Year C — The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13)

Commentary for August 4, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Hosea 11:1-11
Parent imagery is used frequently in Hebrew scripture to describe God and God’s actions. We have here the image of a very patient parent, indeed!

Faced with a rebellious teenager of a people, God says, “How can I give you up, O Eprhraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” The love of a parent is enduring, is unending, is always hopeful — even when the child is “bent on turning away.”

God acknowledges God’s fierce anger — which parent has never felt a bit of that? But, in the end, it is God’s desire to see “his children come trembling” home that wins. 

Psalm 107:1-9, 43
If we pursue the rebellious child/patient parent metaphor, the psalm text gives a little perspective from the other side. What happens when stubborn children try it their way, apart from the protection and knowledge of mommma and daddy?

Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.” 

Mmmm, hmmm. That whole wandering thing is only exciting for a little while.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Ah, Qoheleth; gotta love the ironic wisdom of the Teacher/Preacher in Ecclesiastes! (I wonder if Qoheleth ought to be translated “Steven Wright” from the Hebrew?)

The view that God has given us “an unhappy business” as the course of our lives is not necessarily the upbeat message that most folks come to church to hear. Toil, strain, work, effort — not really the contents of a “Four Secrets to Successful Living” sermon, are they?

Of course, these words are selected to support and complement today’s gospel text, where the protagonist assumes that life is all good, a bed of roses, guaranteed to be full of happiness and prosperity.

Perhaps, taken together, these two texts sort of “average out.” Best listen to what the Teacher has to say, at least.

Psalm 49:1-12
The low and the high, the rich and the poor, the foolish, the wise, and the dolts — we’re all in this together!

Colossians 3:1-11
One of my favorite passages from Paul, I must admit. The cadence that opens Colossians 3 has always rung true in my heart.

It’s a classic “if…then” statement — maybe that’s why my semi-logically oriented brain is attracted to it. “If you have been raised with Christ…then seek the things that are above. That’s where Christ is!”

Of course, like many of the deeper disciplines of the spiritual life, that is easier said than done for us mortals who must live out our “unhappy business” of a life! (see Ecclesiates, above.)

This passage is one that may well be best read, absorbed, and sort of “soaked in” for a while — rather than stoically proclaimed and exegeted point-by-point. 

Luke 12:13-21
I am considering calling my sermon on this passage, “The Whiner and the Diner.” 

The opening of the passage features a wag in the crowd who wants Jesus to fix things for him in his evidently strained family relationships. I am reminded a bit of Martha’s plea to Jesus –“Make my sister come help me!”

Never one to miss a good opening, Jesus seizes the opportunity to talk about much more than getting our share of the goods of life — and, thus, the “rich man” who thinks that he deserves his fate in life, and will simply “eat, drink, and be merry” to the end of his self-satisfied days!

What is really important in life? It’s a tired old saw, but still pretty effective: if you knew for certain that this was your last day on earth, how would you spend it? What would you be doing that, perhaps, you are not doing now?

So, what are you waiting for?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As we listened to our Gospel lesson for today, how many of us thought that the words aimed at the rich man were aimed at us? How many of us think of ourselves as rich? 

Some years ago Economist Robert Heilbroner came up with a little mental exercise to help us see what life is like for one and a half billion people in the world; 1500 million of God’s beloved children living in what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty.”

  • Take all the furniture out of your home, except one table and a couple of chairs. Use a blanket and   pads for a bed.
  • Take away all of clothing except each person’s oldest dress, pants, shirt, blouse, and coat. Only one pair of shoes per person.
  • Empty the pantry, the refrigerator and the freezer of all food except for a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, and a few potatoes, some onions and some dried beans.
  • Dismantle the bathroom, shut off the running water, and remove all the electrical wiring in your house.
  • Take away the house itself and move the family into the tool shed.
  • Move out of your neighborhood into a ghetto of makeshift buildings and mud streets.
  • Cancel all subscriptions to newspapers and magazines and get rid of all your books. This is no great loss, since none of you can read anyway.
  • Get rid of TVs, cell phones, computers and all other electronic gizmos. Leave one radio for the entire community.
  • Move the nearest hospital or clinic to a day’s walk away. Replace the doctor with a midwife.
  • Throw away all your bankbooks, stock certificates, pension plans, and insurance policies. Your family has $10 of cash hidden in a coffee can. 
  • Give yourselves a few acres to grow crops on which you earn $500 a year. Pay a third of that in rent and 10% to loan sharks.
  • Lop 25 years off your life expectancy.

