I have often fantasized about writing a whole sermon made up of quotes from church signs. You know the type…. “Seven days without prayer makes one weak.” “Forbidden fruit makes many jams.” “Shock your mom: go to church.” Last Sunday, on the 4th of July, I saw one that said: “With Jesus, every day is freedom day.” A sign that makes me think about the inquisitive lawyer in today’s gospel reads: “Exposure to the Son may prevent burning.”
It is this burning, this presumed fire in the next life, that the guy in today’s gospel appears to be worried about. He asks: What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do??? Isn’t that what we all want to know? How do we live our lives in such a way that we gain life to the fullest, life with Jesus?
In the Letter to the Colossians we read:
We have not ceased praying that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Isn’t this what we all pray for, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our parish? (If it isn’t, it should be.) How wonderful to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, to bear fruit in every good work and to grow in the knowledge of God. This is what we pray for in today’s collect, that we might know and understand what things we ought to do.
I am fairly certain that most of us, at one time or another, and some of us way more than others, question what we should be doing with our lives. We pray for discernment: What must I do? What should we be doing? How will we measure our success as servants of God? These are questions of calling and purpose. And I like to give the lawyer in today’s gospel the benefit of the doubt and think that he only pretends to be asking Jesus his questions as a test. I think he really does want to know. What must I do to inherit eternal life? How do I get and stay right with God and my neighbor?
The story in today’s gospel can be read in several ways: it answers the question “what ought we to do?” and it also answers the question “how ought we to be?” The good deeds of the Samaritan speak to the “good” part of the “Good Samaritan” story, the story of what we ought to do. We ought to do good deeds of caring and generosity way beyond what is expected of us. This is what the Good Samaritan is all about, right? These good deeds are the reason so many hospitals, counseling centers, veterinary clinics, and relief organizations take the name “Good Samaritan.”
Equally important, perhaps even more important than the “good” part of the story is the Samaritan part of the story. At the time of Jesus, Samaritans were despised by Israelites. They were considered unclean, unfaithful, and all ‘round strange. They did not fit in and they were not invited to try. As is so often the case, Jesus lifts up the least likely person as an example of goodness and mercy.
This story is often misread. Many people assume that the neighbor Jesus points to, in response to the lawyer’s question, “and who is my neighbor?” is the person lying in the ditch, the person in need. Who is our neighbor? The people who are poor and needy, to whom we must respond. It is a “gospel given,” that we feed and clothe the destitute. But in this story of the Samaritan, Jesus takes that basic assumption and breaks it open, digging deeper. Who is the neighbor that we are to love as we love God and ourselves? The one who showed mercy.
If the neighbor is the one who showed mercy, the Samaritan, then the message for us is that the neighbor we are to love is not only the stranger in need, but also the Samaritans in our lives, the person we can’t stand, the last person on earth we would ever ask for help.
Who is the last person you would expect help from? About whom do you feel that you would rather die than be beholden?
Some of you might remember the movie Crash, which won the Academy award for Best Picture in 2004. This movie features multiple intersecting plot lines over a two-day period in Los Angeles, weaving a tragic story of racism and bigotry and deep human need, with moments of redemption throughout. One of the most intense of these moments of redemption occurs at the scene of an accident—a car has flipped over, and trapped underneath is an African American woman. The first responder is a white police officer who the night before had, in uniform, molested and mistreated the woman in despicable ways. He crawls under the car to save her. When she recognizes him she is horrified. She must choose whether or not to accept his help. She doesn’t want to, but he prevails and saves her life. This cop is the Good Samaritan, not because he is doing a good deed—in this story he is just doing his job—but because his enemy must accept help from him, the last person on earth she would want to have help her. According to Jesus, he is her neighbor, whom she is to love as she loves God.
When Jesus says go and do likewise, he is telling us to be a neighbor and to accept love and compassion from unlikely sources. Accept mercy from those who have no reason to give mercy. And—because being neighbors is a two-way street—go and show mercy, not only to the poor, the hungry, and the naked, but also to those who have rejected us and treated us harshly, to those who do not seem to deserve our compassion and care. The mercy of the Good Samaritan is less about good deeds and more about recognition and love.
This is true for communities like ours as much as individuals seeking to follow Jesus. As a parish, we have the opportunity to open our doors and our hearts to those others might not welcome. We also have the opportunity to accept help from unlikely sources. When we give help and get help in unlikely ways, the result is an ever-widening community, an ever-widening circle of God’s love. God’s love is made known in the wild abandon and generosity of the Samaritan, and in the boundary-breaking, wide-eyed acceptance of the person in need. God is all of that.
How do we know God’s will? How do we gain spiritual wisdom and knowledge? What must we do to inherit life in the fullest? The answer to all of these questions is also found in today’s gospel: 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. The fire and burning that we read about on the church signs, however you want to imagine the opposite of eternal life, life not lived to the fullest, happens when we close ourselves off from our neighbors, when we cling only to what is familiar, measurable, and concrete, when our God wants us to cling only, and totally, to love.