Welcome to the Good Book Club.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor 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.”
How much sinning can I do and still go to heaven?
That was the bumper sticker a co-worker posted on his bulletin board in his church office years ago. Its creator may have been echoing the lawyer who came to test Jesus, as told in the story in Luke (above). The lawyer was trying to trap Jesus. He begins by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, a question I suspect we all entertain at some point: “What is asked of me? What am I supposed to do?”
Jesus gets the lawyer to answer the question for himself, to cite the command to love God wholly and to love neighbor as self. Simple, but not easy. One thing, but really two. The lawyer, who wants the last word, gets a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”
I could be wrong, but as I hear that question, the lawyer is really asking: “How far do I have to carry this love of neighbor thing?” The lawyer operates out of scarcity thinking: “I have limited capacity for neighborliness.” I confess I’ve felt that way. Have you?
Jesus envisions another way, best captured in a story. That’s usually how we learn about grace. The story is known as the Good Samaritan. (If you’re joining our journey reading the Gospel of Luke this season, you’ll read the story on Friday.) I suspect that even folks deeply unfamiliar with the Christian tradition would have an idea of what a Good Samaritan is.
Did you catch the trick Jesus pulls? The lawyer asks: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story and then turns the table by asking: “Who behaved like a neighbor?” The question about identifying neighbor morphs into a question about what it means to be a neighbor. It’s not about roping off those folks that don’t qualify. It’s about widening the circle.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this passage. The most impactful came from a young and inspiring Muslim teacher, Eboo Patel, one of my heroes who came to my church to lead us in interfaith conversation, at a time when Muslims were being particularly demonized in our culture. It was holy work he did with us thick-headed Episcopalians. He chose to explore the topic by reflecting on this parable, imagining that the hero of the story was an unlikely hero for a Christian text. In his modern day version of the parable, the one who modeled neighborliness was the outsider, a Muslim.
There is lots to learn from this story. The point I hear this Monday morning is that everyone is capable of neighborliness. Everyone is called to practice neighborliness, to demonstrate mercy. Jesus is not particularly interested in some definition of who is our neighbor. If that was his interest, I’m betting that over time we would each draw the circle of neighbors smaller and smaller. Just you and me, and I’m not so sure about you.
Jesus calls us as disciples to imitate the expansive spirit he modeled. He calls us to mimic the kind of generosity that led him to live among us, to pitch a tent among us, as the Gospel of John puts it, to offer himself for us. He calls us to think less about placing limits on demonstrations of mercy, to think more about the wideness of God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.
So here’s another bumper sticker that helps us take a step in the right direction. At a recent discussion about the divisions in our society, one parishioner mentioned a bumper sticker she had seen. It read: Be kinder than necessary. She followed that up with a Japanese proverb: One kind word can warm three winter months. It’s the wisdom discovered by Aldous Huxley, who at the end of his life, was asked to describe his deepest learning. He whispered: Be a little kinder. It’s the wisdom of the Dalai Lama who said: My religion is kindness.
All of this moves way beyond simply being nice. It means accepting the spiritual challenge involved in showing mercy, which is not always easy. It means thinking less narrowly about who qualifies as neighbor. It means focusing on the opportunity to be a neighbor, to show mercy broadly.
I’m guessing that the Holy Spirit will give you that opportunity before we get much further into this February Monday. If it helps, carry this blessing with you today: Life is short, and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God be with you.
Good Book Club readings this week:
- Monday, February 26: Luke 8:26-56
- Tuesday, February 27: Luke 9:1-27
- Wednesday, February 28: Luke 9:28-62
- Thursday, March 1: Luke 10:1-20
- Friday, March 2: Luke 10:21-42
- Saturday, March 3: Luke 11:1-13
- Sunday, March 4: Luke 11:14-54
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