Time after Pentecost Ė Lectionary 15
Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul.
Our Sunday school class is following a Read-through-the-Bible program this year. It isnít like the typical programs that begin with page one of Genesis and read a few chapters a day until you reach the final words of John in Revelation. Instead, we read a bit from each type of literature each day of the week. On Sunday we read from the Epistles, Monday Ė the Law, Tuesday Ė History, Wednesday Ė the Psalms, Thursday Ė Poetry, Friday Ė Prophecy and on Friday we read from the Gospels. It is an interesting program because you donít get stuck at the long tedious parts and as you read through the different parts of the Bible you see how it all fits together. I am amazed at how many times we read something in the Old Testament that is repeated or explained in a New Testament story. We are halfway through the year, and a large number of us have kept up with the reading.
The most recent readings from the Old Testament have included the instructions from Leviticus involving sacrifices and offerings. Over and over again weíve read how the Israelites are to take their animal to the priests to be killed, the blood poured over the altar and the flesh burned. We, who live in such a clean and hygienic society, find this absolutely disgusting. We canít imagine the smell of the blood and burnt flesh in the heat of the wilderness. We have a hard time understanding how this was the manner by which Godís people could find peace and forgiveness for their sin.
Yet, for those who lived and worshipping in that day, the offerings of flesh and grain were their way of honoring God and living according to His Word. We have a different perspective of God, based on our own experiences and culture. Our point of view is also based on the New Covenant which Christ inaugurated during His life and ministry. Even so, as we have read in our Bible study, the lessons of the Old Testament were not set aside or forgotten, they were built upon and surpassed by the words and actions of Jesus Christ. The law against murder was strengthened into a declaration against anger. The law against adultery was intensified to include all acts of unfaithfulness including lust. Though Jesus questioned the manner by which the leaders were enforcing the Law, He never made it easier for us to live according to our flesh. He called His people to live as God intended: in His light, and love, and grace.
The Gospel lesson shows us how they had twisted Godís instructions into a set of rules that led them down a path further from God rather than closer to Him. Jesus told the story using extremes to make a point that could not be disregarded. Jesus chose the characters on purpose: a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. The requirements for the priest and Levite to remain active in their jobs made it impossible for them to do any good for the beaten man and the Samaritan was as far from acceptable as Jesus could get. Jesusí point was not to lift up the Samaritan and make it as if he were the better man, but to show the lawyer that God sees not the sacrifices but the mercy we share with those in need.
Iíve attended several workshops that guided the guests in discovering a fuller and richer meaning in the Bible texts by identifying with the characters in the stories. The story of the Good Samaritan is often used in this exercise because of the diverse characters. We may not like to admit it, but sometimes we identify with the priest and the Levite, because there are times when the responsibilities of our lives keep us from doing the good we want to do. We might want to identify with the Samaritan, and sometimes we feel like we are the guy who is outcast but willing to cross borders to do something to help another. We might also identify with the lawyer asking the question. Are we willing to see that we are trying to justify what we do, and what we donít do? Some of us will feel like the beaten man on the road. What about the inn keeper? Have you ever faced a time when you had to trust the good nature of another, taking over the care of someone without knowing for sure that the Good Samaritan will return? Are there times we can identify with Jesus? We are sent into the world to teach Godís commandments to others, to show them the way God is calling us to live.
So, as you read this text, put yourself into the story. Are you the lawyer, the priest or the Levite? What lessons can you learn from what Jesus is saying? Is God calling you to do everything right according to the traditions and practices of your religion, keeping from those things that might make you Ďuncleaní? Or is He calling you to go into the places you fear, to cross the boundaries that keep you safe? I donít think Jesus is necessarily telling us that our religious practices and responsibilities are wrong, but that we should choose mercy over sacrifice. God had a purpose for those rituals and liturgy in the days of Moses, and He has a purpose for the rituals and liturgy today. We are encouraged, however, to realize that there is one commandment that is greater than all others: to love God and turn to Him with all your heart and all your soul.
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 have a sense of 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.
In the Old Testament lesson we read: ďFor this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.Ē What is the commandment? The teacher of the Law knew the answer to that question. He didn't recite the Ten or list his favorites from the six hundred and thirteen in Leviticus. He listed two: love God and love your neighbor. The Ten and the others help us to do that. They help us to live according the way God has ordained for us to live, loving Him and others.
