Sunday, May 27, 2018

Who Is My Neighbor?

I apologize to certain ones of you up front for what I am about to say. A physician, an engineer, and an attorney were discussing whose profession was the oldest. The physician said, “Remember, on the sixth day God took a rib from Adam and fashioned Eve, making him the first surgeon. Therefore, medicine is the oldest profession.” The engineer replied, “But, before that, God created the heavens and earth from chaos and confusion, and thus he was the first engineer. Therefore, engineering is an older profession than medicine.” Then, the lawyer spoke up. “Yes,” he said. “But who do you think created all of the chaos and confusion?” Like I said, I apologize to our legal scholars in the room. Lawyers have always been on the wrong side of a good joke. I admit, there are some wonderful lawyers in this world—too many to count. But there are also some who, reality seems so simple. But some lawyers have a knack for making things more difficult than they really are.

Jesus met one of those lawyers one time…

READ LUKE 10:25-28 (CEB)

I want to stop right here before we get into the parable. This section of Luke’s gospel is very familiar to most of us, but for some reason, we often skip this prelude in order to get to the story of the Good Samaritan sooner. But these four verses contain some interesting information! The first thing to realize about this conversation between Jesus and this lawyer is that this question to Jesus is not unique. In fact, in just a few chapters a rich young ruler is going to ask Jesus this same question.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is not a new question to our heritage is it? We usually turn to Acts 2:38 for our answer, but realize we were not the first to ask this question! First, a lawyer asked it. Then, a rich young ruler asked it. But what I wonder is why these two men asked the question at all. You see, according to Jewish thought, there was no “eternal life” in heaven. When the good die, they go to Sheol—the place of the dead. When the bad die, they also go to Sheol. For most of their history, Jewish people had no concept of reward and punishment in the afterlife. But shortly before the time of Jesus, they began to develop a new thought. If we were to turn over to Daniel 12, we’d see that there is a curious passage there. Especially if you were an Exilic Jew!
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. -Daniel 12:2
When we read these words, they roll off the tongue, nothing new here! But to those ancient Israelites, these words posed some serious problems. What do you mean “everlasting life?” What is it? Who gets it? This passage in Daniel caused several generations to stay up late at night. No one really understood it. So, people took various positions on it. Two different schools of thought were formed around two different positions. This group said “You’re wrong." That group said, “No, you’re wrong.” This group said, “Well then, I’m just going to start a new church.” Well, maybe not. But you get the picture!

This was a hot topic by the time Jesus arrived on the scene! And there is a good chance that this lawyer had this passage in mind when he asked Jesus that question. He wanted to know where the new, young, popular rabbi stood on “the” big issue! So, Jesus utilized a great teaching technique. He answered his question with another question. The lawyer wanted Jesus to choose sides, but Jesus refused. He pointed this man back to the basics, “What does the law say?” This question really had nothing to do with this ancient debate at all. This man wanted to hear about Sheol. He wanted to hear about everlasting life and eternal torment. But Jesus refused to engage that debate and simply pointed him back to the basics. The basics that this man, as well as every other person in the crowd, knew like the back of their hand. This first part; “Love the Lord with all your heart.” The Shema. Recited twice every day by faithful Jews. The second part was a significant aspect of the Jewish holiness code.

Do you see what is happening here? This lawyer wants a debate! Where do you stand? Which side do you support? But all Jesus would do was talk about loving God and the other! Don’t you just hate it when that happens? You’re ready for a fight. But all that person across from you wants to do is talk about loving God and the other!

Well, the lawyer couldn’t trap Jesus with the first question, so he tries another one. “Well then, Jesus, who is my neighbor?” To a Jew this question was simple, your neighbor is your fellow Jew! That’s what Leviticus 19 means; go read it! Moses didn’t call these people to love Moabites and Philistines. He called them to love their neighbor, their fellow Jews. But this lawyer was no idiot. He’d watched Jesus’ ministry thus far. He knew Jesus had been associating with people outside the tribe! In samaritan villages talking about “loving enemies." I believe this man asked the second question thinking: Well, the first one didn’t get him into trouble. But he’ll never get out of this one! But little did he know…

READ LUKE 10:29-37 (CEB)

What this lawyer meant as a trap proved to be a defining moment in Jesus’ ministry. “Who is my neighbor?” Well, everyone there that day thought they knew the answer to that one. But, once again, Jesus went down the other path! We’ve all heard this sermon before, haven’t we? I dread preaching sermons on texts like this that are so common. I think we became desensitized to the revolutionary quality of the text sometimes. Jesus’ main point here is that we need to quit thinking in terms of who is in and who is out. Our neighbors are not defined by race, gender, or belief. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from, you just love them!

With this parable, Jesus redefines the “neighbor” of the Jewish holiness code. And this no doubt caused some heads to turn. The idea that a Samaritan was the good guy! That was impossible. The Jewish people were an exclusivistic people with an exclusivistic religion. Make no mistake. It was important for them to know who was in and who was out! It was very important for them to understand who was a neighbor and who was not. I hope I don’t have to point out the obvious. Church, we have often been guilty of this same thing. Only we don’t use the term “neighbor” much anymore.

We are more concerned with brothers and sisters now, aren’t we? “Who is my brother? Who is my sister?” I wonder how Jesus would answer that question, which seems to have plagued many of our churches over the years. I have a sneaking suspicion I know exactly how Jesus would answer that question. I really don’t want to dwell long on this point, but I will say this. Church, we must stop using the terms “brother” or “sister” as exclusivistic terms delineating who we will and will not stop along the road side to pick up.  God didn’t draw those boundaries, and neither should we!

What I want us to concentrate on with this text this morning is Jesus’ final words in each response. The lawyer asks two separate questions here: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus finally answers both questions the same way, “Go and do.” I believe there are so many messages for us in this text, but I finally had to choose one and this is it: I think we, as the people of God in America today, have a tendency to get so busy asking the questions that we forget to “Go and Do.”

This lawyer was so concerned first with having the right questions & then with providing the right answers. Don’t you get it? He was so concerned with what to think. He wanted to make sure Jesus was right in His thinking. Before long, you realize that religion to this man had simply become an intellectual enterprise. God is something you think about. Religion is something you try to figure out. Religion is only about belief. Religion is about thought, not action. You can almost hear the frustration of Jesus in this text when after each question, His admonition is clear: “Just go and do something!”

I believe Jesus might say the same thing to us today. Glenwood, let’s “Go and Do.” Let us not be like so many Christians of this age who are content to sit back and simply ask questions.

  • “Who is in?”
  • “Who is out?”
  • “What is off limits?”
  • “Who can we fellowship with?”
  • “Who can we not fellowship with?”
  • “What exactly does this particular word mean in the text?”
Maybe it’s time we start talking a little less and doing a little more.

You know, I can’t help but think Jesus had something else in mind when this lawyer asked the question about eternal life. Throughout His ministry, Jesus not only refers to life in the blue yonder as “eternal life.” He also suggests that eternal life takes place today. You and I have the ability to live the good life, eternal life, today. By helping our neighbors.  By praising God. By enjoying community with each other. Maybe our fascination with this age-old question really does have a simple answer.

How do we inherit eternal life? We could start by putting on our sandals. Following in the footsteps of Jesus. Going & doing. And finally, prayer.

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