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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 10, 2022

Luke 10:25-37

Do any of you have neighbors who get on your nerves? It isn’t just me, right?

I have one neighbor who regularly waits two or three days before bringing in his garbage and recycling cans after they’ve been emptied. I think they should be brought in promptly. I think it is your civic duty, part of your obligation to the community. I think it is rude to leave them out there, lids open and askew, as a blight on our block. Whenever I see them out there days after our pick-up day, I catch myself grinding my teeth. I mutter under my breath, and I’m not praying.

Or there are the neighbors who set off fireworks every night for a week straight, even after the legal window for setting them off. I have to confess to you, brothers and sisters, that when that happens, I have dark and nasty thoughts about where I’d like to shove a Roman Candle.

Or there is the neighbor on my street who is a recreational marijuana enthusiast. He leaves his garage door slightly open at the bottom while he’s toking up, and it regularly stinks up our neighborhood with the odor of singed brain cells. I get mad enough when I have to walk through that cloud to pick up my mail, but when he’s lighting up at seven in the morning, as he often does, and my kid has to walk through that hideous drug stench on his way to school, it fills me with rage.

Now don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love where I live. I live in a good neighborhood with lots of wonderful neighbors too, including several neighbors I know by name and greet almost every day with a smile and a wave. We exchange Christmas cards and watch each other’s houses when we’re traveling. But there are some neighbors who really get on my nerves, some that I can’t stand.

I can’t be the only one who has neighbors I don’t like. Who are yours? They don’t have to be your literal neighbors, living on your block. They could be members of the broader community in which you live. They could be fellow citizens of our country. They could be family members. They could even be members of our congregation.

In our gospel reading for this morning we hear how a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. He said to Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, as he often does, answered his question with a question: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The man was a lawyer, after all. He knew what the law said. And so he answered by quoting directly from the law, from the book of Deuteronomy: “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.” Jesus replied, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But it wasn’t as simple as that was it? This answer, though affirmed as correct, didn’t satisfy him. It didn’t bring him any assurance. He wasn’t sure he had kept this law. And so, wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus a good attorney follow-up question, “And who is my neighbor?”

I’ve heard that one of the first things they teach you in law school is that if you can control the definitions, the meaning of words, you can win the case. That’s what this lawyer is up to with this question. “And who is my neighbor?” If this lawyer can establish the definition of “neighbor” narrowly, his chances of keeping the law increase. If he can limit the definition of “neighbor” to his fellow Jews, for instance, which is how most Jews of his time understood that word, well, he might be able to keep the law and thus inherit eternal life.

Jesus sees what he’s up to and responds with a parable. It is perhaps Jesus’ best-known parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You know it well: A man is stripped and beaten and robbed, left half-dead on the road. A priest sees this man in need and walks right on by him. Then a Levite, a worker in the temple, does the same, passing him by on the other side of the road. Then a Samaritan sees him and stops, compassionately binding up his wounds and generously providing for his needs.

This is a parable which has made its way deeply into our culture. You often see news stories praising a local hero as a “Good Samaritan.” There are many hospitals, including one in Puyallup, which are named “Good Samaritan.” There are laws commonly called “Good Samaritan” laws, which protect people from being sued after helping a neighbor in need. There’s even an RV club called “The Good Sams Club,” consisting of a bunch of motorhome owners who are committed to helping one another out on the road. The assumption behind all of this is that this parable is a simple morality tale about helping people in need.

This isn’t wrong, but it misses the broader context. Jesus tells this parable to someone who is trying to justify himself. He tells this parable to someone who is asking about who his neighbor is. And to this lawyer, this story was not the answer he was hoping for! To this lawyer, this answer is bad news! It is bad news, because it defines the neighbor in ways that condemn him. This parable holds a mirror up to his heart, showing him he hasn’t kept the law after all.

