Monday, July 16, 2007

The Proper of Yesterday: Pentecost VII

Yesterday was the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, and in this Year of Luke we heard the very well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan. I was filling in at All Saints' Hoboken. Here was my sermon. I welcome your comments and feedback, as always!

May only God’s words be spoken, and only God’s words be heard. Amen.

I recently had an experience that was rather troubling to me. You may recognize similar encounters in your own lives. I was coming home from an evening in the City. It was perhaps 11 PM or so. As I was unlocking the door to my apartment, a man dressed in slacks, a nice shirt, and a tie came up to the porch. He startled me a bit when he spoke to me. He told me that his car had broken down in the next block and he was trying to get some money to take the Light Rail and PATH back to Newark where he lived. I was in my collar, and he asked if I was a priest. I said yes, and he went on to tell me he was Catholic, had gone to St. Peters’ Prep in high school and asked if I could help him out.

Now remember it was 11 o clock at night and my key was literally in the door. I was not in the most comfortable of situations. I did something that was perhaps foolish – I got out my wallet and pulled out a bill - a five, I think – and handed it to him, telling him the light rail was down the block. He walked quickly off, and I got inside and locked the door as fast as I could. I just wanted him to go away as quickly as I could get him to do so. I was relieved when he went off in the direction of the light rail.

Now I can imagine what some of you are thinking. Was I nuts? How could I possibly have done that? How could I have believed his story? It’s almost exactly like the ones the you hear downtown. You know, I need bus fare to get to Philadelphia or Boston or Memphis or wherever. Or my family was burned out of our home. Could you help? I admit I was very skeptical about my friend’s story. I could have said I’m sorry I have nothing for you and sent him on his way. Of course, I was in my collar after all. That’s did make things a little different, at least from my point of view. I felt like I had to do something.

Why was that? Why did I think it was important for me to do something in this situation? Well, it’s because I am informed in my thinking by today’s Gospel, the very well known, perhaps even famous, Parable of the Good Samaritan. Many of use have heard it countless times. A lawyer asks Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. They have a theological discussion, and the lawyer actually has the right answer from Jesus’ perspective. The lawyer, being a good lawyer, then asks what’s actually a very reasonable question: Well, who is my neighbor then, that God commands me to love so much? Jesus tells the story of how a man was robbed and left for dead on the dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho, which was a good day’s journey away. A priest passes by and ignores the dieing man, and then a Levite, who also looks the other way. A Samaritan comes along, and he rescues the poor victim, and goes out of his way to take care of him, even spending two day’s wages to make sure the man would get decent treatment at the hotel. And then Jesus turn’s the lawyer’s question around: He doesn’t ask if the man who was robbed was a neighbor, he asks who was a neighbor to the man? And the lawyer answers that it is the Samaraitan who is the neighbor. Jesus then gave the famous command: “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus is saying to his listeners then and to us today that the important question is not who our neighbors are but how we act toward them. He de-emphasizes the object of the love we are to show and instead emphasizes how we are to show it. By turning the question around, Jesus seems to be saying that it’s more important to deal with one’s inner motivations then in quibbling who should receive the love we’re commanded to show. What’s important is being a neighbor, and in the context of the parable, being a neighbor to one in need.

My sense is that this is pretty important. Jesus hung out with all sorts of folks considered undesirable in his day, as I’m sure you know. Especially in Luke’s Gospel, women, Samaritans, Romans, slaves, all seem to get special notice in teaching and in action. In short, every person and group that traditional Jewish culture of the day – or sometimes even Jewish law – said was outside the pale were the kinds of people Jesus pointed to as enjoying God’s favor just as much as the Chosen People of Israel did. And notice that Jesus spent no time commenting on how dumb the robbery victim was for taking the road alone. His hearers would already have known it was dangerous. Jesus himself took that road on the way to Jerusalem, passing through Jericho on the way. Jesus very particularly critiziced the priest and the Levite who did not stop to help. Remember, though, that on one level it was perfectly understandable why the first two passers-by didn’t stop. Their work, their vocations, their very reasons for being, called them to be ritually pure so they could serve in the Temple without offending God. Even to touch a dead person was to make a priest of a Levite ritually impure and unable to serve for perhaps a week or more. So given the victim’s injuries, one might have cut the priest and the Levite some slack. But Jesus didn’t. In fact, he picked one of the most hated ethnic groups he could have to show the contrast between all three of them. Samaritans were considered barely better than Romans by Jews. Samaritans and Jews didn’t mix, and Jews considered the Samaritan beliefs in the Torah only and that it’s OK to worship Yahweh on Mt. Gerazim and not only in Jerusalem to be essentially heresy. So for Jesus to show up a Jewish priest and a Levite with a Samaritan would have been startling for his listeners. And to top it off, Jesus has the Samaritan go overboard in generosity – showing mercy, as the Scripture has it. And so the lawyer is commanded to go and do likewise – be like the Samaritan and bend over backwards in generosity.