(Robert Heilbroner, The Great Ascent, Chapter 2, numbers adjusted for inflation) 


By this comparison, most of us in this country are the rich people in the world, and it is as rich people that we must listen to Jesus today.

As the text begins, Jesus is out and about, teaching and preaching. Someone in the crowd calls out and asks him to settle a family dispute about inheritance.Well, actually, he doesn’t ask him; he tells Jesus what he wants him to do and what he wants him to say.”Hey Jesus, Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” He wants to use Jesus to give religious credibility to his own greediness.

Jesus refuses to be drawn into this family matter and instead warns the man and the crowd (and us), against the dangers of desire, the menace of materialism: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Then Jesus tells the story of the rich man who just keeps on getting richer. He already has barns, and his barns are already full, and now he has all this other grain. What is he to do with it? He has more than most people, more than he needs. What to do? Well, he decides to build more barns. He decides to stake his future on the accumulation of more stuff. By tearing down his old barns and cashing in his CDs, he refinances and builds new and bigger barns and now he is set!

NT Professor Wm. Barclay says: “For the rich man, it’s all about me. Listen to the pronouns in vs. 17-19. I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, I, my. The Greek for I is ego. Ego, ego, my, ego, ego, my, ego, my, ego, my.” (The Daily Study Bible)

The rich man thinks he’s got it made, then God comes to him and says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Comedian Jack Benny established a character who was famously tight and cheap. He had a routine in which he is held up by a robber demanding, “Your money or your life.” Benny stands there, arms folded, fingers drumming his cheek, for several seconds. The robber demands again, “I said your money or your life; well?” Benny puts his arms out in exasperation, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” Sometimes we are like that. We seem caught between the demands of our money or our life, our eternal life. 

Jesus repeatedly told us you can’t serve both; but one can serve God through the use of one’s money. Everything we have, right down to the last breath we take, God has given to us. And God’s judgment of us will have little to do with what we have and everything to do with what we have done with it.

God has given us what we have, not for ourselves, but for the benefit of the community and for hospitality to strangers. This is true, whether we are talking about our personal, individual goods, or the goods we hold in common as a congregation, as the church.

In his parable, Jesus reminds us that we shall all die someday; it is not a question of if, only of when and how. And at the inevitable moment of our death, all of our accumulated possessions will be worthless to us. 

As a matter of fact, our possessions could be worse than worthless to us. If the care and maintenance of our stuff has diverted us from the care and maintenance of our souls, the very things we cherish in this life will have been that which has ruined us for eternity. As Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

God has made us a part of the rich people of this world. God has placed in our hands all that we are and all that we have. And the question for us today is essentially the same one the robber posed to Jack Benny: “Your money or your life.”

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)

Commentary for July 28, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast with the Rev. James Dixon

Hosea 1:2-10
God asks an awful lot of God’s prophets — but asking Hosea to go and find his wife in the “red light district” may push the limits of credulity!

The story illustrates the lengths to which God is willing to go in the redemption of God’s people. Neither angry nor vengeful, God rather is merciful.

Psalm 85
The psalm is an excellent companion text to the first reading, making explicit what is implicit in Hosea’s call. 

Genesis 18:20-32
What is it like to “bargain” with God?

Abraham asks fervently for God to change God’s mind — and God apparently agrees to do so. Does God ever give us what we ask for with a greater lesson in mind?

Psalm 138
How long does it take for God to answer our prayers? The psalmist says that God answers, “on the day we call.” 

Of course, sometimes that answer is not the one we were hoping for.

Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19
This is an excellent passage on Christian maturity, not that that is something we ever attain, exactly; rather, it is a quest that begins and continues throughout our lives. 

Luke 11:1-13
We have here Luke’s version of the, perhaps, more famous words found in Matthew. Lots and lots of Christians know and recite “The Lord’s Prayer.” How often do we stop, in all of our familiarity, to consider what we are praying for?

Additionally, Jesus gives us words about asking for and receiving gifts. Not that God is a disgruntled neighbor, awakened from sleep and answering our prayers to get rid of us!

The Father in heave knows how to give good gifts!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I heard this story on the Paul Harvey radio show a few years ago.  A three year old goes with his mother to the grocery store. As they started in the door, Mom says to son, “Now, you’re not going to get any chocolate chip cookies, so don’t even ask.” She puts him in the child’s seat and off they go up and down the aisles. He’s doing just fine until they get to the cookie session. When he saw the familiar packages, he says, “Mom, can I have some chocolate chip cookies?  Mom replies, “I told you not to ask.” 

