The Second Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
It started with an innocent question. “Teacher,” the lawyer, the religious scholar asked Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But the question wasn’t quite so innocent. It was a test, it says. The hope would be that this question would trip Jesus up.
Instead, Jesus responds with his own question. “What do you think?” If you notice, we started with the scholar trying to trap Jesus. But now Jesus is the one doing the testing.
Since he’s a scholar, he has answer straight from the Bible on hand. First, Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God,” he says. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind.” Then, Leviticus: “And love your neighbor as yourself.” The way to eternal life—love God with everything you’ve got. And love your neighbor as yourself.
Bingo, Jesus says. A+ paper. You passed the test. Love God, and love your neighbor. Now go and actually do it. Go and do it, and you’ll know what eternal life is all about.
Jesus avoided the trap. Then he sprang his own. But the guy’s not finished yet. He tries to turn it around again on Jesus. Ok. Love God, love neighbor. I get it. But answer this one then. “Who then,” he asks, “who then is my neighbor?”
Again, like the first one, sounds like an innocent question. A simple matter of clarification. “Who’s my neighbor so I can love them?” But, again, the text says this guy had hidden motives. He asked the question, not because he was interested in hearing Jesus’ answer. Instead it says, he asked “who is my neighbor” because he wanted to “justify himself.” The question was a self-justifying one. He’s clearly looked at his own life, saw some people he didn’t love. Maybe even couldn’t love. And he was looking for a good justification for his own behavior, to prove he’d still done right. There’s gotta be some people that I am justified in not loving.
If you think about it, though, this guy’s attitude is perfectly understandable. I mean, the scripture tells us he’s justifying himself, so from our vantage point we can tell he’s doing something wrong. But there are plenty of good reasons not to extend love to certain people. And I don’t mean the feeling of love, I mean the act of love, love as a verb. But there are plenty of good reasons not to extend love to certain people.
I know that often I don’t stop to talk to street people because I figure they just want something from me, usually money. Besides, if I did give them money, they’d probably just use it for drugs. Or booze. It’ll just enable their behavior. I’m doing them a favor by not helping.
Or if a stranger tells me they’re homeless, I don’t let them spend the night in my house, even though I have the space. I’m worried about my family’s safety. And I’m worried about them taking my stuff. Besides, there are shelters, and programs. There’s too much risk.
Or even more understandable, maybe, are folks intent on doing us wrong. I remember someone calling into a radio show that was discussing the war in Afghanistan saying “we can’t hug the Taliban into submission.” Loving those people seems naïvely ineffective at best, dangerous at worst. Not to mention people in our lives who have harmed us personally. These are people don’t need or even want our love. Really, through their actions, maybe they’ve given up their status as neighbor to begin with.
Love of God’s one thing. But love of neighbor is another. In justifying himself to Jesus, the lawyer really has a point. There has to be a limit to our love. There’s got to be a limit. Sometimes boundaries on love are justified.
The problem with Jesus, though, is that he has a way of challenging our expectations. He has a way of pushing our our moral limits and boundaries to the extreme. And he has a way of taking our perfectly good justifications… and shredding them to pieces.
In response to the question, Jesus doesn’t get out a list and start naming off who is and who isn’t a neighbor. He tells a story.
Man was taking a journey from the city of Jerusalem to Jericho, he tells us. Bad road. Rocky crags, steep hills. Full of thieves and robbers. So part way through the journey, the guy gets mugged. He’s beaten, and gets tossed in a ditch by the side of the road.
The guy’s left for dead, Jesus tells us. By chance, though, he says, a priest was heading his way. The priest works at the temple, leads the worship. A priest is one of the holiest, most religious, most pious people out there. But as holy as he can be, he passes by without stopping. Another guy passes by. This time a Levite. Levites are priests, descendants of the tribe of Levi from way back in the first chapter of the Old Testament. He’s the son of a son of a son of a son of a son of a priest. Priests are holy, but for this guy, holiness also runs in the family. But this guy passes by, too. Again without stopping.
Like the Lawyer, though, you can’t really blame these guys. They have good reasons. First of all, it’s a dangerous road. What if it’s a trap? No good two people ending up dead instead of one. Second, too, they have good religious, good moral reasons not to. Touching a dead body makes you ritually impure. I mean, it’s hard for us to see it as a decent reason. But imagine you’d been in contact with someone with the Ebola virus. It’s not only dangerous for you, but other people’ll isolate themselves from you. It’d be like bringing a contagion home. There’s a huge social and moral risk here. Can’t be expected to put your life on the line.
