Summit Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:8-14; Luke 10: 25-37
The parable we call the Good Samaritan is so compelling we usually dive right in and overlook the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer that prompted it. But that’s what I want to focus on today. Luke says that the lawyer — a scholar of religious law - stood up to test Jesus. He asked a question that any good rabbi ought to be able to answer: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus turns the question back to him and asks what’s written in the law. The man combines verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he gave the right answer. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.
Everyone could have gone home happy at this point, but the lawyer doesn’t stop there. He asks, “who is my neighbor?” Now that was a legitimate question. In a world with so many people - family, friends, foes and peoples across the sea; in a world with so many languages and customs, religions and boundaries (a world like our own) surely he wasn’t required to love everyone like himself.
It’s a legitimate question — but. The lawyer wasn’t an earnest student seeking wisdom, or an inquiring mind wanting to know. Luke says he asked the question because he wanted to “justify” himself. Perhaps he hoped to trap Jesus, to show himself to be the better scholar. Who doesn’t want to be the smartest one in the room? Or maybe he wanted to reassure himself that he was a good and righteous person, that he was already loving everyone he needed to love. Perhaps he was overwhelmed — finding it hard enough to love his wife and kids and the folks next door, and the people in his synagogue and the beggar who wandered into town. He may have been looking for permission to just draw a smaller circle. He could have had any one of these ordinary motives. We know what it’s like to want to justify ourselves. We’re always looking for excuses.
But, Jesus doesn’t give him what he wants - or seems to want. Instead, he tells a story. A parable that implies his neighbor may be someone who’s not of his tribe, or religion, or city; someone he may think of as an enemy, “Lesser” in some way: less human, less righteous. The story also suggests his neighbor could be someone he’s afraid of — a man on the street who’s been in a fight, and maybe even have started it. Someone who looks like they’ll need money and who knows where that will end. In short, it may be someone he doesn't want to love. Jesus also points out that being a neighbor demands action: the Samaritan went out of his way, delayed his trip for days, touched the man, bandaged wounds, gave money and even came back later. So it’s a hard commandment, one few of us could say we follow fully or consistently. But although Jesus challenges the lawyer he doesn’t shame him: indeed, he gives him the chance to answer the question, to show that he gets it. And then Jesus simply says go and do likewise. The road to eternal life lies before you. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
This week has shown that in this world we’re a long way from loving our neighbors as ourselves; it’s been a week of heartbreak, tension, fear. The shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castillo were two more needless deaths, more evidence that many police see and treat African Americans differently, especially African American males; that racism is still a strong and destructive force in this country, that we need to keep saying Black Lives Matter - because too often they’re treated like they don’t. And then there were the deaths of the five police in Dallas, an example of anger turning to hate, when the shooter no longer saw the humanity of the police; here we have to affirm to that Blue Lives Matter, that all deaths matter. But we didn’t need the events of this week to know that racism still has a tenacious hold in this country. We didn’t need these deaths to know that we’re far from being a beloved community of loving neighbors. Why can’t we get this right?
There are many reasons, of course. Racism is an institutional evil with deep historical roots and shows itself in complex ways. But today that lawyer haunts me. He seemed to be asking one question - who is my neighbor? - but was really concerned with another: how can I justify myself? Now, in this upcoming sermon illustration I’m going to be talking about white people. I’ll be speaking broadly. I know it may not apply to all white people; and maybe other folks will find it applies to them in different situations. But here it is: too often we seem to be asking one question: how can I combat racism, for example — when really we’re concerned with another: how can I prove, to myself and others, that I’m not racist? How can I justify myself in this unjust system? And then the gymnastics begins. So just as the lawyer was looking for a definition of “neighbor” that would allow him to feel good about himself and right with God, we look for a definition of racism that allows us to feel OK about ourselves — and we may not realize that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we define it as a feeling of hate or contempt, and can honestly say that doesn’t apply to us. Or we point to the police, or to certain politicians with orange hair, or to people in less enlightened neighborhoods than Mt. Airy as the problem. Or we look for other reasons for the hardships that African Americans face and find that class, too many guns, a low minimum wage, all play a role, which is true, but rather than letting those factors deepen our understanding, we use them to pivot from race, thereby defining racism as something less central than it is. We step back, we close our ears — even when we think we’re listening — we move on to other matters, we don’t read and study like we could. And so we do not love our neighbor as ourself, and things don’t change, or change enough. Because change needs every one of us.
But this is the good news of Jesus Christ, for all people: we don’t need to justify ourselves. We’re all sacred children of the most high, beloved in God’s sight. We don’t need to prove that we’re good people, or righteous Christians — our worth lies in simply being created in God’s image. Yes, God wants us to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and our neighbor as ourself. God wants us to listen to the commandments placed in our hearts, to follow the teachings of Jesus. But when we don’t — when we stray — Jesus offers us grace. We can repent - or our racism, our greed, or addictions or whatever else we need to turn from — and find our way back. In the words of Ta’Nehisi Coates, who I am paraphrasing, we don’t need to be obsessed with the politics of self-exoneration. We can lay that burden down. Which will be a relief to everyone.
And then, listening to others, we can face the truth of racism, in ourselves and our nation and our world, and see what we can do to help. We - all of us together - can end it. The secret is not on Pluto that we need to send a spaceship; the answers are not 10,000 leagues under the sea, that we need to send down submersibles. The answers are in the Word that God has placed on our hearts, in our thinking and learning and listening; in our willingness to make changes. Some of us will need to let go of privileges; others fears. We’ll disagree on what exactly needs to be done — that’s politics. And of course racism isn’t the only challenge we all face — it isn’t the only obstacle to life. But it’s a big one. And although in the short term such change may feel like a loss, even a threat, in the long run we’ll all be blessed.