They continue up and down the aisles, but, like always, they backtrack looking for a few things and wind up in the cookie aisle again. “Mom, can I have some chocolate chip cookies?”  Mom holds firm, “I told you not to ask.  You’re not getting any cookies.”

Finally, they arrive at the checkout. Junior is an experienced shopper. He knows this is his last chance. He stands up in the seat and shouts.IN THE NAME OF JESUS,MAY I HAVE SOME CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES?” Everyone in the checkout area stares, then laughs, then applauds. And then, while Mom watches with open mouth, 23 shoppers go and buy her little boy his chocolate chip cookies, 23 boxes of them. What was it Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given?”

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking with his followers about prayer. First he teaches them the very familiar words we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Then he tells them a weird story about bothering your neighbors in the middle of the night. He finishes up by urging them to keep at it with prayer; to search, to knock, to ask!

As the story begins, Jesus has been praying while the disciples wait for him. When he has finished, they ask him to teach them to pray.  They have noticed that John the Baptist has taught his disciples to pray, and they want Jesus to get with the program and to teach them this secret knowledge as well. And so he does. But the prayer he taught them is probably not exactly what they had in mind. 

Of course, it is impossible for us to get inside their heads and know for sure, but they probably wanted to learn the secrets to powerful prayer, the kind of prayer that changes things, fixes things, gets you things you want, like chocolate chip cookies. But instead of getting a prayer that changes things out there, in the external world which they hoped to control with God’s help; Jesus teaches them a prayer that changes things in here, inside our hearts and minds and souls.

Martin Luther once said that to be a sinner is to be bent, to be crooked, to be twisted in upon ourselves.  The root of sinfulness begins in selfishness; in looking at the world as a place to get my needs met, my life straightened out, my career, my enjoyment, my fulfillment, my future, my happiness.

But the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray is not my prayer, it is our prayer, directed to our father, and it is not a prayer aimed at getting what I want. Instead, it is designed to turn us away from our wants toward what God wants. 

It is in praying this prayer that we become the people God made us to be, wants us to be in Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Prayer is a powerful prayer, and its power lies in its ability to mold us into a Christ-like shape.  As we pray and meditate upon this prayer throughout our lives, we discover that it constantly pulls us away from our focus upon ourselves and then bends us in a new direction; in the direction of loving God and serving others.

Having taught his disciples a basic prayer, Jesus drives home its lesson with the story about the grouchy neighbor and the noisy friend.  Remember; a parable does not operate on a one-to-one, this represents that, basis. The neighbor is not God and beating on doors in the middle of the night is not prayer. Jesus’ point is to be persistent in prayer; you are not afraid of your friends, do not be afraid of God. Ask for what you want. 

Remember, Jesus didn’t say anything about going to a stranger in the middle of the night to ask for food. He said to go to a neighbor, a friend, someone with whom you have a relationship; someone you know and who knows you! The point of prayer is to talk with God, to be in relationship with God, to move your heart and mind and soul into cooperation with God in loving and serving the world.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that we should pray so often, and so regularly, and so persistently that we become as familiar with God as we are our neighbors and friends. 
And it is within that relationship and familiarity that God changes our lives, unbends us from selfishness and evil and turns us in the direction of love and goodness.

And as a result of having our lives changed by God, we find ourselves empowered to change the world. We embrace Christ as the way of salvation for ourselves and discover that we have become a part of the way of salvation for those around us. 

AMEN

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Year C — The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11)

Commentary for July 21, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Amos 8:1-12
Amos is “hot” in today’s text!

Well, I suppose it’s actually God who is hot; Amos is, after all, just a prophet. He must deliver the message that is given to him by the Spirit of God. 


The message for today is bound up in a bushel of “summer fruit.” As Dr. Scott points out on today’s Lec Lab Live podcast, the translation could be “ripe fruit” — the idea is that it would be wonderfully tasty if you could eat it today, but if you wait any longer, it will be ruined.


Since God’s people have failed to repent, their “expiration date” has been reached and there is about to much wailing and gnashing of teeth (well, at least there will be wailing over the many dead bodies!)


Why has God waxed so wroth? Verse 4 is the key: “You have trampled on the needy and brought ruin to the poor of the land.”


Are we listening?


Psalm 52
Psalm 52 reinforces the message of Amos; in fact, there is a “wicked awesome” reverberation set up between these two texts. 

We must not be complicit in the “mischief” done against the godly; we cannot abide the love of lying more than we hunger for the truth!


