gentiles would see the magnificent and faithful work of YHWH, and desire to become part of this new people, this the newly restored human community. As such, Israel would become what GOD desired all along -- a light to the nations, the salt of the earth.
WHO IS OUR NEIGHBOR?
Here, then, the parable comes to bear directly upon the new people of GOD, the church -- which is now both Jew and Gentile:
Will we, smug in the knowledge that we are included in the people of GOD, allow the definition of neighbor to become nothing more than an exclusive club for those who think and believe “our way”?
Will we, in complacency and conceit, hold our collective noses and allow our rules to prevent us from gathering-up and including the left-outs, the kept-outs and the driven-outs?
And will we so allow a cheap and easy grace (Bonhoeffer) to blind us to the reality that to truly be the people of GOD means we take-up the vocation to follow Jesus into our own Jerusalem, to give up our own lives for the sake of others, and loving to the death those no one else deems important?
If we do these things, we must ask,
are we truly part of GOD’s people?
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said,
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law?
How do you read it?”
He said in reply,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
He replied to him, “You have answered correctly;
do this and you will live.”
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
“A man fell victim to robbers
as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.
A priest happened to be going down that road,
but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
Likewise a Levite came to the place,
and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him
was moved with compassion at the sight.
He approached the victim,
poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them.
Then he lifted him up on his own animal,
took him to an inn, and cared for him.
The next day he took out two silver coins
and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction,
‘Take care of him.
If you spend more than what I have given you,
I shall repay you on my way back.’
Which of these three, in your opinion,
was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”