When we read a passage like our Old Testament text, it seems as though God is telling us that if we obey Him, we will be rewarded with good things. The reality is that God has blessed us with good things and obedience to His commands will keep us from suffering the consequences of disobedience. Obedience does not earn us the goodness of God, but it keeps us within the blessedness of the relationship that He has already built with us. God instructs us not to demand that we become what He wants us to be, but so that we will be all that He has created us to be. We donít have to go somewhere or do something to receive that which He has to give. We hear in Deuteronomy: ďBut the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.Ē He is close and He wants us to stay close. We do that by living according to His Word.
In the introduction to the Letter to the Christians in Colossae, Paul lifts up their faith. He reminds them of the Word they heard and the lessons they learned about Godís kingdom. They believed as he had taught them, but others had joined their community with a different understanding and were teaching another Gospel. False teachings had become part of the message they were sharing. Ritualistic requirements, mandatory self-denial, angel worship, diminution of Christ, special knowledge and reliance on human wisdom (both Jewish and Gnostic) were becoming the norm in the congregation. Paul was concerned that the message of Christ was being lost to the fallible human message that was being integrated into the Gospel.
Paulís letter lifts up the faith of the people in Colossae, but not by thanking them for being faithful. He gives all the credit to the One who deserves itóGod. He thanks God for their faith, their love and their hope. He prays that God will continue to fill them with knowledge of Christ and keep them worthy to walk with the Lord. He lifts up Christ, reminding the people of Colossae that He is supreme and that it is by Him, through Him and for Him that we are saved. It is keeping this in mind that we live as we are truly called to live, loving God and neighbor. As we humbly remember that it is not our works that bring the world to Christ, but Christ who has come to the world, we recognize the opportunities He offers to join in His work in the world.
There may be good reason to remain Ďcleaní to do the work we are called to do in the Church and the world. Some things are right to be avoided. But the story of the Good Samaritan encourages us to consider all that we do in terms of Godís grace, crossing the boundaries when God will be glorified by our boldness. Martin Luther once said, ďSin boldly.Ē We might want to use this to justify our sinfulness, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to look at it in light of our Gospel text. The whole quote is as follows, ďBe a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.Ē When we are faced with an opportunity to do good that will cause us to do what is wrong, then we sin boldly, trusting that Godís forgiveness is able to overcome our failing.
I think Martin Luther would have truly understood this point of view, especially after he discovered the foolishness of his quest for righteousness. It was common belief that the priestís sin must be atoned for before he could give communion to the entire community, or the Eucharist would be invalid. Weíve certainly seen the historic and religious structure of this in our reading of Leviticus in Bible study, because the priests must go through a complicated ritual before ever serving at the altar for the people. However, Poor Martin took this perspective to its extreme. He was sure that if he still retained any sin, even those unknown, his entire flock would suffer. He made confession for hours and hours, naming every thing he did wrong that day and ever. His confessor became frustrated by those infinite lists of wrongs.
He eventually learned that God didnít count every little infraction, but that God had done the work of salvation once and for all. We will make mistakes and we should let Godís grace transform us into people who live in the reality of His promise. We sin and we learn and we are changed. We will still sin, but with Godís help we will do better. But when we sin, we can sin with boldness because we know that we have been reconciled to God by His work in Jesus Christ.
The lawyer saw in Jesusí lesson that the true neighbor is the one who loves boldly, even if it means stepping out of the expectations of our position. The priest and the Levite knew that it would be wrong to touch the wounded man, but Jesus showed the lawyer that it was more wrong not to step out in faith. Loving God means responding to those opportunities He lays before us. God isnít far away. He isnít in heaven or on the other side of the sea. He is in our mouths and in our hearts; from there, with our hands, He provides relief for those suffering in the world.
The psalmist writes, ďThe meek will he guide in justice; And the meek will he teach his way.Ē This is the godly life we are called to lead: humble before God and merciful to our neighbor. This is the life that is lived doing what is right according to Godís Word and trusting that God is faithful when living perfectly is impossible. We might have to get our hands dirty, or cross the road to reach out to others. We might have to trust a stranger will return to repay the debts we acquire taking care of their business. We might have to tell others what it means to love God and neighbor. We might just be the one suffering, experiencing the grace of God through the mercy and love of others. Whoever we are in the story, and however we manage to get along in it, let us always remain humble, trusting that God will faithfully provide everything He has promised.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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