"Who Is My Neighbor?"-- A Sermon for Sanctity of Life Sunday
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The text is Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan:
25 On one occasion an expert in the Law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered: ”‘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.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the Law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” On the surface it looks like a good question. It seems this man is serious about his faith. He is concerned about the hereafter and the upholding of God’s Word. He even seems to be pulling it off… or at least he thinks he is. But our text tells us that his motives are not so pure. His purpose is to test Jesus.
Looking closer, we see that his question is strangely put, for it can hardly be said that heirs do anything to get the inheritance. They just need to be named in someone’s will. Someone else has the real commitment—he or she must die with a valid will in place! The expert in the law would have expressed his meaning more truthfully if he had said, “What must I do to earn eternal life?”
Have you ever noticed how Jesus has this disconcerting habit of answering a question with a question, especially with those who are trying to trip Him up? He does it here, referring this expert of the Law back to the Word of God he thought he knew so well—the very Law that he interpreted and taught professionally. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Jesus asks.
The man demonstrates his knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 verbatim: “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.”
“You are perfectly right,” Jesus says, “all you have to do is to live up to your answer and you will surely live!” It is one thing to know the Word of God and the requirements of the Law, but it’s an entirely different matter to do them. If it were possible for one to keep the Law perfectly, then one could earn eternal life. The Law itself promises blessing and life to those who keep it. But there is the rub. By the works of the Law no man is justified before God, because there is no one that does good and does not sin.
Jesus has just made this Law expert look foolish, so the man feels the need to “justify himself.” He’s convinced himself he’s always kept the commandments, and he resents Jesus’ implication that it may be otherwise. So the lawyer asks a further question, seeking a legal definition of the term neighbor. If the word is narrowly defined enough, perhaps he would gain a little wiggle room. Maybe he would still be able to technically fulfill this command.
Generally among the Jews, a “neighbor” was defined as a fellow countryman, a close friend, someone who is worthy of our love. The story that Jesus tells sets such an understanding on its head. Three men came upon the bloodied body of one who had been robbed and abandoned for dead. A priest and a Levite both saw the man but did not stop to help. In fact both of them purposely went to the other side of the road. Surprisingly, it was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner, who cared for the stricken man, and he did so in a manner which far surpassed ordinary obligation. This Samaritan showed himself as the one who fulfilled the command to love one another, in this case even an enemy.
To the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers: A neighbor is anyone who is in need of our mercy. But Jesus goes a step further with the question he now puts to the lawyer: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor…?” For Jesus, the real question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “How does one prove to be a neighbor to others?” Being a neighbor is more important than legally defining the term neighbor. Jesus makes this Samaritan a model for true neighborliness. He sees beyond the divisions of this world to the will of God, which bids us to love our neighbor regardless of whom that neighbor might be.
It would be an easy mistake to moralize this story, so that it becomes an exhortation only to help our needy neighbors. I’m sure you’ve heard it taught that way before—in Sunday School, maybe even a sermon or two. That moralistic approach would seem to work quite well for our purposes today. After all, loving our neighbor is what Sanctity of Life Sunday is all about. The explanation of the Fifth Commandment seems to reaffirm that idea: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” We should be merciful, kind and forgiving toward our neighbor. As the teacher of the Law answered, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” A neighbor is anyone in need of mercy. A neighbor is anyone who shows mercy.
Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is the pregnant teen and her unborn child. My neighbor is the comatose woman kept alive by artificial life support, and her family who are facing difficult end-of-life decisions. My neighbor is the woman or man feeling the guilt of a past abortion decision. My neighbor is the single mother trying to provide for her family. My neighbor is the embryo in cold storage, facing death by deterioration or genetic experimentation.
How do I show myself to be a good neighbor? I volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy center. I join with a group from church to sing Christmas carols for shut-ins and nursing home residents. I sew quilts and donate them to the shelter for victims of domestic abuse. I support those who are enrolled in the foster care system. I visit and pray with members of our congregation suffering from failing health or loneliness. I support pro-life candidates and ballot initiatives.
In general, you and I are pretty good at helping those kinds of neighbors. But we must not limit our definition of neighbor to these people or we’re no better off than the teacher of the law in our text. We’re simply trying to justify ourselves or attempting to gain God’s favor with good works. Oh sure, we’re showing mercy to people in desperate circumstances, but we’re picking and choosing our neighbors, showing mercy to some, but not loving all.
