Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jesus as Clint Eastwood

This sermon was preached on July 15, 2007 (Proper 10, Year C)

Who is my neighbor?

The situation is a typical one. The new teacher comes walking into town – imagine the scene with me. I’m envisioning some Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western. The new teacher comes to town with some disciples in tow. Out strides the locals with one or two official types out in front. The guy in town with the biggest hat, or the sharpest suit, depending on the town, takes a step forward from the crowd to test this newcomer.

In the Clint Eastwood mindset, we might expect that official to be thinking, “What side of the law is this one on?”

But for our purposes today, the official is thinking something more along the lines of, “What’s that boy teachin’? Is he Orthodox, or is he a heretic? Is he a good Jew, or is he a damn Samaritan?”

So a question is asked – one of those telling questions, one of those complex theological questions, and it’s one that presumably has no easy answer.

And what does Jesus do? He does what he always does in this situation – and I say always, because this isn’t the first time it has happened, and it won’t be the last.

Jesus, who is both crafty and wise, answers the question designed to trap him with another question that demands the accusing party answer it for themselves. Which just goes to show something rather important: We already have the answer; to this question and so many others, we already have the answer, if only we will trust ourselves enough to dare to speak it.

And because it is demanded of him, the lawyer answers with what any good Jew, then or now, might say to such a query. The answer has a name, it is so common, so well known. It is called “The Shema.” It’s a distillation of the first two of the ten commandments. It is the convenient answer to any question of what it is God requires of anyone, for anything. I won’t bother quoting it in my broken ancient Hebrew. Here it is again, in English:

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 love your neighbor as yourself.

That is the answer that Jesus’ cross-examiner has given to his own question. It is the answer that is given by the Hebrew holy writings, known as “The Law,” and it is eloquent, succinct, and correct. Jesus points out the correctness of the answer and tells him to follow his own advice. But the questioner is not content with having had to answer his own question, nor is he content that Jesus got out of giving his own answer. So he asks for further clarification. After all, this Jesus of Nazareth person was a traveling rabbi, and if there is one thing that traveling rabbis did well, it was their ability and willingness to comment on the holy writings. The same thing in a Christian setting would be called preaching. In the Jewish setting, it’s called Midrash.

Now, one would think that the Shema was pretty obvious – Love God with absolutely everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. But already, perhaps, you’ve seen a questionable bit or two? The question from our time and culture is, “how can we love our neighbors when we can barely love ourselves, or at least, when we fail to love ourselves in healthy ways?” And it’s a valid question, because the command assumes that you are in fact, already loving yourself in a healthy and helpful manner. It’s a valid question, and we have to grapple with it, but it wasn’t the question in first century, Roman occupied Israel.

No, the question that the lawyer asks Jesus the Rabbi to preach on is this: “Who is my neighbor?”

Who is my neighbor?

And now, maybe the lawyer didn’t really give a fig about actually enacting the answer. Perhaps, after all, he was just asking because he was still in pursuit of this idea that he could trap this country-bumpkin preacher in front of his own congregation. Perhaps that was the case. Certainly the story has set the scene up for us to believe that. But perhaps it isn’t the case – perhaps he really wanted to know. We may never find out. But what we do know, is what Jesus said in response.

Now, he didn’t evade the question, and he didn’t turn it right back on the inquisitor, but neither did he give a straight answer that could be argued with. He told a story that hadn’t actually happened, but was certainly true, and it was to some great measure, shocking, but then those are the three hallmarks of Jesus’ parables, his favorite method of teaching. That’s what the lawyer got: a parable.

A parable, because the actions in the story hadn’t actually happened, but it described a great truth, and it was shocking, whether or not it seems shocking to our ears.

Who is my neighbor?

Now, a straight answer to that question might be something like, “everyone you want to be neighbors with, plus everyone you want to avoid, in addition to everyone you can’t stand. They are your neighbors.” But of course, you can argue with an answer like that until the cows come home. What is much more difficult to argue with is a concrete story of personal interaction, which is what the parable outlines.

A guy lies dying by the side of the road. Three people pass by. The first two are both upstanding citizens and leaders of the community, and just the sort of people you’d expect to help out a poor guy who is bleeding to death in the dirt. Now, please understand that the story doesn’t have him as a leper or outcast, someone who is poor, and of a completely different social class than those walking by. This story doesn’t even get into issues of social class. This guy who is lying in the dirt half dead was just like the ones walking by, only he got mugged in a rather brutal way and is now… lying in the dirt, dying. Now, the first two of these gentlemen who pass by carry the full weight of honor, respectability, and the love and favor of God. And what to they do? Well, here’s shocking part number one: not only do they do nothing to help, they cross to the other side of the road to avoid the dying guy. This would have scandalized the lawyer who was asking the question, but it’s hard to argue with when we all know full well that this sort of thing does happen. We may not like to talk about it, we may not like to hear it from the pulpit, and we share that with the first century Jews, but we all know it happens anyway.

But here comes scandalous thing number two: The third person who walks by is a Samaritan. Loathed and reviled by good Jews, Samaritans were likened to dogs by the Jews, who as a group did not apparently revere the animal as we do today.

And the Samaritan does not cross to the other side of the road.

And the Samaritan cleans and binds the wounds of the man half dead.

And the Samaritan loads him on his own animal, which means the Samaritan had to walk, for probably, miles, and took him to the nearest place to help.

And the Samaritan paid for his care, his food and lodging, well over what would probably be needed.

And the Samaritan promised to come back and pay more if necessary later, when he came back by again.

Shocking, shocking, shocking. It blasts apart stereotypes of who is capable of being a good person, a loving neighbor, not because of the man who got mugged and is lying half-dead in the dirt, but rather because of the particular individual who did help him, and because of all the ones who had a chance, but didn’t. The so-called “good people” didn’t lift a finger, and the so-called “bad guy” was the one who acted in the most merciful and graceful manner possible.

This is Jesus saying that our notions of who is Good and who is Bad are utterly meaningless.

Let me say that again. Our notions of who is Good and who is Bad are notions that are utterly meaningless. We can argue our assumptions and stereotypes until the cows come home, but they’re still meaningless. And when we base our willingness to show love and compassion to someone else based on assumptions of their goodness or badness, we are in fact going about the process backwards.

And so Jesus asks the question: “Who of these three acted as a neighbor to the man in the dirt?”

And the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” And I like to think that at this point, no matter his reasons for beginning this line of inquiry, that maybe this gentleman has learned something from the wise master, Jesus. I can’t imagine hearing this story, given what we know of the culture and the time, and not being moved.

“Who is my neighbor?”

The one who shows you mercy, no matter who you are, no matter who they are. So go, and do likewise. Be a neighbor, regardless of who you are, regardless of who they are.

Go, and do likewise.

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