Sunday, July 15, 2007

Go and Do Likewise: A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

“Go and Do Likewise”
Luke 10:25-37
July 15, 2007

And now, at the risk of sounding like I’m putting in a shameless plug… many of you are aware that my children and I are participating in this year’s summer production of The Mikado. I’ve participated with the Savoyards for three of the last four years, and I will admit something no self-respecting Savoyard should admit: I have always found these plays to be, well, just a little silly. Beautiful music, sometimes hilarious gags. But, let’s face it: as our local arts and entertainment reporter has pointed out, they all have pretty much the same plot. In her preview article this week, the reporter wrote,

…somebody, disguised as someone else, shows up only to find that a person who is condemned to death is being forced to marry; that is, until someone's "long lost" somebody, which is a closely guarded secret by someone else, turns up. Then the villains are reformed and everybody, including the pack of lovesick maidens and the old battle-axe, gets married.

Yes, that is, essentially, the plot of The Mikado. However, if you hang around with Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts long enough, you learn a few things about their plays. Case in point: last week I said to one such aficionado, “This show is just so silly.” He promptly challenged me to defend that remark. Over the course of the next ten minutes, he proceeded to explain that, in fact, the scripts of W. S. Gilbert were beloved in their day because they were filled with social commentary that was both pointed and hilarious. The Mikado, he explained, is essentially a send-up of the Victorian era British legal system, dressed up in a kimono.

Once he pointed all this out to me, I began to hear the words of the script and songs in a completely different light. Take this scene, in which the Mikado, the emperor of Japan, is telling three people who are being condemned to death why the law that condemns them is flawed. First, the three defend themselves.

KoKo: If your Majesty will accept our assurance, we had no idea—

Mikado: Of course—

Pitti-Sing: I knew nothing about it—

Pooh-Bah: I wasn’t there.

Mikado: That’s the pathetic part of it. Unfortunately the fool of an Act says “compassing the death of the Heir Apparent”. There’s not a word about a mistake— Or not knowing—Or having no notion—Or not being there—There should be, of course—But there isn’t. That’s the slovenly way in which these acts are always drawn. However, cheer up, it’ll be alright. I’ll have it altered next session. Now, let’s see about your execution—will after luncheon suit you? Can you wait till then?

The Japanese legal system, at least in this fantasy Gilbert and Sullivan world, is seriously in need of reform and reinterpretation. So it is with the legal system in which Jesus finds himself. Our gospel lesson this morning shows us Jesus in a conversation with a lawyer—a scholar of Jewish law and religion. But, really, it’s not so much a conversation as it is an attack. Jesus is being challenged. His orthodoxy is being tested. And, in the lawyer’s defense, this is somewhat understandable… Jesus has just, in the verses before ours begins, made a fairly provocative statement. He has prayed, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Luke 10:21). The lawyer correctly assumes he is among the wise and intelligent from whom God is hiding the truth, according to that prayer. The lawyer then, quite understandably, wants to know, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus responds as he often does to such challenges: he answers a question with a question. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (Luke 10:26). Surely a lawyer will know what the law commands him to do in order to inherit eternal life. The lawyer is forced to answer his own question, and he does so flawlessly, as far as it goes. “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” (Luke 10:27). The lawyer is quoting scripture, passages from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Jesus commends the lawyer, much as one would congratulate a child who has performed well on a pop quiz, but with this breathtaking post script, “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Note: Jesus does not say, “Know this, and you will live.” He says, “Do this, and you will live.” One commentator I read this week puts it this way. “Those who live rightly ordered lives now—living out of their love for God, others and self—show that they have been touched by the kingdom of God.”

The lawyer is now annoyed. He had hoped to trap Jesus into making further lofty claims about himself, and instead has been made to answer his own question. On top of that, he has been challenged to put his book learning into action, to show by his life what he knows with his intellect. In response he lays another trap for Jesus, and Luke tells us his motive clearly: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” This is even more lethal a trap than the first question. The question of “Who is my neighbor” was a source of controversy throughout the history of the people of Israel. At times they had lived and intermarried with those across geographic boundaries and practicing other religions—see the book of Ruth, for example. And at other times they had drawn sharp boundaries and distinctions, even going so far as to forcibly break up families in so-called mixed marriages—see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The question, “Who is my neighbor?” here is a way of asking, “Who must I love?”

Jesus then responds, again, in a characteristic way. He tells a story, the story we know so very, very well as “the Good Samaritan.” You know the story so well I won’t retell it here. I will simply point a few things. Jesus, rather than falling into the trap that is being laid for him, turns it once again back on his questioner. A man is beaten, stripped, robbed and left for dead. He is nameless, faceless, identity-less. He could be any one of Jesus’ listeners. He could be any one of us. Those who pass by are living, breathing examples of the highest levels of orthodoxy, a priest who serves in the temple and a Levite, a slightly less lofty member of the upper echelons of religious society. The priest can’t or won’t risk becoming ritually unclean by exposing himself to blood. The Levite similarly decides against becoming involved. Then, against all expectations, a Samaritan comes by.

It’s not hard to explain the hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews. A Samaritan is a deeply despised enemy of the children of Israel. This is probably because they are closely related ethnically, Samaritans being a result of intermarriage between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. Family fights are always the most bitter, the most vicious. A Samaritan comes along—you might as well say, “A Democrat comes along,” at a meeting of the National Rifle Association. You might as well say, “A Republican comes along,” at a meeting of the National Organization of Women. Someone despised, someone not trusted comes along. And that someone does the right thing. He takes care of the wounded traveler. He provides for his care over the next few days. Then he goes on his way.

The lawyer in this passage is trying to trip Jesus up; this is because he firmly believes that Jesus isn’t entirely orthodox, that he’s a little outside the traditional faith. And this is an argument that is very current. If you open our local newspaper on almost any day of the week you will see that these kinds of arguments are making headlines here in the southern tier. Two local congregations are withdrawing from their denomination over arguments about how to read scripture, how to interpret God’s law. They complain that the national church has departed from the traditional faith, that the denomination isn’t really Christian any longer. Family fights are always the most bitter. The parable of the Samaritan would suggest a challenge to this kind of thinking, a challenge straight from the words and the heart of Jesus. The Samaritan is an outsider, religiously and ethnically. He is the last person Jesus’ audience (especially the lawyer) would expect to be shown as a role model. He is just a person, outside the bounds of either Jewish or Christian orthodoxy, who is nevertheless living a life that has clearly been touched by the kingdom of God… love of God, love of neighbor, put into action. This outsider is the person about whom Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Sometimes it feels to me that I don’t recognize the idea of Jesus that seems to dominate the popular understanding of “Christianity.” There seems to be an idea abroad that Jesus is more concerned about what his followers think about him than anything else. This to me is an entirely unscriptural notion. Again and again Jesus points away from himself when people ask questions about salvation. Again and again, Jesus points us to love of God and love of neighbors. Again and again, Jesus urges us not to let the exercise of our faith interfere with acts of love. Again and again, Jesus tells us to take real, tangible action, not merely to engage in intellectual exercises.

When someone is laying a trap in complexities and legalities, Jesus tells a story that makes following him both incredibly simple and incredibly challenging. Love God and neighbor, Jesus tells us. It sounds so simple. But what it means is the challenge of a lifetime. It means that we cross over to the other side where the bleeding and helpless lie. It means that we pick them up and care for them. It means that we make their pain our business. It means that we get involved. It means that we don’t let our religion get in the way of our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. Go and do likewise, Jesus tells us, live in such a way that no one can doubt, in heaven or on earth, that we have been touched by the kingdom of God. Amen.

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