You see, to a Jewish lawyer, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. Samaritans were despised by the Jews. The Samaritans were seen as wayward Jews who had abandoned the true Jewish faith. The Samaritans were former Jews who had intermarried with people of other cultures and adopted many of their religious practices, even while retaining some aspects of Judaism. They sullied the neighborhood with their sloppy theology. They stunk up the region with their bad habits. They were seen as traitors. They were seen as unclean. In some ways they were worse than Gentiles, because they had once known and then had abandoned the true God of Israel.

And these criticisms weren’t unwarranted. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well and the conversation turned to theology, he didn’t say to her, “Oh, a Samaritan huh? Well, you do you.” Jesus didn’t affirm Samaritanism as one path among many. Jesus said, and I quote: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus spoke the truth in love to her.

So it isn’t as though there were no valid criticisms of Samaritans, but even so, in this parable, Jesus dared to portray a Samaritan in a positive light. He portrayed a Samaritan as an example of what it means to be a good neighbor. And not only that, Jesus also used a priest and a Levite, the very people this lawyer would have respected most, as illustrations of people who have failed to keep the law of neighbor love!

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer had asked. And with this parable Jesus blew up all his assumptions, all his categories, all his hopes for a definition he could handle. If his neighbors were simply his fellow Jews, the people who shared his culture, his values, his race, he had a chance at keeping it. But he himself admitted that it was the Samaritan, the neighbor he despised most, who had shown mercy. He admitted it was the Samaritan who was the good neighbor, who had crossed boundaries to help someone in need, and now he was expected to “go and do likewise.”

Who are your neighbors? I’ll tell you: they aren’t just the ones who look like you, or worship like you, or vote like you. They aren’t just the ones who share your values and customs. Our nation is being pulled apart by an increasing inability to see each other as neighbors, whether we are red or blue, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Some of your neighbors fly Pride flags. Others wear MAGA hats. You don’t get to decide which ones are your neighbors and which ones aren’t.

We might have perfectly valid beefs with any number of our neighbors. Being a loving neighbor doesn’t mean we never criticize behavior or hold people accountable. It doesn’t mean we don’t work for the laws we want to see passed or advocate for the cultural norms we think will benefit society. It doesn’t mean we don’t call the cops on the idiots blowing things up at 3am on July 7th.

But it does mean we sometimes need to cross boundaries or set aside our disagreements in order to bring compassion and generosity to those whom God puts in our path, no matter who they are. This parable teaches us we don’t get to only love and serve the ones we like.

But this parable is more than an example for us to follow. It also holds a mirror up to our hearts. If we look at it closely, it convicts us, just as it convicted the lawyer. It shows us that we all have neighbors we despise. We all have neighbors we have hardened our hearts towards. Can you honestly say you have loved all the neighbors in your life for every second of every day? Are you so confident in this that you’d be willing to stake your eternal life on it? Because that was the original question, and that is what the law demands.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asked. We won’t inherit it by narrowing down our definition of the word “neighbor” in ways that supposedly make it easier to keep. We won’t inherit it by the law at all, for none of us can keep the law perfectly. Jesus is ultimately lifting our eyes from the letter of the law to himself as the Word of God incarnate. He is directing us away from faith in ourselves and our ability to keep the law and towards faith in him as our Savior, our Redeemer. He is moving us away from the condemnation of the law and towards the new life he brings for sinners.

This parable is indeed a call to love our neighbors, but it is also, ultimately, a call to faith in Christ. Because of our failure to love our neighbors, we are all dead in our sin. But our Lord Jesus has come along, not unlike the Good Samaritan, and has had pity on us. He has had mercy on us. He has rescued us. He has poured his healing, forgiving love into our wounds. At great personal cost, he has redeemed and restored us and brought us to safety in the house of the Lord.

It is only when we receive eternal life from him as a gift, a gift of grace received in faith, that true neighbor love becomes possible. As we receive our inheritance by trusting in his death and resurrection alone for our salvation, our hearts are filled with his love, and we can finally begin to truly “go and do likewise.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church