Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Leviticus (18:1-5) 19:9-19
Then Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise.'
The Elementary school my kids attended in England had a list of rules. They didn't just list the things that the children should not do, they gave them a list of proper behavior. They understood that it isn't enough to tell kids not to do something, you have to teach them what is right. The rules were as follows: "Do be gentle -- Don't hurt anybody; Do be kind, helpful and respectful -- Don't hurt people's feelings; Do listen -- Don't interrupt or ignore directions; Do work hard -- Don't waste your time or other people's time; Do look after property -- Don't waste or damage it; Do be honest -- Don't cover up the truth." Do you see how it is better to give a positive for a child to follow rather than just a negative command?
Martin Luther understood the power of positive teaching. In his Small Catechism (and perhaps in others) Martin Luther does not just teach us the "Thou shall nots" as found in the Ten Commandments. He shows us how to live rightly in those laws in a positive way that helps our neighbor.
There were two tables of the Ten Commandments. The first table refers to the laws about how we should live in relation to God. The second table deals with our relationships with other people. Luther began the explanation of each of the Ten Commandments with the words "We are to fear and love God" because our relationships with one another begin and end in our relationship with God. The connection to Him gives us the strength to do what is right and good. It is a short path to disobedience when that connection is broken.
In the second table of commandments, Luther teaches that we are to fear and love God so that we do not harm others, but he takes it that step further, teaching us also do what is good for their sake. In response to the Fifth Commandment, "You shall not murder," Luther writes, "What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body but help and support him in every physical need." It isn't just about keeping our temper when we are angry, but about finding ways to make life better for those who cross our path.
Our lives as Christians are not just about being good, obeying the rules. They are about doing what is good and right and true. This means more than avoiding bad behavior; it means more than obeying the "Thou shall nots." We are called as Christians to do good works. We do this not to receive a reward for our goodness, but as a response to the goodness of God.
Good deeds will often lead to some sort of reward. I have at least one plaque praising my volunteer work. I have letters of thanks. Most volunteer organizations will tell you that your time and resources will be credited to you on job resumes or tax forms. Most good deeds certainly make us feel good in the end. We are happy to help people; we are glad when their lives are made better.
There was an episode of friends in which Joey told Phoebe that there was no such thing as a selfless good deed. Phoebe spent the rest of the show trying to prove Joey wrong. She did good deeds she didn't want to do, but Joey showed her how each of those good deeds were not really all that selfless. When she lets a bee sting her to make him look good to the other bees, Joey reminds her that the bee will die after losing its stinger. When she calls to make a donation to PBS, which she hates so it doesn't make her happy to donate, her donation ends up giving Joey air time which made her happy. In the end, she could not prove Joey wrong.
It was a funny show, but it doesn't really matter if a good deed is selfless or not. Now, that doesn't mean we should be doing selfish good deeds: good deeds that we do for our own benefit that just happen to benefit others. A selfish good deed might be that check we write at 11:59 on December 31st so that we can take it off our taxes, or that donation we give so that a building will be constructed in our honor. It is ok that these things happen, it is ok that a good deed makes us feel good; as a matter of fact, serving God by serving our neighbors is the source of great joy for us. The question here is more about motivation. Why are we doing this?
See, what God wants from us is a natural response to His grace. He wants us to see the world through His eyes and to respond as He would respond. That's what the Good Samaritan did. He didn't think about whether his good deed would earn him anything, he's actually rather anonymous in this story. Yet, I suspect he walked out of that inn whistling a happy tune with a bounce in his step. Responding to God's grace gives us a joy we can't win or earn or claim for ourselves.
On first glance, today's Old Testament lesson seems to focus on one of the several times when the Ten Commandments are listed throughout the Old Testament. Moses is certainly telling God's people about the importance of following His ways rather than the ways of the world around them. "Do not do as the pagans do." Now, there is a message of obedience in this; God calls us to live a life that is moral and 'good.' We aren't supposed to murder or steal or cheat or lie. We aren't supposed to sleep with our neighbor's spouse or covet anything of theirs. "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances; which if a man does, he shall live in them. I am Yahweh." Being obedient will bring us a good life.
But there is more in this text, the positive encouragement that helps us live more fully in God's grace. Here God commands the people to leave a portion at the edge of the fields and vineyards for the poor and foreigners to glean so that they can survive. I'm not sure we quite understand this injunction. We tend to think it is better to gather all our leftovers in one place, like the government or the church, so that it can be handed out to those in need. Now, most of us don't have fields or vineyards on which we can leave scraps for strangers, but the point here is about responding to the need.
I am one of those people who tend to wander around the craft store. I can easily spend twenty minutes just looking at all the different types of paint brushes, touching each one and wondering what sort of strokes I could make. Some are smooth, others are hard. I tend to go for a specific type, but I've learned that there is a reason to like the others. The more I experiment, the more I learn.
I have been in that department on numerous visits when others were wandering around, too. One day I noticed a woman with a list. She was taking an art class, something she'd never done, and she really didn't even understand most of what was listed there. She seemed very confused so I asked if I could help. I showed her the different types of brushes and gave her suggestions about the other items. I even gave her one of my extra coupons so that she could save a few dollars on her sale. It wasn't really a very big deal; I simply responded to the need I saw.
