Christ calls us to act, to move, to love, to do; the only question that matters to our Lord is “who acted as a neighbor,” who loved in deed not just in thought.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 15 C
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This Gospel story is our story.
We are the religious lawyer approaching Jesus looking for life. Like him, we’ve known since we were young what God wants of us. “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 [love] your neighbor as yourself.” Like him, we’d pass Jesus’ test. We’d get an A. Like him, Jesus would say to us, “Now go do this, and you’ll know the real life I’m offering.”
If only we could stop there, and do what Jesus says. But we don’t. Because we are this lawyer. We want clarity about what “do this” means. We want to know that what we’ve done so far, and will do next, fulfills Jesus’ command. We want to justify ourselves.
So we ask, “OK, who is my neighbor?” Who deserves my care and concern? Whose pain is my pain? Could you describe for me the groups of people I should love?
Our problem is our grammar. Parts of speech. We’re focused on the wrong one.
We hear, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and wonder about nouns. Who is my neighbor? What sorts of people are in that group? We spend countless hours wondering about who gets to be that noun, “neighbor.” We mean well, so did this lawyer. But it’s all justifying not having to love everyone fully.
Meanwhile, Jesus changes the question. After his parable, Jesus asks, “who was a neighbor?” Who acted as a neighbor, did neighborly things? Jesus cares about the verb. Acted love matters. Everything else is worthless.
We know this story so well, and miss this point again and again. We’re overwhelmed by the events of this week. Yet instead of doing the verb, instead of acting in love, we argue and posture and wonder who our neighbor is. We justify ourselves.
We can keep doing that, of course. We can mourn, we can yell, we can despair. We can pray. We can keep reacting in horror each time. We can keep talking and doing nothing. When we do that, though, we need to recognize we’ve answered our question. We’ve decided that those who are dying are not our neighbors.
Because if our neighbors were being killed, if our culture was destroying our neighbors, if there were things we were doing that harmed our neighbors, we’d do something about that.
We need to actually listen to Jesus’ story. We need to hear the verbs.
It’s amazing how little interest Jesus has in the first two people.
They’re nothing to him, cardboard cutout characters, just nouns. A priest. A Levite. We’re given no more information.
Jesus also doesn’t give a single excuse for their behavior. Scholars and theologians have figured out all sorts of reasons why they might not have stopped. But if what Jesus thinks matters to us, he’s absolutely uninterested in any reason whatsoever that these two passed by. By giving no detail to their decisions, Jesus powerfully says there is no excuse.
If what Jesus thinks matters to us, that they didn’t stop to help is the only pertinent thing. The one detail he gives is damning not excusing: they didn’t just walk by. They moved away, passed by on the other side, actively avoided any contact.
But Jesus spends the bulk of his story describing what the Samaritan does in detail.
Jesus wants us to notice each movement, each action. It’s all about the verbs. Over half the words in this parable focus on the specific actions of this Samaritan. Step by step the Samaritan acts, saving this man’s life. He is moved with pity. He touches the man, washes him. Detail after detail describe the one thing that matters: the Samaritan showed this beaten man mercy.
There’s also a racial component here. That a Samaritan – someone his audience would have had strong racial prejudices against – would be the hero, would have shocked Jesus’ hearers. We need to learn what that means for us.
But we first need to hear Jesus’ deeper focus: whatever the race or status of the three coming along the road, only one actually did something. He was moved with pity, and got off his donkey, and helped. He showed mercy. He made a difference.
That’s the only thing Jesus cares about in this story.
We face massive crises, far too many people dying by the side of the road, and if Christ has anything to say it’s, “Get off your donkey and love.”
Our country is being destroyed by systems of injustice and racism that we support and defend by our silence and inaction. If we only pray, and say pious words of sorrow, and continue to do nothing, Christ says, “I don’t care about your prayers. They’re worthless to me.”
Our country is being destroyed by our culture’s love affair with violence and guns that we support by not holding our leaders accountable to change the laws. If I preach this sermon and talk about this evil, and do nothing more, Christ says, “I don’t care about your sermons. They’re worthless to me.”
People are dying every day in our country and we argue about who deserves more attention, the police or our sisters and brothers of color. People are dying every day in our country and we let a small group of lobbyists buy our leaders’ silence on guns. People are dying every day in our country and we throw enough food away to feed nations. People are dying every day in our country and we refuse to pay living wages and build affordable housing. If we spend any more time, and I mean any more time, wondering whom we should care for – concerned about nouns, about “who is my neighbor?” – instead of doing – the action of verbs, acting as neighbor – Christ has no use for us. We’re just walking by on the other side like we always do.
What we can do? That’s the question, isn’t it?
We could imitate the Samaritan. He saw someone in need and he helped. We can do that. We can stand with those who are suffering, dying, and offer our love and compassion and help. If we’re in the position to make sure the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is safer, so people don’t keep getting beaten and left for dead, we could do that, too. Meaning, we could find ways together to change this society so people don’t keep getting killed, left behind for dead.
Doing means we need to learn to listen instead of to speak. When we do all the talking, we’re not helping. We need to listen to our sisters and brothers in pain – whoever they are, but most especially our sisters and brothers of color – and we need to stand with them and listen for where we can help. If they say we are doing things that are causing them that pain, even if we didn’t mean to, we need to stop. We need to shut our mouths, our justifying, and listen, so we can stop doing things that kill people. We can find no answers except by hearing those who are suffering, and responding. Having pity. Acting. Loving. Showing mercy.
Even at the cross Christ Jesus cared about the verbs.
As he was nailed to the cross, he didn’t think, “These people aren’t my neighbors now. Not those friends who betrayed me. Not these soldiers who are killing me. Not those leaders who put me on trial.” No, the Son of God acted as a neighbor. He loved. He said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” He had pity on them all. Compassion for them all. He showed mercy.
This is our model, yes. This is how Christ calls us to live, to show mercy, to act, instead of justifying ourselves. To love all people as our neighbor, even if it costs us dearly. Because it will. If we choose not to live this way, then let’s set aside any pretense that we’re Christian or that we seek to live in Christ.
But this moment of mercy at the cross is also our only hope. When we truly face what is going on, and how little we have done to change things, how much we have done to cause this, when we realize we’ve spent so much time justifying ourselves, we haven’t loved, our only hope is we belong to the Son of God who won’t classify us any more than anyone else. When the Son asks the Father for forgiveness for those who don’t know what they’re doing, that’s our hope, for that’s who we are.
So we do not lose heart.
We are still loved with a love that death cannot destroy. The Triune God has taken on all our hate and evil and inaction and will transform it to love and good and healing, offering us forgiveness instead of destruction, a new chance.
But if we want to walk with Christ on this path of life, we can’t continue to ignore his clear commands. We’ll be forgiven and restored when we do, but it’s dishonest to pretend we don’t have to listen to Christ or to our neighbors, or to think we aren’t involved, or to think someone else will take care of our brother or sister who’s lying by the side of the road half dead.
We know our path, we have for a long time: love God with everything we have. Love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We know now that such love for neighbor is only real when we actually show it, do it, act it, bring it. We need to lose our instinct to justify ourselves.
So let us now pray a different prayer. A prayer asking for forgiveness. A prayer asking for changed hearts, and courageous spirits. A prayer asking for wisdom to listen and understand. A prayer asking for the Spirit’s prod to get moving, acting, doing, showing mercy.
Christ couldn’t be clearer: “Go and do likewise.” God grant us grace to do just that.
In the name of Jesus. Amen