Posts Tagged ‘Law’

Won’t You be my Neighbor?
July 11, 2010 Ordinary 15c
Luke 10:25-37

Q: What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer?

A: A bad lawyer can let a case drag out for several years. A good lawyer can make it last even longer..

Q. What do you call 5000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
A. A good start!

Q. How can you tell when a lawyer is lying?
A. His lips are moving.

I bet most of us in here know a good lawyer joke. For some reason, we love to make fun of lawyers– even though most of us have never been one, and really, truthfully, have no idea what they do or they’re up against. A lawyer has kind of come to represent a villian, at least as far as what we watch or read. Even though one of my best friends is a lawyer, and even though I’m sure he’s about as honest as they come, if he ever has to defend me, I hope he’ll split hairs with the best of ‘em. I’d hope that he’d use whatever means necessary to keep me out of trouble. But I guess that’s why they have the reputation that they do: they’re willing to probe the depths of a definition to make the law work to their advantage.

Which I guess makes this story that we find this morning all the more pointed. A lawyer is attempting to put Jesus to the test. He presumes himself to be good, but he wants to know exactly what the definition of neighbor is. Is the guy down the road my neighbor? What about the guy that I don’t agree with– is he my neighbor?

But let’s be honest here. What’s the lawyer really asking? I think he’s really wanting to ask, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” After all, he’s a busy man. He’s a logical man. He knows, practically, of course, that he cannot physically love and be nice to every person he meets. He wants to know who is NOT his neighbor so he understands what the boundaries of the law are. In other words, he wants to know what the bare minimum is.

Before we get too excited about raggin’ on this poor lawyer who is only doing what he’s been trained to do, maybe we’d better ask ourselves about the lawyer within each of us. How different are we, really? We want to know exactly what we should be doing, but just as importantly, we want to know what the limits are.

We like to talk about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, and while that’s tough on it’s own (because how hard is it to love someone else as much as we love ourselves? pretty darn hard), I wonder if we miss a little bit of the point. We presume our neighbor to be those closest to us. We think of our spouse, our children, those in our neighborhood, those in our church.

But Jesus tells a story that should broaden our horizons terrifically. He tells a story, which everyone (even those outside the church) seems to know. A man is beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest walks by him on his way to be of service, and knows that if he touches a body like this, that he will be unable to serve. A Levite walks by, and crosses over to the other side of the street. But then a Samaritan comes to the rescue, bandaging the man, and charging an inn keeper to look after the man in his absence, on his tab.

That’s lovely really. It makes a great story about how we are to be helpers to those in need. But the problem arises when we stop and ponder what it means that the famous helper is a samaritan. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has been plastered on hospitals, and has more or less come to mean anyone who does a good deed. While that’s true, it misses a lot of the backstory. A person from Samaria would have been absolutely despised by any Jew worth their Kosher salt. One place in the scriptures, the words about this animosity are clear: “Jews would not even use dishes that Samaritans had used.” We hear a lot about how much the Jews despise the Samaritans, but I can’t imagine that the Samaritans, after enduring persecution from them, thought all that highly of the Jews either.

Well, ok. If we look at it that way, well the story means that we need to extend neighborly service to those with whom we disagree. Yes, but that’s still missing the thrust of the relationship. What Jesus is really telling us with this parable is that we need to love all people as much as we love ourselves.

“All people?” we say. “But surely there is a limit!” And so our inner lawyer comes out.

To put this relationship between the Samaritans and Jews in a modern context, and to really get what Jesus is asking of us, think about it this way. What if you happened to be walking down the road and you saw a muslim man bleeding in the road. Would you stop? I bet you would, because that’s the kind of folks you are. But what if you found out that he was a member of Al Quaida? I imagine some would stick around, but you’d sure be a lot more cautious. But what if you got to talking to the man, and you found out that he was part of 9/11, that he carefully planned and calculated ways to bring the most amount of harm to this country. If we’re honest, it would get a lot harder to offer a hand of kindness, as we remember just how many lives were lost. It would be awfully tempting to get up and walk away, thinking that if this man died in the middle of the street, that he’d get what he’d deserve. That’s about how the Jews and Samaritans felt about each other, and yet it was a Samaritan who stops to help.

Ahhh. Suddenly this story is a lot deeper and heavier than we might have imagined. Because the person that it would be hardest for us to love is just exactly the person that Jesus is telling us is our neighbor. That doesn’t do a whole lot for those of us who would like to set boundaries on what our faith requires of us.