Genesis 18:1-10a

Strains of the gospel song, “Do Not Pass Me By” are wafting through my brain as I read this text. (Actually, the song is “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” by Frances C. “Fanny” Crosby; check it out here, as performed by the London National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir.)

Abraham does not want to miss the blessing of the presence of God; he runs from the entrance of his tent to meet the visitors. A striking comparison to the way most people enter church to worship God, no? 

(I don’t know if Abraham ever “sauntered” or “sashayed” — much less wandered aimlessly while carrying on several conversations at once!)

God delivers a message of promise and hope to Abraham on this day. Could it be that the earnestness of the man of faith had anything to do with the greatness of the blessing of God?

Psalm 15

It would be easy to read the question-and-answer of vv. 1-2 and say, “Oh, shoot — I don’t know anybody who can do these things; I guess none of us are going to dwell with God on God’s holy hill!”

Of course, this is kind of the point. None of us are righteous enough of our own accord to live in God’s presence. But — God’s righteousness is made available to us, and dwells within us. Living in God’s right ways leads to all kinds of positive results. God’s people living in God’s ways will not be moved, despite the shifting sands and shore-battering storms of life.
Colossians 1:15-28

My colleague, friend, and bubba Dr. Chilton is fond of discussing Paul’s “liturgical bent,” particularly as he opens his letters. These words from Colossians are, indeed, high liturgy and praise. There is much to be said for worshiping the One who visibly and tangibly shows us the invisible things of God — who “holds all things together.”

A great exercise in worship would be simply to read this text and list everything it tells us about Jesus — then to build our own liturgy of praise of all the things we’d like to say back to Jesus as we give him thanks and praise.
Luke 10:38-42

Poor Martha — she gets the double tsk from Jesus for becoming so distracted. 

We can all appreciate that she wants to set a good table, and to be sure that everything that is supposed to happen to honor Jesus’ visit to her house does happen on schedule and is well-done (no pun intended — well, maybe a little one!)

Mary may not be the beacon of sisterly responsibility here, but she does illustrate the ability to focus on the most important task at hand — listening to Jesus. How do we find the balance in our lives between having time to sit with Jesus and accomplishing the daily tasks that must be done?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago, a Jennifer Whitcomb of Fairfax, Virginia told this story in Reader’s Digest:
“I was in line to receive communion one Sunday when the cell phone of the woman in line ahead of me went off just at the moment the priest was giving her the wafer. Without skipping a beat the priest said, ‘Tell them we don’t do takeout.’ ”
Distractions.  Life is full of distractions.  Phones, cell phones, smart phones, TVs, computers, kids.  No place is safe from distractions.  Not even the communion line.
We sometimes think that distractions are a recent problem, a product of the modern age of technology and industry.  But they are not.  Look at our gospel lesson.  They key word here is distracted.  (Verse 40) “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks . . .”
The Greek word here is perispao, which means to be overly occupied with a thing, to be obsessive about a task and all the details involved; like the bride before a wedding, or a director on opening night of a play, or perhaps a priest in the run-up to mass.
Jesus has come into Martha’s village to preach and teach and Martha has invited him into her home for a meal.  Jesus sits down and begins to talk with those who are gathered there, including Mary, Martha’s sister.
Martha looks over the scene and begins to count noses and count glasses and to check the wine supply and tries to figure out how many plates they still have from the good china and sends a boy out to buy fresh fish and is there enough flour to make enough bread and would you look at the mess in this kitchen and how many of these people will be staying and is there room in here or will we have to eat on the patio and where is that tent and oh my goodness, there’s no wood for the fire and WHERE IS MARY?
Martha has become obsessed with the details of being a hostess and has become distracted from the purpose of Jesus’ visit.  She interrupts Jesus to complain.  Verse 40 continues, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”
Martha is so annoyed with the whole business that she has managed to indict both Jesus and her sister in the same sentence, “Do you not care . . . ”
Well, actually, Jesus doesn’t care; at least not about the things Martha is fretting over, (Verse 41) “Martha, Martha, you are distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
At this point, had I been Martha, I think I would have been tempted to whack Jesus one over the head with whatever cooking pot was handy; and then to hand him the cell-phone and a take-out menu and tell him to take care of feeding this crowd himself.  I’m just saying.
Seriously, Martha had a point.  They had guests.  Things needed to be done.  Chickens don’t cook themselves.  But Jesus, and Mary, had a point as well; first things first.  And there is a great unspoken implied here.  Can’t you hear Jesus continuing by saying, “Martha, you don’t have to do this now or do it alone.  Let’s talk for a while and then we’ll all pitch in and get it done.”
In July of 2001, the Lutheranmagazine featured a story about a group of retired men in Spokane Washington who gather around 9:00 AM on Thursdays to do repairs around the church or to help in the community.  They are well-known for their bright red caps with the logo “Happy Helpers.”
One paragraph in particular grabbed my attention.  “The men use the hour before they tackle repairs to support each other.  Their founder, Seward Besemer, says, ‘I always tell the group not to lose track of the thought that the first reason for life is fellowship.’ “
“The first reason for life is fellowship.”   It is doubtful that we will ever be able to eliminate from our lives those things which can draw our attention away from God.   But, we can learn to be more like Mary, able to sit in the midst of distractions while ignoring them in order to pay attention to the one thing that is needed; what God is saying and doing in our lives.
Participating in a religious community is one way to beat back the distractions.  Just as Mary sat with others at the feet of Jesus; we are invited to gather with others around Word and Sacrament on Sundays; with others around prayer and study in small groups; with others around faith and fellowship as we join in doing God’s work with our hands in the communities in which we live.
We Lutherans like to talk about the “priesthood of all believers.”  While serving as the “pastor-in-charge” of an Episcopal Church I have relearned something I had forgotten.  Every priest is also a deacon.  One is first ordained a deacon and then, after a time, is ordained as a priest.  But every priest is still a deacon, always and forever, just as every bishop is still a priest.  Perhaps we Lutherans should remember that to call ourselves a “priesthood of believers” is by definition, to call ourselves “a deaconship of believers.”  A deacon is one who serves, who is called to a ministry of word and service.
Our call today is to be a community of Marys and Marthas, a “deaconship of believers,” a divine fellowship of those who hear God’s word and do God’s word as an active force for good and gospel in the world.