Who is my neighbor? Certainly all of those already mentioned. But my neighbor is also the director of Planned Parenthood who raises my blood pressure every time I hear her speak on television. My neighbor is the doctor who sneaks into town twice a month to perform abortions. My neighbor is the radical feminist who accuses me of trying to take away one her most important “rights.” My neighbor is the pragmatic politician who is “personally opposed to abortion” but “supports the woman’s right to choose.” My neighbor is out-of-state group that hides its true agenda in misleading ballot initiatives. My neighbor is the research group grabbing for money by promising cures using embryonic stem cells.
These are my despised Samaritans. These are the people I find it impossible to love. If getting to heaven depended on me showing love and mercy to them, I would never get there! On my own, I can’t love them. I certainly do not want to show them mercy. I have no desire to even pray for them. But Jesus can and does love them! Jesus can and does show them mercy! Jesus can and does pray for them! Just like He does for every other poor, miserable sinner!
We must be careful to not teach this story simply as a moral lesson or we will fall into the trap of thinking like the expert in the Law. Such an interpretation would turn this parable of Gospel into Law. And it would convict each and every one of us. No one can be saved by the Law. A proper interpretation of this parable must be Christ-centered. It must be Gospel-based or else we are all lost!
Somewhere in the midst of this dialogue, Jesus has shifted the dynamics of the question in the way He told the story. If He had wanted to teach a Jew to include Samaritans (and others) in His definition of “neighbor,” Jesus would have made the injured man a Samaritan. But the injured man is only referred to “a man.” He could be anyone. Furthermore, Jesus also posed the concluding question in reverse: not “Which of these three considered this injured man his neighbor?” but “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor…?”
The Gospel reveals that such doing flows only from having received God’s mercy. Legalists who cross-examine Jesus make no progress until they recognize that they are the man half dead and Jesus is the one who shows mercy as neighbor. Who is my Neighbor? Jesus is! Jesus is the True Neighbor. He is the Good Samaritan. Only Jesus perfectly fulfilled the commandments to love. Only Jesus was able to love the Lord with all His heart and with all of His soul and with all of His mind. Only Jesus was able to love all neighbors as Himself.
The law expert says, “I will act to love my neighbor as myself; tell me who he is.” We say the same thing. Well, maybe not out loud, but our actions or lack of actions speak much louder than words. But Jesus answers, “You cannot love, you cannot show mercy, for you are dead. You need someone to love you, to show mercy to you, to heal you, to pay for you, to give you lodging, to revive you, to go beyond any reasonable expectations for your care. And just for you, but the love and mercy needed by a whole world of sinners. I am the one you despise because I associate with sinners; but in fact I am the one who fulfills the Law, who embodies the Word, and who brings God’s mercy. I am your neighbor and will give you the gifts of mercy, healing, and life. As I live in you, you will have life and will do mercy—not motivated by laws and definitions, but animated by My love.”
In To All Eternity (The Essential Teaching of Christianity), we read, “When Jesus’ disciples first heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, they did not comprehend its full meaning. Today, we can see Jesus’ parable about compassion in light of His own sacrifices. Finding us stripped of our righteousness, Jesus took pity on us. He bandaged our wounds, provided for our healing, opened the treasures of heaven, and paid for our care. Jesus became poor so that we might become rich in God’s righteousness, life, and peace. Because of His ultimate sacrifice, we have the power to help others to care for all they are and possess.”
Who is your Neighbor? Jesus is! And having adopted you in the water and Word of Holy Baptism, He gives you the power to begin loving your neighbor and to show him mercy—the unborn baby, the pregnant teen, the elderly man who is slowly dying, the family facing difficult end-of-life decisions, the woman or man weighed down by guilt from a past abortion decision, the caregiver who is worn down physically and emotionally from caring for their loved one—even the one who is your enemy in sanctity of life issues!
Having been given new life in Christ, you support the sanctity of all human life from womb to tomb. Having received forgiveness for Christ’s sake, you forgive others. Having been loved by God’s perfect love, you love others. Having received mercy, you show mercy. Having been blessed by God the Father in Jesus Christ, you bless those who curse you, and pray for those who can’t or won’t pray for themselves. Having been reconciled to God through Jesus, you have been given the message of reconciliation, and you seek to share it with others, often finding the opportunity to do so in the midst of the most trying or inconvenient circumstances.
And when you fail to love you neighbor? For although you must love, you won’t always, not perfectly. Well, remember this: God’s grace covers all of your sins—even those times you fail to love your neighbor and show him or her mercy. Then, repent! Confess those sins. Daily put to death that pharisaic Old Adam through contrition and repentance; so that empowered by the Holy Spirit your new Christ-like man may rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Go out and love your neighbor, believing that the Holy Spirit will give to the strength to do so, and trusting that all of your less-than-stellar attempts to love are covered by the grace of your Good Neighbor, Jesus Christ. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen