Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Like apprentices in the faith we are led by our lectionary selections during these weeks, circling back yet once more to key questions of our relationship with God, and God’s relationship to us. Today we deal with aspects of love of neighbor, next week, as in a sequel, we deal with the aspect of love of God in the story of Mary and Martha who host Jesus in their house.
An expert in the Law wants to know from Jesus what to do to get eternal life, that is participate in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus readily answers, picking up on the disputatious mood of the expert in the Law: What do you read in the Torah? Well, that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Well done, Jesus says, that’s the interpretation/ the summary of the Torah to which I subscribe. Go, do this, love God, love neighbor, and you will live. That is, you’ll have part in the resurrection.
Wait a minute, is this not a bit easy, such transactional dealing here? As Lutherans we raise our eye brows. Can one earn eternal life, resurrection? I do this, God answers with a reward?
It bothers us, rightly so, sisters and brothers. But we are hardly above this. Children, youth and adults alike want to know whether they will get to heaven. What do I have to do? How do I get there? We can’t ever suppress the transactional approach, even if we try hard.
We raise our children that way, teaching them that choices have consequences: When you do this, that will happen. We drill into them that for their bad choices they need to suffer the consequences. So for their good choices, the expectation is a reward of sorts, may it be smiley stickers or praise or other signs of love and approval.
As human beings we are not ever entirely free of the transactional mindset, and we do transpose it onto our relationship with God and questions of salvation, eternal life. This is why after centuries we needed to be reminded of the tender, unmerited grace of our God by teachers like Luther and Melanchthon.
For our own deeper learning of discipleship we are therefore now given these stories on love of neighbor and love of God; the Samaritan and Mary and Martha. With them we plumb the depth of Christ’s divine and human nature in which both love of God and neighbor are combined to one. We learn that there is nothing transactional in God. Our continuous, deep searching for the meaning of love of neighbor and of God brings us closer to the mystery of God’s salvation as revealed to both Israel and through Christ to the Church.
So, what about love of neighbor then?
Who is my neighbor, to move on to the second question of the expert in the Law?
For an answer we get the story of the Samaritan who makes himself a neighbor to a wounded guy who fell prey to bandits on the road in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho. The surprise in the story lies in the discrepancy between the presumed identity of the Samaritan as a bad person and his attitude toward a helpless person. The good persons, the priest and the priest assistant, the Levite, avert their eyes and switch to the other side of the road. That was unexpected. The Torah is clear on helping the weak, victims of injustice. If you have ever experienced that someone switched the side of the street because you approached, you know how hurtful that is, robbing you of your dignity.
The actions of the Samaritan are so noble because he is not looking for recognition, a reward. He does not answer the question who is my neighbor, but he answers the question, who do I make my neighbor? He provides emergency care to the wounded guy, provides for his continued care by putting him up in an inn, paying for the guy’s stay and care, and goes back to his own business. He does not beat his breast or engage in grandstanding. He does not need recognition for what he has done.
The expert in the Law qualifies the Samaritan’s actions correctly as mercy. Mercy is such love of neighbor that is not motivated by one’s own need for recognition. Mercy is love that drives a person close to one in need, especially the unfortunate, for no other reason than the love God embodies.
See, love of neighbor born out of mercy does not make that neighbor an object of our own need. Does not satisfy a need to fill an empty spot in ourselves, or the need to silence voices of insufficiency or being worth nothing. In the world of service and volunteer work you may have encountered folks who are in it more for themselves than for the ones they avow to selflessly serve.
Love of neighbor born out of mercy is compassion compelled by God’s love. God’s love as evident in the word of God that is near to us. That is even very near to us, as Moses assures God’s people on his last day before he leaves office after forty years as their leader. God’s word is very near you, in you actually, inside your body, in your mouth and heart, in action and contemplation.
If we stick with the story of the Samaritan for just a little longer, dear friends, compelling questions are now raised drilling deep down into love of neighbor and God, and asking where we stand ourselves.
Is God’s love, is God’s word really inside this Samaritan who does not belong to us, who I do not consider worthy of my love and appreciation? Can that be? The Samaritans do pray to the God of Sinai, but in a wrong, despicable way.
Does God’s love really exist in those we despise, those we exclude, or those who simply fall in another group? Sisters and brothers, we all live in our bubbles, we all belong to our camps, be that in terms of family systems, in terms of national identity, along lines of race, political loyalties, climate change, immigration policy.
Migration is especially on our minds these days. Never have we had greater numbers of refugees in the world at one time. At the same time, more than ever do we know how sustained need and suffering creates trauma that will forever change people’s brains and behavior. Are we able, are we willing to make ourselves neighbor? Are we willing to leave our bubbles and see God’s love reflected in our neighbor so we can reach out together to our neighbors in need?
Sisters and brothers, by grace God’s word is near us, very near, inside us. We need not worry whether we get into heaven, because we already live out of Christ’s resurrection in all our limitedness. But as disciple apprentices, let these questions stay alive in you and among us, and encourage one another to action and contemplation rooted in God’s one-sided mercy-love.