Amen and amen.

Year C — The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10)

Commentary for July 14, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Amos 7:7-17
Amos does not mess around!

This is one prophet who has no time for foolishness — probably tempered by his farmer’s experience, where there is always more work to be done. 

At the very least, Amos provides a good example for preachers: when it’s time to bring the word from the Lord, do so in the most direct and responsible way possible. Amos challenges our capacity to speak the truth to power, as well, something that seems difficult to do when  your salary may be on the line!

Psalm 82

God is on the side of the weak, the orphan, the lowly and the destitute. Whose side are we on?

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Here is the basis for the “Great Commandment” that Jesus teaches, and the “lawyer” in today’s gospel story correctly identifies. Our worship of God (which includes our actions each day) is rooted in responding to God with all of our heart and soul.

We do not have to search high and low, or even in difficult places, in order to live out our faith. It is quite close at hand — or, heart, as it were. 

Psalm 25:1-10

Several times, the psalmist speaks of God’s “way” — the path for our feet. No matter which path we walk in life, we are to walk in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. If this is how God loves us, then this is how we are to love others.  

Colossians 1:1-14

The gospel in us bears fruit; we are loved, and therefore we love. For the apostle, as for Jesus, faith in our hearts blossoms and grows into love expressed in our lives. 

Luke 10:25-37

While it is often “The Good Samaritan” who gets all the attention when we read and hear this story, don’t miss the fact that there are really two stories going on here. The “lawyer” is the focus of Jesus’ parable; his motivations and understandings of the gospel are what is at stake.

As Dr. Chilton reminds us in the sermon below, we may be so busy noticing all the other characters and details in this classic tale that we miss the main point: we don’t have to “earn” God’s eternal life — it is already ours in Christ. What we do have to do is live that life out in a world that is tough, mean, and too busy to notice those in need most of the time!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago I heard Pastor Jack Hayford of the Church of the Way in Van Nuys CA tell a story about his grandson Kyle, who was 9 years old and had recently lost a tooth. In the Hayford household, the tooth fairy pays a dollar per tooth.  That night, when the Tooth Fairy put a hand under Kyle’s pillow to recover the tooth and leave a dollar, he found not the tooth but a note from Kyle. The note read;

                Dear Tooth Fairy, I am holding my tooth for ransom. The fee will be $20. I am doing this for three reasons;
                1) I have had this tooth longer than any other and I am very fond of it. 2) It is bigger than the other teeth.
                3) It has silver in it.  Signed Kyle

In the morning Kyle found underneath his pillow, not a $20 bill, but this note;

                Dear Kyle, Enjoy your tooth.   Signed, the Tooth Fairy.

