Justice: A People for Others
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
I wonder if anyone is even asking this question anymore. Not the question “who is my neighbour?” Voices in society address this topic albeit from different angles of vision; the championing of the value of “inclusiveness” comes to mind as an example of such a voice. I am asking about the question that started this whole conversation that led to Jesus telling his story of the Good Samaritan. “Teacher,” said the lawyer, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Is anyone today asking about eternal life? Is this an internal religious question; a question that arises out of faith claims. Inside the church walls we know the famous saying from John’s gospel (3:16) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” So conversations about “eternal life” are part of church landscape. But are others asking?
Not long ago I was at a wedding rehearsal dinner held at a local restaurant. I was seated next to one of the bridesmaids—not the easiest spot for her sitting next to the minister. (She was very gracious.) The conversation at the table somehow turned to a discussion of an episode of a television series that female members of the bridal party seemed familiar with. I don’t recall the show’s title but it was one themed around characters who were vampires. I was curious that the show seemed so compelling among these twenty-something young people. So I asked this young woman what it is about the show the she found so appealing. She said, “because (in the story) no one ever dies.” The theme of immortality that characterizes these shows was compelling to these young people. It seems that questions about eternal life are still percolating in our culture.
1. Eternal life is the landscape for love of neighbour. I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on the context for immortality in these themed shows about vampires. I can say that the context for the theme of eternal life in the gospel is the relentless love of God for people. According to Jesus, eternal life and love for God and neighbour are inextricably linked together. About love of God and neighbour Jesus said, “do this and you will live.” Jesus has life at its very best in mind—both in this present age and the one to come.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” exudes the Psalmist, “his steadfast love endures for ever!” (Psalm 118:1) Over and over the scriptures make this assertion that the love of God is eternal. The Apostle John tells us that God is love! And because God is eternal in his being so is his love. Love, life, and eternal nature are bound up together because of who God is.
God’s eternal love means that God never stops loving his people. And if God never stops loving his people it means that not even death can cut us off from such love. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Herein is the promise of eternal life. God’s love preserves the believer’s life (person). This is what Jesus meant when he said “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:26) Not that we won’t face physical death but that we are never lost to God.
In N.T Wright’s book Simply Christian he makes the case for common human experiences of what he calls “echoes of a voice.” He means, of course, echoes of the voice of God. Our sense of justice is one such voice. Very early in life every child seems to know that something is not fair. Where does that sense of fairness come from?
I would say that the same could be said of this imagining of immortality. In addition to already noted television series humans write stories of superheroes who transcend death’s boundaries—or at least transcend the boundaries of things that would kill mere mortals. It is common in the religious imagination across our world. Why? Where does such imagining come from? It is possible that this is an echo of the eternal voice; the voice of the One whose love endures forever? Humans treasure their lives; somehow we know there is more to it than that which the eye can see. Instinctively we treasure it—even in great difficulty we do not give up easily. We want life to continue. Why?
According to the gospel Jesus is more than an echo—he is the voice. Eternal life is the inheritance for the believer out of relationship with the eternal God. What does God require of people and their relationship to him? Jesus’ answer—as the law of God makes clear—is to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. Do this and you will live! So to say that eternal life is the landscape for love of neighbour is to say that love of neighbour is to engage on the stuff of eternity. It is of the highest importance.
2. And who is my neighbour? According to Jesus’ Good Samaritan answer, a neighbour includes those in need. Love for neighbour calls us to relieve the suffering of others. This is the point the lawyer who came to Jesus was stumbling over. I think he understood that this was the implication of God’s law of love for neighbour but he needed to set some limits to the category of “neighbour” or the obligation was impossible. It is straightforward to be a neighbour to the people we like or who are like us—it’s another thing just to throw it open willy-nilly to include anyone.
When you hear the word “lawyer” in our text it would be good to think “theologian.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when this encounter takes place. The lawyer stood up to test or question Jesus. He isn't really in earnest. What he wants to do is to increase his reputation as a scholar at the expense of a supposedly dull Galilean peasant. He has heard of Jesus so he is going to test Jesus’ theological understanding. He has the whole conversation mapped out in his notebook at home. He knows how he will begin, how Jesus will answer, and how he will reply. In his mind it won't be long before he has Jesus in a kind of intellectual checkmate. He begins: "Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?"
Here we see Jesus' restraint. Jesus doesn't say to him, "That's a stupid question. The nature of an inheritance is that you do nothing for it. Someone gives it to you. They die, and all you have to do is receive it." The lawyer should have known that one does not merit inheritance when it comes to God. He would have been well aware that God’s choice of Israel to be his people wasn’t because there was something meritorious about them; rather it was out of God’s love. (Deuteronomy 7:7-9) This lawyer would have known that the Ten Commandments begins with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The law begins with grace; God has lovingly rescued you from slavery; the commands that follow in essence say, “here is how to walk in company with him.”
But Jesus didn't castigate this lawyer. Jesus said, "You're a lawyer. You know the Old Testament law. What do you think it teaches?" Now the lawyer gives the answer that every Jewish person would know by heart. "You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself." It would be like asking Christians—who is your neighbor. Immediately we call to mind the story of the Good Samaritan because of how well known and basic is its teaching. Jesus said, "That's a good answer. You keep doing that, and you'll live." Jesus says—this is how you live life believing God.