And of course we, who are followers of Jesus and want to imitate him, want to go and do likewise too. But it doesn’t seem so easy in 2007. Maybe it wasn’t so easy in Jesus’ day either. We have to dig into the parable to get the nuances of who was who and why they might have acted like they did. But the command and the sentiment seem clear. Go and Do likewise. No need to investigate the worthiness of the recipient of your giving. No need to check and see if he or she really needs it. Jesus did not have the Samaritan teach the victim how to be more aware of one’s surroundings in dangerous situations or to give him judo or tae –kwon-do lessons. Maybe that came later. What the Samaritan did first and foremost - which Jesus clearly commends here - is take care of the man’s immediate needs for medical attention, safety, and lodging. The rest of it can come later.

In the Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says this: Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (Luke 6:30) And again: give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:38) Here is a specific teaching that says very straightforwardly to give to anyone who asks. Don’t ask questions, Jesus seems to be saying, don’t worry about if the person is worthy or not. Just do it. And in Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells the crowd and us not to worry about stuff, because God already knows we need them. Rather, he says, “Instead, strive for God’s  kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

And that, my sisters and brothers, is a tall order. If we give like that, pretty soon we’ll be out of resources ourselves, right. The poor will still be poor and the scam artists will be rich and won’t give anything back when we ask for it, because they sure aren’t going to follow the Gospel. So what, is Jesus crazy or what?

I could stand here and contextualize away and maybe suggest that the context of the Sermon on the Plain was about being radically open in spirit and didn’t necessarily mean to just dissipate one’s resources in giving. I could point out that the Samaritan, as good as he was, didn’t check the robbery victim into the Westin Hotel and give him an unlimited credit card. He did what he could, as far as we can tell. And all of that would be true and would be reasonable conclusions to draw. At the same time, the tone of the Parable here, coupled with the stuff from the Sermon on the Plain and the later teaching on worry, does lean in an unmistakable direction of giving generously, even radically. The whole Gospel of Luke does, actually. Luke’s Gospel is the social Gospel in many ways, because in it Jesus is constantly showing an awareness, an openness, a mindset toward those less fortunate in his society. And it seems to me that’s what we can take from today’s parable too. One’s giving starts from the heart and is habit forming. When one actively cultivates a habit, an awareness, an openness to the other, that’s actually living out the Good News that God loves all people. If God loves me, then I can turn around and do that too. So Jesus encourages us to be neighbors for the other by helping out, by giving of what he have, perhaps even radically. It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go bankrupt ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we ought not be wise with our resources as we live in to that new mindset. It does mean that a steady habit of giving will transform each and every one of us just as much as, even more so, than those we give to.

So that’s why I gave money to someone who may well have not needed it. I didn’t do it for him, although I do hope he really did have a broken-down car. But I did it more for me. I’m trying to cultivate a mindset of giving and openness to the other, in the same way that Jesus gave so much for me and for each of us. It isn’t easy at times – I’m only human, after all. But actively working towards my own transformation – a continuous conversion to the mind of Christ that today’s parable lays out for us – will allow me to do my own little part to make God’s economy real today. So I hope that man used the money well. If he did, great. If he didn’t, there’s not much I can do. But I’m going to try to keep giving to whomever asks. I’m going to try to be the neighbor that God calls me to be.

In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.


1 comment:

Troglodyteus said...

Supply and de man. Very good, although I try to assiduously avoid Luke 6:38 as it only selectively applies.

I like the part about the guys who were worried about getting their hands dirty.