We can do that every day. We probably all do without realizing it. Did you hold the door open for the poor mother with her hands full pushing a stroller? Did you pick up that piece of garbage you saw on the ground and throw it in a garbage can? Did you let that very impatient driver merge into the traffic ahead of you? These sound like such insignificant things, but these are the positive responses to God's commandments that He delights in seeing us do.
Paul writes, "For this cause, we also, since the day we heard this, donít cease praying and making requests for you, that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will..." The question we are faced with every day is "What is God's will?" We wonder what God would have us do. We work diligently to plan the big project, to have the big impact. We work at putting together fundraisers to help with the work of different organizations. We make plans, put together programs, seek helpers and accomplish great things. We organize food pantries and clothing drives to care for the poor. These are all good things. I think, however, today's scriptures point to a different kind of service, the kind that happens without warning.
Sometimes we are so busy doing the "we shoulds" or worrying about the "we should nots" that we miss those moments when we can touch someone in one of those simple but life changing ways.
By the time Jesus lived, the religious leaders had twisted God's instructions into a set of rules that led them down a path further from God rather than closer to Him. In Leviticus, we are instructed to take care of the poor and the foreigner by ensuring that they receive a portion of the harvest. We should not steal, lie or swear. It is against God's purpose for our life to oppress our neighbor or cheat those who work for us. We should not take advantage of our neighbors, especially caring for those who are handicapped in some way whether physically or something else. We should not favor anyone, neither the poor nor the rich, but treat all people with justice and respect. We should not gossip or accuse an innocent neighbor.
The Leviticus text reminds us not to hate our neighbor. Hate, in the Jewish understanding, is not like it is defined in our world today. Hate has an angry or violent connotation, but in Hebrew the word means something perhaps even stronger. We should not separate ourselves from our neighbor, which is what we do when we ignore the poor or gossip about our neighbors. We separate from our neighbors when we treat them with unrighteousness.
It is easy to say this. It is easy to talk about loving our neighbor. When Jesus asks us what the scriptures say about how to inherit eternal life, we easily say, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself." But, like the lawyer, we want to justify our actions and we ask, "And who is my neighbor?"
According to the understanding of those religious leaders, there were people who they should hate, people from whom they should be separated: the sick, foreigners, the grieving, and women at certain times of the month. The rules set them apart to keep them clean, to make them right before God. If they touched someone who was unclean, then they could not do the work they were called to do. That's what was probably happening with the priest and Levite in Jesus' story.
The priest and the Levite did not do anything wrong according to the Law. As a matter of fact, they were doing exactly what they believed was commanded in the Law. It may have even been difficult for them to pass by, because I believe even the hardest hearts can have compassion. But, they were to remain clean and helping the beaten and dying man meant becoming unclean. They could not serve God if they became unclean. They did not pass by because they had no compassion. They passed by because they had interpreted God's Law to mean that they could not risk their holy position and the people of Israel for the sake of one dying man. Though it is possible they were looking at the situation from a self-concerned point of view, they might have even been thinking about the bigger picture. Mercy for the one would mean that they could not provide mercy for the masses.
It is hard sometimes to respond in the moment. Take, for instance, the people who stand on street corners begging for money. We all know at least some of them are cons. We've all seen the stories about these beggars leaving the scene in high dollar cars, driving to expensive homes. We've seen the reports that tell us that they are earning an incredible living on those street corners. Yet some are truly in need. How do we discern? How do we pick and choose those who will receive our kindness? We are meant to be generous, but also good stewards. How do we know?
That's why Paul talks about praying for the people of Colossae. He's heard of their faith. He knows that they want to do what is right, to glorify God in their works. He knows they want to be good stewards and to be obedient to God's calling. Paul goes on, "...that you may walk worthily of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, for all endurance and perseverance with joy..." Joey is probably right: there is no selfless good deed because in the end, doing what is right according to God's Law will always lead us to joy.
As Christians we are called to lives of mercy. Mercy shows itself in many different ways. It shows itself in the way we deal with those who make us angry, with how we deal with difficult circumstances, with how to deal with our relationships. It is tempting to make God's Law into a long list of specific rules we have to obey so that we will be perfect in our actions. It is tempting to keep ourselves separated from those whom we deem unclean even when they need help. It is tempting to justify our actions based on our understanding of the words on the page. But like Martin Luther, we need to look beyond the "thou shall nots" to the "thou shalls" so that mercy is given where it is needed.
The lesson we learn from the Good Samaritan is that we are called to see the needs of those whom God has set before us, recognizing His presence in the pain and suffering in this world. The service we are called to render may not be special. It may not be big. It may not change the world. However, as we remain humble, dwelling in His love and mercy, obedience to His commands comes naturally and His mercy overflows into the world in which we live. It is there that lives are changed. The work that needs to be done might seem overwhelming, but we are called to take care of one person at a time.
We are called to humble ourselves before God, to dwell richly in God's Word which fills our hearts and the knowledge and wisdom which guides us on the right path. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to go and do as the Good Samaritan, bearing fruit that meets needs of our neighbors. We are called to lives that do right not just by obeying the rules against bad behavior but by living in ways that will continually build our relationships with God and others. We are to fear and love God so that we will give Him thanks for the mercy and respond with joy.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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