First, the portions of scripture:
Go and do likewise.
Jesus is telling this story to a lawyer. That is, one who specializes in knowing God’s law. We are told the lawyer had come to test Jesus, and he asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Two things catch my attention here: Do, and Inherit. Do because these days, not to mention Luther’s, we stress faith over works. What must I do? To gain salvation, merit, love of God? Our answer: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved. That’s not the right answer here.
Inherit stood out to me also. The lawyer, he has a clear view here of himself as a law loving Israelite standing in a line of inheritance of the promises of God. That’s not exactly common for us, is it? God’s blessings as an inheritance we stand to receive if we do something. We’ll come back to that.
The teacher, Jesus, answers the lawyer’s question with a question. “What is written? What do you know?” The lawyer answers with the Shema, straight out of Deuteronomy, what we know as ch. 6, v. 4-5. He goes on to add love your neighbor as yourself which is Leviticus 19:18. The lawyer comes up with this answer from reading the law and he gets the A+ for knowledge. I’m very impressed with him! Then the teacher says, “do it and you will live” and it’s not about what you know anymore.
So now we hear that the lawyer is trying to justify himself (not test Jesus) as he asks, “who is my neighbor?” Is his conscience pricked? Is he hoping to keep his A when he knows right off that there are times when he has not loved others? Maybe he’s okay if they aren’t in the neighbor category!
Jesus’ story corrects his vision, it ratchets up the points in the test. Pastor Marv started me thinking last week when he asked, “Who are we, the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan?” Jesus doesn’t ask the lawyer at the end if the beaten man was a neighbor but who acted as a neighbor to him. It’s not about which man is your neighbor and which isn’t but what are you going to be like. Are you going to be a robber, actively committing sin? Are you going to be a removed passerby, passively committing sin? (It wouldn’t have been sin, I suppose, if we hadn’t heard the word telling us to love others. If we didn’t know God wants us to love others, we could ignore them.) Or are you going to show compassion, obeying God?
The lawyer scores again: the one who showed mercy, because he was moved with pity. Good job, Jesus isn’t recorded saying that, but I hear it in his voice: “Go and do likewise.” Don’t worry about who the other person is, worry about your own ability to show mercy.
Go and do likewise.
In our Deuteronomy reading, which at the end of the book almost mirrors the earlier chapter 6, Moses encourages the people to obey the Lord by observing his commands “because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” There’s our faith driving good works, Martin Luther! Moses caught my attention with the strong exhortation: It’s not too hard for you. It’s not too far away. Very near; the word is in your mouth and heart for you to observe. Why? Because you turn to God with all your heart and soul.
Go and do likewise.
Jesus amazes me because he says things I can’t imagine people obeying. Like, “Go and sin no more.” Really? Is that possible? But then there are times when I see it happening: Follow me, he says, and they do. Peter asking Jesus to tell him to come to him on the water, and Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter, obeying the voice of the Lord, does what he could not do just by desiring to do it. So there is something powerful about the command. There is something of enabling us to obey by giving and hearing the word spoken in an atmosphere of faith.
My problem is not with hearing and obeying. No, my problem (and maybe yours?) is not believing it’s a command which can be obeyed. That’s why Moses insists that it is. Not too hard, not too far off, but really possible. That’s why Jesus gives us a picture, a model, an example of a so-so Samaritan seeing a beaten robbed man and having compassion on him, being moved with pity, that same phrase that so often describes Jesus before a miracle of healing, and stepping forward to help. That’s why our lectionary includes Colossians 1.
Now the gospel is spreading and growing and Paul writes to a group he hadn’t met, that Epaphras his beloved fellow servant had evangelized. Listen to how he characterizes them: saints, faithful, having love for all the saints, hope in heaven, hearers of gospel truth, knowers of the grace of God, lovers in the Spirit, prayed for, bearing fruit, growing, strong with his glorious power, patient, joyful in thanksgiving, inheritors.
Here is a picture for us of real life people who are loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind and their neighbors as their selves. Paul has heard of them and writes that he is always giving thanks to God for them. It really can happen! Did you notice that he writes of the love they have for all the saints? Their love is described as love in the Spirit.
I said we would come back to the idea of inheritance. It’s described here at the end of our portion of Colossians: the Father…has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
The inheritance is a rescue and a redemption. Set free from the inability to obey his commands, and forgiveness for the times we haven’t obeyed. This forgiveness is in my experience what enables the overflowing love. When I have realized how much I deserve God’s wrath and punishment and yet how instead he has consistently loved and forgiven me and given me good things, abundant grace, then my heart overflows. I once described it as a bank account of millions of forgiveness/love dollars to spend on others.
There was a time (most of the 90s) we attended a Chinese church and served as college counselors. We not only had Friday night fellowship time at church with a song time and a speaker time and a small group time, but also after the program we all went out to eat late at night, 11 to 1. Sometimes the college group would come to our house to play games and some of them would talk so late into the night they’d just sleep on our living room floor! It was good that Maurice is a night owl, and we were in our 20s. That’s the sort of community in which the following story takes place.
Maurice had gone to Woods Hole in MA for a month in the summer. I was driving home on a Friday, mid-afternoon, when I heard a high pitched descending whine from the engine of our car. It came as I stopped at a light, but then as I lost power I pulled over to the side of the road. I didn’t know what was wrong. Who could I even go to for help? This was before we had a cell phone. I think I had the hazard lights on and I probably prayed. Maybe about five minutes later a man stopped and offered to help me. But I was scared of him! After all, my husband was across the country and I had no family nearby. I think I rejected this stranger’s offer to help, but then he asked if there was someone I’d like to call. David Tam came to mind; he was working at a Mazda dealer instead of going to college. So I called and he responded with compassion, asked if I was safe, said he’d be right over. I thanked the stranger and reassured him that my friend would be coming, and he drove off. Then David came, pulled my car home with a chain to his car, and arranged for the servicemen at his work to come on Saturday and change my timing belts on their free time. Both David and the stranger were neighbors to me.
Just this past Friday I followed my neighbor to the place where she was going to drop off her car for new tires, so I could bring her home. Ravinia watched her kids, except the youngest who sat in the car with me while we waited for her at the car place. But then she came out and said, “there’s a couple who just dropped off a car and they don’t have a ride, could we help them? It’s about 5 blocks the other way, but I thought maybe we could extend grace.”
I didn’t want to do it! My first thoughts were conflicted. The kids were home alone, we should get back. But she was right in wanting to help strangers and she has a compassionate heart. These scriptures and the sermon I was preparing was working on me, and I’m so glad for the opportunity to put it into practice. They weren’t my neighbors: in a way they were my neighbor’s neighbors! (I would be the donkey.) But together we extended God’s love to them.
The good news is that when we face the test in day to day life, like the lawyer who knew the shema law, we have a multiple choice test. It might look like the answers to any given situation’s question of what you are going to be are:
a. robber/thief actively doing wrong
b. distanced hard heart passively doing wrong
c. compassionate saint doing love
or it could just look like two choices that faced me in the car Friday: obedience or excuses? It’s okay to struggle with wanting to do God’s will (That’s what the name Israel is about); what counts is which answer I choose and put into practice. I trust I can choose right because of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit. I’m starting to believe that it is possible after all. Heart oriented toward God, eyes to see others with his love.
But then I read Diana’s post about a new book called Activist Faith, and I think that’s my next step. Check it out?