But that’s exactly what happens. Finally, one last guy stumbles this way by chance. But this guy, Jesus says. This guy’s a Samaritan. We’re supposed to boo and hiss. Samaritans are the northern cousins to those the New Testament calls Jews, or Judeans, people from the land of Judah. To Jesus’ original hearers, these people are religious heretics, ethnically impure because they inter-marry with foreigners. You don’t want anything to do with them. But this Samaritan’s the only one who actually stops to help this guy. It says he was “moved with pity.” He bandages the guy up. He disinfects his wounds. He takes him on his horse, brings him to the nearest inn, and spends the night taking care of him. In the morning, he’s gotta leave, but he leaves cash behind to help the guy get back on his feet. And if it takes more than what I’ve given you, the Samaritan says, put it on my tab. Do whatever it takes to nurse him back to health.
And “which of these three,” asks Jesus. “Which of these three, do you think was a neighbor to the guy who was tossed in to the ditch?” And, having no alternative, the scholar responds. “The one who showed him mercy.”
“Go,” Jesus says. “Go and do likewise.”
See, like the lawyer, we’re always looking for that self-justification. We have plenty of good reasons why not to love people like Jesus and the scriptures tell us to. Perfectly rational, well-thought out reasons. But in response to the man’s question, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus completely reframes the issue. The Samaritan, despite the risk, despite all the good reasons, threw himself completely into this wounded man’s well being.
And so the question is no longer, “who is my neighbor?” The question for Jesus is “are you being a neighbor.” Jesus changes the definition of neighbor from the object of kindness to the one who bestows it. To truly love God means to love our neighbors. And to truly love our neighbors as ourselves has nothing to do with who our neighbor is. Instead, it has everything to do with us. Loving God means being a neighbor. Full stop. Without conditions or qualifications. No excuses. No matter who it is. No matter what they’ve done. Even if it’s risky. Even if it takes sacrifice. Even if it takes all our heart, mind, soul and strength. When we stand before Jesus there simply can be no more self-justification. No ifs, ands or buts. No matter how good our reasons might be.
It’s tough, though, isn’t it? Maybe even impossible. I mean, even with this knowledge, I continue to fall short. But the point isn’t to make us feel bad. It isn’t to give us an unattainable goal. The goal is to free us. Jesus is the Great Physician. His judgment is always wrapped in mercy. To heal us. To restore us. To make us better.
During the Armenian genocide of One and a half million Armenians, mostly Christians, were murdered by Ottoman Turks. Millions more were raped brutalized, and forcibly deported. From the genocide comes a famous story of a Turkish Army Officer who led a raid on the home of an Armenian family. The parents were killed, and their daughters sexually assaulted. The girls were given to the soldiers. The officer kept the oldest daughter for himself.[i]
Eventually, this girl escaped, later training to become a nurse. In an ironic twist of fate, she found herself working in a ward for wounded Turkish army officers. One night by the dim glow of the lantern, she saw among her patients the face of the man who murdered her parents and so horribly abused her sisters and herself. Without exceptional nursing, he would die. And that’s what the Armenian nurse gave—exceptional care. As the officer began to recover, a doctor pointed to the nurse and told the office, “If it weren’t for this woman, you would be dead.”
The officer looked at the nurse and asked, “Why didn’t you kill me?”
The Armenian Christian replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies.’”
This young woman had every excuse in the world. She would have been perfectly, completely justified in refusing to help this man. He’d hurt her. If anyone deserved to die, it was him. But the words of Jesus “Love your enemies” shattered her excuses. He rendered for her all justifications null and void. He didn’t deserve mercy. But she showed mercy. In binding this man’s wounds, her own soul was cured. Jesus freed this woman from her past. Her pain, her history, mended through love of God and love of neighbor. She was freed from her excuses, and her justifications, to experience eternal life. Here and now.
We have our excuses. We have plenty of justifications for not extending the love of neighbor to some people. Some bad, others exceedingly good. But like an axe to the frozen seas of our souls, Jesus shatters them all. It hurts, at first. But he does so to bring forth the living water of eternal life below. In being freed from our excuses, our justifications, God gives us the power and the strength to love her more fully. And to begin to love our neighbors as ourselves. To live in the imitation of Christ. To experience the freedom of eternal life. Becoming more fully human. Piece by piece, bit by bit.
May each of us be freed from our good excuses to experience God’s goodness. Life eternal. Full life. Life that lasts. It’s strong medicine. But it’s the cure for what ails our souls. And our world.
May we, as Jesus says, “go… and do likewise.”
 “That Physician has many remedies with which he is accustomed to cure. His speech is a remedy. One of his sayings binds up wounds, another treats with oil, another pours in wine. He binds wounds with a stricter rule. He treats with the forgiveness of sins. He stings with the rebuke of judgment as if with wine.” St. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.75.
[i] As recounted in Brian Zahnd, Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, 14.