I thought of that story when I read verse 29 in our Gospel Lesson, “but wanting to justify himself . . .”  Self-justification is not a technique unique to lawyers and nine-year-old boys. We all do it.  We twist and turn and reason and opine and try to find a way to make what we want to be the truth look like the truth. We seek, over and over again, to justify ourselves. We treat the Almighty like some Supreme Tooth Fairy in the sky and then we attempt to convince this Supreme Tooth Fairy that we deserve whatever good treatment we desire. And the gospel is: none of it works and none of it is necessary. 

God loves us just the way we are. And God wants to use each of us as divine agents of holy love, reaching out to the world with open hands and generous spirits. That is the gospel truth.

Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” What he wanted to know was, “What are the legal and ethical limits on my charity? Who does God expect me to help when I see them in trouble?”  But Jesus turns the lawyer’s question upside down with the story of the Good Samaritan.  Instead of “Who am I required to help?” Jesus answers with a story that says, “God’s help and love for you will often come from unexpected, and sometimes unwelcome, sources.

I think we all get the fact that Jesus’ first Century Jewish listeners would have expected the Priest or the Levite, (Pastor and Deacon in modern church terms), to help the man in the ditch and were disappointed when they didn’t.

What I am afraid we often do not understand is what a shock it was for the rescuer to turn out to be a Samaritan. This story has made the word Samaritan into symbol of selfless generosity and care for the stranger. We have Samaritan hospitals and stickers on RV’s proclaiming the driver to be a member of “The Good Sam Club,” pledged to help other travelers on their journeys.

But to Jesus’ listeners, a Samaritan was none of these things. He was a hated enemy, an apostate, a heretic, a foul worshiper of the wrong God, an unclean person. When Jesus introduces him to the story you should think “Snidely Whiplash,” with long mustaches, top hat and cape, the stereotypical villain whom the crowd boos and hisses when he comes on stage. That’s how they felt about Samaritans. And this hated, evil, despised person is the hero of Jesus’ story.

Instead of telling the lawyer whom he had to help, Jesus shook things up by telling him that his true neighbor, the one who would help him, could be the person he least expected.  When the lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbor was, he was trying to define, to negotiate, the limits of his own love toward others. Jesus turned this backwards by establishing a love ethic that has no limits, and that does not play by our rules of who’s in and who’s out. This story goes beyond our relationships with each other, beyond who we are to help and from whom we can expect help. It moves past all that into our relationship with God.

The man in the ditch had acted foolishly by traveling alone on a dangerous road. He did not deserve help. If he could have chosen his helper, he would have chosen either the priest or the Levite, people who had a duty to help him.But no, he was helped by a Samaritan, who helped him willingly, freely, graciously, lovingly, without judgment or any expectation of pay back.

You and I are the person in the ditch, and God is the Good Samaritan. Deep down, most of us don’t want God’s hand-out of love, we don’t want God’s generous offer. We want to deserve it, we want to earn it; but the truth is, we can’t. We really can’t. We are the one in the ditch. We are the wounded and foolish one, the one helpless and in need of help and healing.

The question, “Who is my neighbor?” is really the second question the Lawyer posed in this lesson. The first was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded by pointing him to the Scriptures and the man gave the right answer, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “That’s right, you got it.”

And then, the lawyer fell in the ditch. See, he didn’t blink an eye at the monumental idea of devoting his entire existence to loving God. Isn’t that what “all your heart, soul, strength and mind,” implies; total and complete commitment.  If you give all that over to God, there isn’t much room left for TV, or baseball, or gardening, or dating or whatever. But, apparently, the lawyer was okay with that demand. My all; for God!

It’s the neighbor business that bothers the lawyer. Perhaps this is because it is easier to get caught not loving your neighbor than it is to get caught not loving God. It’s pretty obvious to everyone if you fail to feed the hungry or clothe the naked; but who’s going to notice if you don’t pray or read your Bible enough? The man is guilty of the companion sins of pride and ingratitude. He believes he is capable of pleasing God through his own actions and he is therefore not grateful to God for God’s love and grace. He does not admit either his own need or God’s action to save, and so he has the audacity to raise the question, “About whom am I required to care?” 

If you get part one: “God has loved me so much and so freely that all I can do is love him in return;” then part two: “the way to show my love to God is to love everybody else the way God has loved me;” comes naturally.

So, what is the answer to the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Nothing, absolutely nothing.  God has already given eternal life to you.   Our calling today is to live in that love, to reach out to others with that love, to be that love in the world for the sake of Jesus the Christ who gave himself for us.

Amen and amen.