Love For God – Love For Neighbor
July 10 2016
The passage before us today is a familiar one. It is familiar to us, and, it appears, familiar to many Christians. In a national survey several years ago, 85% of churchgoing Christians said they could tell the story of the Good Samaritan from memory. That is a much higher percentage than any other parable, and most other biblical texts.
Yes, the story of the Good Samaritan is familiar. Sometimes familiarity can be a blessing, but at other times it can be a curse. I am afraid that with the story of the Good Samaritan, the familiarity leads us to feeling comfortable with it, like we know what is going to happen. It’s like a summer rerun on TV. We’ve seen it before, heard it before, we know it inside and out, we know how it ends, so why bother listening? Maybe let it be “background noise” while we do something else or think about something else, but that may be about all we expect of this parable.
And yet Jesus used the story to illustrate an important point, in fact the point He illustrated with the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just an important point, but it one of the most important points He ever made. The point He made was one of the most important points of the Jewish law, or as Luke has the question put to Jesus, what must be done to inherit eternal life.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the way God wants us to live in it’s most condensed form. Love for God and love for others.
Jesus was not the only one who taught that this was the essence of the law. In Hebrew folklore there is the story of an atheist who wanted to prove himself smarter than the village rabbi. He thought that if he could embarrass the rabbi he could refute his religious beliefs. He made what he thought was an impossible request of the rabbi. “Rabbi” he said “Recite for me the most important points of your religion while standing on one leg.” He then smirked, for he thought the rabbi could never do such a thing. But the rabbi smiled, lifted one leg, and said: “Love God. Love others.” He then lowered his leg and said: “These are the most important points of our religion. All else is commentary.” Christians have also agreed that this ideal of love for God and neighbor is of upmost importance if we are going to live the life God calls us to live. Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian who taught in America in the late 1950’s and influenced several generations of ministers with his writings. He once wrote that that main purpose of the Church was to “work for the increase among humankind of the love of God and neighbor.”
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.
These are important words to live by, and yet, do we do it? Maybe we need to take another look at this familiar, but most important, story Jesus puts before us and discover that there is more here than a reminder to help others in need.
At the beginning of the passage, we are introduced to a lawyer. He poses a question to Jesus as a “test”:
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus then answers the question with a question of His own.
“What is written in the Law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer responds “You shall 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.”
A good answer. And Jesus agrees.
But now the lawyer does something that all of us do from time to time. In good lawyerly fashion, he looks for a loophole. “And who is my neighbor?” In other words, “Okay, Jesus, I understand I am supposed to care, but what are the limits of my caring? When can I quit caring?”
And here Jesus tells His well – known story. The first person to whom we are introduced is a traveler. He was traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which was notoriously dangerous. It descended nearly 3,300 feet in seventeen miles, running through narrow passes at some points. The terrain offered easy hiding for the bandits who terrorized travelers on this treacherous road. This unfortunate fellow is attacked by bandits, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. It was a first-century mugging. One more random victim in a randomly violent world. Jesus’ audience that day knew how easily these things happened. Unfortunately, we know it too.
While hearers then and now would sympathize with the poor fellow, we may not identify with him. This is a story that begins with a tragedy, and helpers are sure to arrive. If we want to identify with anyone, we want to wait and identify with the helper /hero.
The next character we are introduced to in the story is a priest. Surely he will help this man. If anyone could be expected to stop and help it would be a priest. But the priest not only steers clear of helping the man, he acts like he does not see him and passes by on the other side.
So the priest is not the helper / hero this poor man needs.
The third character Jesus introduces us to is a Levite, an “assistant” priest. Surely he will help. But as the text has it, “he came to the place and saw him, [and] passed by on the other side.” He is not the hero we would expect, either.
Now what? By normal storytelling conventions, we can expect we are about to meet a fourth character who will break the pattern created by the priest and the Levite. Maybe in the context of this parable the hero would be an ordinary Israelite who will come to the rescue when the no one else would.
Enter character number four, a Samaritan. The original hearers of Jesus’ story must have thought the Samaritan would pass by the man also, or possibly kick the man while he is down or check to see if there is anything else to steal from him. Nowhere in their tradition did the words “good” or “hero” and “Samaritan” go together. To the folks who first heard this story, the phrase “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron. Surely this Samaritan is noo oing to be the hero! To help you understand of how the original hearers of this story would have thought about this Samaritan, and all Samaritans for that matter, just imagine that Jesus said “a black man” or “a Hispanic man” or “a homeless man” or “a homosexual couple” or whoever you want to imagine that you would expect bad things from, and would be surprised to see help someone.
But Jesus has the Samaritan as the one who stops, bandages the wounds, takes the man to an inn and has him cared for. The Samaritan, not the Priest or the Levite, is the hero.
Jesus has responded to the lawyer’s question about the limits of neighborliness with his story, and now turns the question back to the lawyer:
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
And the answer, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. The essence of the law, the essence of what Jesus commands us to do and how Jesus commands us to live.
Do you want to live in the ways God wants you to live? Then have love for God. Love God with everything you have. Have a rich prayer life, a rich worship life, and a rich life of fellowship with God and God’s people. Then have love for others. Live out the love you have for God by sharing it with others. This means all others, all people, regardless of who they are, where they have come from, why they are in the position they are in, whatever details about them that might keep you from loving them, love others! It doesn’t matter if they are black, Hispanic, homeless, gay, or whatever, love them and show them God’s love. You don’t even have to agree with them or like how they live, but you need to love them and show them God’s love.
It is not easy to love God and love others in this way, is it? This is not an easy task. But the fact that it is not easy does not excuse us. We need to work at it. In fact, this is such a difficult task for us that I suggest that we need to pray about it. We need to pray for the ability to love God. We need to pray for a stronger prayer life. We need to pray for a stronger worship life. We need to pray for a stronger fellowship life. We need to pray that we can indeed love God with all we have. We need to pray for this ability, then we need to work to put these prayers into practice so we can love God with all we have. We also need to pray for the ability to love others, then work at loving others. We need to pray and work at being more loving. We need to pray and work at letting our love and concern for others cross all boundaries.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love God and love others.
Let’s pray about these things and work at these things, so we can be the people God calls us to be and realize the blessings God gives to those who love Him and others. Let’s pray that the violence we have seen in our country this past week will end, and let’s work God will for peace and love in a world that is too filled with hatred and violence.
Ok – I’ve talked enough. I hope I have brought this passage out of the familiar and boring and back into the realm of something that is important and full of meaning for you, because that is what it is.
Now it is time for each of us to, as Jesus Himself said, go and do likewise. Amen.