Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Luke 10:25-37
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Our first lesson is a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Christian Old Testament and of the Jewish Torah, the sacred teaching given by God to Moses. These books were known and honored by Jesus, who often quoted their words and taught their precepts and wisdom. The passage we heard this morning is rich in imagery and in meaning.
Moses gives the message from God to the people of Israel that God will prosper them abundantly if they observe God’s commandments and turn to the Lord with all their hearts and souls. No one has to go to heaven or cross the sea to find out what the commandments of God are. No, they have already been given to the people. “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth” – meaning that the sacred texts are available to be recited aloud – “and in your heart for you to observe.”
This good news was given to God’s people thousands of years ago. It is given to us today. The Word of God is right here. There is no need to reinvent the spiritual wheel. We have the Word in our mouths on Sunday mornings when we read aloud from the Book of Psalms and from the Old and New Testaments. The Word of God may be in our mouths, but is it in our hearts? Remember that Jesus taught that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21). In other words, the heart is the source of our behavior, so our behavior may very well reveal our hearts.
The famous Parable of the Good Samaritan reveals the hearts of its characters through their behavior and challenges us to examine both our hearts and our behavior. The parable begins with a lawyer – a man who is an expert in the Torah – testing Jesus. Luke is telling us that this is not a conversation initiated in good faith by a student asking questions of a teacher in order to learn from him. The lawyer is testing Jesus. He asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him a question in return, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer knows the answer, as any Jew would: the Two Great Commandments found in the Hebrew Bible. Love God and your neighbor as yourself. But Jesus shows that the question of eternal life is about more than knowing the right answer. He tells the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” In the course of his ministry Jesus makes this point over and over again – do what I am teaching you to do, do what I am showing you to do.
Luke tells us that the lawyer wanted to “justify himself” to Jesus. This is our second hint that, as we might say today, the lawyer is “all about me.” His initial question for Rabbi Jesus was “what must I do to inherit eternal life” for myself? In other words, how can I make sure to get the best gift God can give me? The lawyer knows that the right answer is about three loves – for God, for neighbor, and for self – but his heart appears to be fixed on love of self. We might wonder how the conversation would have gone if the lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, how do I learn to love God with all my heart and soul and strength and mind and my neighbor as myself? And how do I learn to put my love in action?” These would be the kinds of questions a disciple might ask of Jesus if he or she truly wanted to grow in love.
The lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” He already knows the answer to this question as well as he knew the answer to his first question. In his Jewish religious tradition it was made clear that everyone must be treated as a neighbor. The stranger. The resident alien. One who dwells nearby, a fellow citizen. And even the enemy, an evil person.
So Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man, who was most likely a Jew, was the victim of a violent crime, robbed, beaten, and left on the road to die. Two Jewish men – a priest and a Levite – saw the man and “passed by on the other side” without helping him. But a Samaritan saw him and was “moved with pity.” The Samaritan tended to the man’s wounds, put him on his animal and brought him to an inn, took care of him and paid the expenses for his care.
At the end of the parable Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” The one whose heart was merciful. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a lesson about mercy in action. The Samaritan traveler was “moved with pity” for the injured crime victim and made sure he was taken care of, at his own expense. This is the behavior Jesus tells people to emulate, the behavior of one neighbor to another neighbor. We are not to be like the religious people in the parable – the priest and the Levite – who “pass by on the other side” without assisting the man in need. We might wonder, was there mercy in their hearts?
There is an important point we mustn’t miss in this parable. Samaritans and Jews were enemies. They disagreed significantly about religious beliefs and about worship. In this parable, though, the Samaritan regarded the Jew not as an enemy, but as a neighbor. Seeing him as a neighbor, he acted like a neighbor. He loved his neighbor as himself. In other words, he did for his neighbor what he would have wanted done for him if he were the crime victim. The Samaritan, who shared the same scriptures as the Jews, had taken the scriptures seriously. He had seen an enemy and looked again through the lens of Jewish religious teaching, and seen a neighbor. His heart had been touched by the Word of God.
What we need to know – the Christian “basics” if you will – are fairly simple. Love of God, of neighbor, and of self, in right balance. The basic guideline of right behavior is also fairly simple. As St. Augustine put it, “Love and do what you will.” Simple concepts. Love and act with love. Our challenge is to grow and become more loving human beings. We might ask Jesus, “Teacher, how do I learn to love God with all my heart and soul and strength and mind and my neighbor as myself? And how do I learn to put my love in action?” These are good prayer questions. These are good questions to remember as we read scripture and seek answers there.
Many people, perhaps most people, like the lawyer and the priest and Levite in this morning’s lesson, need to learn to grow in love for others. But for some people, people who give to others generously, who see themselves as helpers and as good neighbors, for people like this proper love of self is often a challenge. The commandment is not to love our neighbors and not ourselves or to show mercy for others in need and not ourselves when we are in need. Sometimes we need to have compassion for ourselves as we would for others. Sometimes we need to feed and nurture and support ourselves as we would others. We are all God’s beloved children – you and me and every person. We need to trust that God wants health and salvation for all. And, with hearts ever growing in love for God, we need to seek the path that opens the way for the salvation God wants for all God’s children.
The Word of God is very near to us. Thanks be to God! Amen.