It’s interesting to me that the law requires a good Jewish person not only to fully love God, but to fully love neighbor. Granted, it was a different time, and a different type of society, but can you imagine what our world would look like if something required us to really regard the people that share the world with us, and to work to make sure their lives were as happy as ours?

But even though we know that our government could never legislate something like this, let’s pretend for a second that we were bound by such a law. Let’s pretend that the rules that we love God fully and completely and love neighbors fully and completely were every bit as binding to us as any law issued by the government.

Now don’t get anxious yet. That’s what we seem to do with rules. We don’t even much like talking about the laws in the Bible, because it’s a lot easier to talk about having been set free by grace. We kind of like to pretend that law and grace have nothing to do with one another. Presbyerians, certainly, believe that everything we have is gift, that is, pure grace. We can’t earn our way into heaven by keeping the rules. But does that mean that we should toss the law out? The law is the means we’ve been given to arrive at God’s ends. So if God’s end (intention) was that we all live and love in peace and harmony, then this law is one of the ways we get here.

But what happens when the law becomes Gospel for us? Can it be that the law is ever good news for us? When that happens, instead of believing that following the rules will save us, we can present our obedience to the law as proof of our faith– that is, that because this Jesus guy really means something in our lives, it changes the way we interact.

The law is given not just so we have a list of things to do, but rather is given for our benefit. I wonder in what ways the Samaritan in the story was experiencing that law that he should love his neighbor as him self was actually a benefit to him? I wonder how the Samaritan felt as he left that day? Imagine that you were somehow able to help that man I mentioned earlier– the one whom you hated because of what he’d done to this country. Maybe you were really bound by the same law that the Samaritan was, and whether you wanted to or not, you knew that helping him was the thing you had to do. How would you feel? Perhaps at first, you’d grumble at the law that made you behave so irrationally. But I’m guessing that wouldn’t really be the feeling that would stick with you. And I know because I’ve watched it happen here– kindness and compassion really changes the one who is giving the kindness and compassion as much as it changes the one who is receiving it. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that the Samaritan walked away, somehow grateful that he’d had the opportunity to help. I imagine his step was a little lighter, that he thought a little more highly of who he was, and oddly enough, a little more highly of the Jew that he helped. Maybe the Samaritan (and we) start out acting with kindness and compassion because we’re supposed to, but in the process, somehow it is us who is transformed.

But more than that, think about how much freer you feel when you’ve acted out of abundant love than when been mean and small hearted. When we’re given the opportunity to be kind, and take that opportunity, we feel happier.

When we put ourselves in this story, we imagine that we are the actors– that is, when we choose (of course), we take it upon ourselves to be kind and loving to someone else. But I think what actually happens when we take that risk and love the unlovable, we find that instead of acting upon someone else, we ourselves have been acted upon. We’re acted upon by God’s love, which runs so deep and wide that we can’t even comprehend it. We discover that God’s streams of mercy flow on and around us, but not just on and around us, but on and around everyone else too.

And suddenly the lines become a lot less clearly drawn. Suddenly the boundaries that we’ve told ourselves are so important, turn out to more of a hindrance than anything else. Suddenly, we recognize our place on the globe only in relation to other people’s place on the globe, and quickly, our identity changes.

Think about the poor lawyer at the beginning of this story. He’s really asked to change his whole identity. He’s asked to lay aside the standards that have made him who he is. He’s asked to move beyond himself and his boundaries, to living in a limitless love. He, as well as we, are asked to move from “womb to tomb”, but more importantly, from partial life to abundant life– a life which we can only know when we can see beyond the boundaries that we have drawn for ourselves.

I like it when I can quickly identify who we are supposed to be in the story, but in this story, we have all, at some point, played all the parts. We’ve been the rule following priests who were too holy to get our hands dirty. We’ve been the lawyer, who wanted to define who was in and who was out. We’ve been the man in the ditch as life has knocked us over. We’ve been the innkeeper who is asked to take charge of someone’s care. And somehow, today we’re also asked to be the Samaritan, who crosses over the street and does the unthinkable, but who is transformed by compassion.

I don’t know who exactly we are, or ever who we are supposed to be in this story. But as I was worshipping at Taize earlier this week, this famous prayer struck me as a great answer of what it means to be a neighbor. We often call it the prayer of St Francis, or the “Peace Prayer”, but maybe it could be just as fittingly titled “A Neighbor’s Prayer”.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life

Our charge as Christians is to love our neighbors as ourselves, but it is also to be a neighbor, even when the cost is great and the inconvenience is high. But in doing so, we allow the Holy Spirit to remake us into the things God would have us be.

As Mr. Rogers famously said, “Won’t you be my neighbor”? Amen.


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