Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Leviticus (18:1-5) 19:9-19
“He said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.”
We tend to shy away from the Old Testament Laws because we know that we cannot uphold that which God has commanded. We know that God’s grace is greater than our failure and that His Gospel has provided for our forgiveness. Yet, we are given both Law and Gospel for a reason, and it is good to read texts like this one from Leviticus once in a while. The commands which we see in the text have everything to do with loving our neighbor. And there’s no doubt that Jesus commanded that from us. These are laws by which the human race is called to live. We are to treat our neighbors with respect, doing to them only as we would want them to do to us. We are pretty good at living that way when others love us first, but when we are hurt, we are quick to forget what God expects from us.
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. As Christians, we are called to be like Christ, to treat our neighbors with love and do what is best for them. Jesus said it wasn’t enough to keep from doing murder, we should not even be angry. It was not enough to keep from adultery; we should be faithful in every way, avoiding even lust. Though Jesus questioned the manner by which the leaders were enforcing the Law, He never made it easier for us to satisfy our flesh. He called His people to live as God intended: in His light, and love, and grace.
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. 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 to 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.
The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had twisted God’s instructions into a set of rules that led them down a path away from God. 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 lives to oppress our neighbors 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 now has an angry or violent connotation, but in Hebrew the word indicates a separation. Hatred was less about an intense confrontational emotion and more about making choices to avoid physical or emotional pain. 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 talk about loving our neighbor. When Jesus asks us what the scriptures say about how to inherit eternal life, we easily say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind;[a] and your neighbor as yourself.” But, like the lawyer, we want to justify our actions so we ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
There were people that the Jews should hate according to the Law as it was defined in Jesus’ day. There were people from whom the religiously “righteous” should be separated: the sick, foreigners, the grieving, and women at certain times of the month. This was especially true for the leaders; 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.
The lawyer wanted to justify himself and he thought he knew who God deemed his neighbor. The lawyer knew the law and knew that the law separated God’s people from foreigners and other outcasts. Jesus’ parable shows us just how much they had twisted God’s instructions into a set of rules that did not fulfill the intent of His Law. Jesus told the story using extremes to make a point that could not be disregarded. He 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. Jesus’ point was not to lift up the Samaritan and make it seem 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.
With this parable Jesus answered the lawyer, telling him that our neighbor is the one who is in need, no matter what it might mean for us. The Samaritan was willing to give above and beyond the call of duty, even to the point of making a covenant with an innkeeper so that the man would be treated with mercy.
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, because I believe even the hardest hearts can have compassion. But, they had to remain clean; helping the beaten and dying man would deem them unacceptable to do their work in the Temple. They could not serve God. 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 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 making an above average living by begging. 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?
We are studying the Didache in our Sunday school class. The Didache is the earliest Christian catechism, dated from before even the Gospels were written. The first chapter of the document talks about being generous, giving to even those who might never return the favor. The point is to give out of love for neighbor, not for the reward. The document goes on to warn those who would take charity who do not need it. They will face judgment. We are reminded that God will take care of it in the end. We might never see “justice” as we deem suitable for those who take advantage of us, but we can trust that even if we give to someone who abuses our goodness, God will make things right.
The chapter ends with this line: “Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom you are giving.” We are to be extremely generous, even sacrificial with our gifts and resources without worrying. But we are also encouraged to be discerning. I have learned that even the homeless have “stuff.” They will have a backpack, a sleeping bag, a suitcase, a shopping cart. They will have something besides the garbage from a fast food place, a bottle of water, and a well used cardboard sign. I saw one man a few weeks ago, obviously homeless because he had a pile of “stuff” nearby. I gave him as much as I might have given four or five others begging on the street corner. I let my alms sweat in my hands until the day I felt the Holy Spirit nudge me to give.
How do we know? We pray, and listen. God will answer. He will give us the courage to do what we should do. The priest and the Levite did not listen for God’s voice; they were too busy listening to their interpretation of the Law. They missed the opportunity to live God’s commandments in a positive way.
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 ‘unclean’? Or is He calling you to go into the places you fear, to cross the boundaries that keep you safe? I don’t 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.
What if you were the dying man? How would you want your neighbor to treat you? The Golden Rule is still golden: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
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 God’s 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.
Paul’s 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 it—God. 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 ‘clean’ 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 God’s grace, crossing the boundaries when God will be glorified by our boldness. Martin Luther once said, “Sin boldly.” 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, “Be 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.” 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 God’s forgiveness is able to overcome our failing.
The lawyer saw in Jesus’ lesson that the true neighbor is the one who loves boldly, even if it means stepping out of the expectations of our world. 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 isn’t far away. He isn’t 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.
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.
We are called to humble ourselves before God, to dwell richly in God’s Word which fills us with 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.
Which pleased God in today’s story? Was it the priest and Levite who walked away from someone in need to keep themselves clean according to the Law? Or was it the Samaritan who sacrificed his time and his resources for the sake of someone in need? Our works will never save the world; Christ came to save us. But He saved us for a purpose, and that is to continue His work in the world. That means living like we love God and love our neighbor. It is not enough to say we do, our lives should manifest that love in tangible ways that make a difference in the lives of those we meet. That life will not only help our neighbor, but we’ll find that we are blessed by it.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he who considers the poor. Yahweh will deliver him in the day of evil.” We like the sound of that, but we know that it doesn’t mean that we will never suffer. We will get sick. We will be hurt by other people. We will experience hardship. God doesn’t promise that our life will be happy all the time. He promises we will be blessed.
I like the way The Message has translated the first few verses of this psalm. “Dignify those who are down on their luck; you’ll feel good—that’s what God does. God looks after us all, makes us robust with life—Lucky to be in the land, we’re free from enemy worries. Whenever we’re sick and in bed, God becomes our nurse, nurses us back to health.” I tend to shy away from the “warm fuzzies” of faith, but only because our feelings, good and bad, should never be our motivation. Our motivation is to glorify God. But the icing on the cake, so to speak, is that we do feel good when we help someone in need. We are blessed to be a blessing, and then we are blessed when we are a blessing.
The lawyer knew what it took to live as God intended human beings to live. He knew that all the laws were summarized in just two: love God and love neighbor. What he didn’t really want to know is that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. He wanted to be able to offer good excuses for ignoring the needs of those neighbors who do not fit into his world. He wanted Jesus to justify his failure to respond with mercy and grace.
How many opportunities do we miss because we are caught up in our own selfish pursuits? How often do we justify our failure because we think that helping will make us unable to serve God as we think is right? Do we walk to the other side of the street because we are afraid of being made unclean, even though God has provided us an opportunity to show mercy despite the cost? We shouldn’t ignore those opportunities, in them we will find great blessing.
The lawyer seemed to understand and Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” 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 God’s Word, trusting that God is faithful even though perfection in our lives 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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