If I asked you a personal question—do you love God—the answer is something that you know and God knows. You might think about it and say, “Deep down inside, I do love God.” Gratefulness fills your heart as you think of Jesus giving his life for you on the cross. When you join to sing praises to our Saviour like “In Christ Alone, my hope found, he is my light, my strength, my song” you find you heart is strangely warmed. You find that you cringe on the inside when you hear the name of Jesus used as a swear word. Deep down there is a profound love for him. Yes, loving him with all that we are is always a work in progress. But you know you love him.
But if I asked you—do you love your neighbour? That is a more difficult question. It depends. Who is my neighbour? The people sitting in church with me? The people who live ten doors either way from me on my street? How about the three hundred and thirty-some thousand people of the City of Markham? The thirty-five million or so Canadians? We might say we are not sure how to answer the question. Who is my neighbour?
And so we can understand this lawyer/theologian’s question. He didn't have any problem with the first of the commands to love. Everybody in town knew how religious he was. It's that second part that got under his skin. About that he was not quite sure. Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer said, "Who is my neighbor?" He wanted a definition of terms. The reason was he wanted to be able to show God he was measuring up—worthy of the inheritance. The only possible way is to limit the number of neighbours.
I invite you to notice how Jesus rephrases his question. He tells him of an all-too-common occurrence; a man is attacked, robbed and left for dead in a desolate place on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Three potential rescuers pass by; only one helped the man, a loathed Samaritan. Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks about being a neighbour. Love of neighbour is a posture of life towards people. It isn’t about counting who you love. It is to live as a neighbour—the neighbour who loves—towards any human whom we encounter in life. And it is particularly seen in helping those in need.
We wonder how they could walk on by. Perhaps the priest and Levite were afraid that bandits were lurking nearby waiting for another victim. On December 6, 1989 Marc Lepine walked into a classroom at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechinque where he shot and killed 14 women. Before he killed them he ordered the men out of the room—there were about 50 men who left. The author P.D. James observed that “perfect love my cast out fear, but fear is remarkably potent in casting out love.” For the believer, courage comes from knowing our lives are in our Saviour’s hands, come what may.
If it wasn’t fear perhaps the priest and Levite felt they couldn’t help—his needs were beyond them. But more likely there were schedules to keep, obligations they were committed to fulfilling. I’ll have to leave it for the next person coming down the road to help. Last year I had blocked off a week in my calendar for study leave to do some concentrated work on preparation for leading a Lenten study. I had much to do. Around that time Mark Cullen invited me to join him on a trip to El Salvador to see the work SHARE Agricultural Foundation was doing there among subsistence farmers. The dates for this trip fell in the week I had blocked for study. I am embarrassed to tell you that I was going to decline the invitation—I had things to do, schedules to keep, obligations to be met. And out of that has risen an opportunity to serve these people.
Now we individually can’t do everything or meet every need, but we should and can pay attention to the things that are put right in front of us. One of the things that marks the love of neighbour enjoined by God is to meet the needs of those who are suffering as we are able.
3. I said that a neighbour includes those in need because I don’t think the person with a need exhausts the category of those I am called to be neighbour for. Being a neighbour is without boundary. Why. Because God’s love for people knows no boundaries. Some read this parable and say the neighbour is anyone who’s need you see and whose need you're in a position to meet. I think the neighbour includes these but is not limited to it.
There is more to this story than the man having his need met. The twist in the story is that it was a Samaritan who was the one who acted as a neighbour. The Jews and Samaritans loathed each other. So much so the lawyer couldn’t utter the word “Samaritan” in answer to Jesus’ question about who was a neighbour to the beaten man. The lawyer answered with a generic answer; “the one who showed mercy.”
Clearly, love of neighbour extends beyond ethnic and racial boundaries. The desire to see fellow human beings flourish is not to be limited to those who are like me. Preaching Professor Haddon Robinson wrote, “In the Scriptures, Christian love is not objective. Christian love is subjective. Christian love does not reside in the personality being loved. It resides in the person doing the loving.” What he is getting at is this. The love of neighbour does not rest with how likeable the neighbour is to me. The question isn’t—is this person my neighbour? The question is, am I being a neighbour to this person?
Think briefly about the other scriptures we read today. Think about Paul’s discussion about our sexuality that we should flee fornication. If we truly love our neighbour than we will never treat a neighbour as a mere vehicle for our own sexual gratification.
We read today of Samuel called to serve God as prophet and judge for Israel. Samuel’s regard for people was so profound that at the end of a long career the people agreed that he never once used his position to take advantage of people. (1 Samuel 12:4) So unlike the sons of Eli the high priest. They held the priestly duties in utter contempt and used their trusted position to procure sexual favours from the women who served as the entrance to the place of worship. God rejection of Eli’s sons was the occasion for the call of Samuel. Which of these exemplifies love of neighbour?
In Psalm 139 we praise God saying, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. … In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Now, if we believe that God has this jaw-dropping regard for our lives does the same not also extend to any “neighbour” we meet? If my life is precious to God then so is the life of the neighbour I meet.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’