The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 10 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 10 July 2022 |Colossians 1:1-14 | Luke 10:25-37

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

That prayer is our collect for today—every Sunday of the year has one, and we pray it near the beginning of the service. Collects are a special kind of prayer that gathers together, or collects, the community’s prayer for a certain situation.

And today’s collect brings up questions for our faith and our growth. How do we know what’s good to do? And then, even if we know what to do, how do we find the grace and strength to do it, and keep doing it?

These are really great questions to ask, especially now in our green and growing season of the church year, and especially right after all the time we’ve just spent with St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In that letter, Paul pushes back against legalism. He defends God’s grace as a free gift, and he rejects the idea that this new Christian faith should be based on policing each other’s behaviors and following a certain set of rules that will tell us whether we’re good or not.

But if it’s not about figuring out what the rules are and following them, then what is it about? Even as they rejected a rules-based approach, the early church felt called to act on their love of God and their neighbors in the world, they felt called to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “bear fruit in every good work” as our reading from Colossians puts it. They felt called to do good.

That can be complicated in real life. How do we discern what is good to do, and how do we find grace to do it?

I think questions like these are behind the lawyer’s conversation with Jesus in our Gospel today. First the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And instead of answering the question with a ruling on what exactly this guy is supposed to do, Jesus asks another question back: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

Jesus is asking for some hard work with this question, and our lawyer friend delivers. There are hundreds of things commanded in the law. Later Jewish tradition says there are 613 commandments in the Torah. And so, Jesus is challenging this lawyer to find the heart of it: what is it in the Law that really leads to life?

And the lawyer does that: “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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Okay! Right answer. This is the core of the law.

There are a lot of commandments, but this is what they’re all for. Love God and love your neighbor. This is what leads toward life. And Jesus says so. Our lawyer friend is on the right track so far, and we’re there with him: Love God with everything you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the good stuff.

But then comes the follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?” And this is where our lawyer runs into trouble. Maybe the problem with this question is that “Who is my neighbor?” actually means “Who is not my neighbor? Who do I not have to love? Where exactly is the boundary beyond which I do not have to care about people anymore?”

There’s a lot going on here. But maybe we can find some sympathy for the question, too. Honestly, “Love God and love your neighbor” leaves a lot left to figure out. What does it really look like? Where are the edges of it? How do we find out what loving our neighbor really means, and find the grace and strength to do it?

I think we can forgive the lawyer for wanting some more detail. I know I wanted more detail when I moved from a church wanted to control my life to a church where I’d ask what the rules were and get “Eh? Love God and love your neighbor. You go figure out how that applies here.”

There is a real need behind the lawyer’s question. He’s found the core of the law (good job!), but now he needs to learn how to discern what is good, and he needs to find the strength and grace to do it.

What he asks Jesus for is more detailed law, a definition of terms: Who counts as a neighbor? But what he actually needs is to become the kind of person who knows his neighbors and has what it takes to love them. Our lawyer asks for a rule, but what he actually needs is growth.

And Jesus meets the real need underneath the question. Instead of answering the question, Jesus tells a story that creates space for growth. This story is like an incubator set to the exact right temperature to hatch this lawyer’s God-given goodness out of its little egg. Or, maybe this story is like a training scenario tailor-made to unlock his next level of skill by giving him challenging decisions to play out.

And the first way the story creates growth is through the characters. The lawyer knows that this is a parable, a genre of story where the characters are symbolic. And so of course, he’s going to want to know where he fits in the story. Which character out there represents him, the very smart lawyer trying to learn who to love?

All of the options Jesus gives him are uncomfortable, and they are all designed to create growth. Our lawyer has to choose between three different kinds of discomfort as he tries to figure out where he fits in this story. His main options are the priest and the Levite (we’ll take those together), the Samaritan who helps, or the man who is attacked by robbers. We’re leaving out the innkeeper and the robbers for now and just focusing on that moment of action on the road.

So the first option: He could identify with the priest or the Levite, and that makes some sense because he’s an educated, religious person like them. It’s an easy connection to make.

But the problem is that they don’t help the injured person, and so if he decides he’s Team Priest and Levite, he then has to deal with the dissonance of maybe not being a good person. And that’s a painful way to imagine himself. But it’s an amazing catalyst for growth, when we can admit that we are not as good as we thought we were. So that’s one option for uncomfortable growth.

The next one is identifying with the Samaritan. And the Samaritan is a good person, so this way our lawyer can escape the discomfort of seeing identifying with the folks who don’t help. But this is hard in a whole new way, because the Samaritan is culturally this lawyer’s enemy. If he puts himself in the Samaritan’s place, he has to imagine himself as someone he’s physically disgusted by, someone he probably doesn’t have personal dealings with, someone he thinks is twisting his faith and disrespecting what he considers holy. That’s got to be a surreal experience for him, and it might disrupt a lot of assumptions.

And it’s a whole different kind of growth. This is human empathy across a major barrier. It’s a stretch. It’s option number 2 for uncomfortable growth.

And option 3 might be the hardest for this lawyer, to identify with the guy who gets beaten up and robbed in the first place. And this might not be the hardest one for all of us—but this is growth that is tuned to this person’s particular challenges.

And this lawyer is somebody who expects to be strong and in charge. He came to this discussion seeing himself as the one who has love to offer and just needs to figure out who down there counts as a neighbor so that he can decide what actions to take. In his mind, he’s the one whose decisions matter; he’s the protagonist of the story.  

So, if he identifies with the victim in the story, he has to deal with the dissonance of receiving love on someone else’s terms rather than controlling it. The way Jesus tells the story, the lawyer has to deal with the possibility that it will be up to somebody else to decide whether to love him, not just up to him to decide who he will love.

If he identifies with the battered victim, and then he’s not the one in charge of legislating who counts as a neighbor anymore, and he’d better hope that the Samaritan’s circle of neighbors is big enough to reach him. For somebody like our lawyer, that shift in perspective is a burst of new growth.

So, following each character leads to a different kind of growth. So just by hearing this story and doing the mental and emotional and imaginative gymnastics of finding his place in it, the lawyer is already starting to grow. He’s a smart guy, and I think the wheels are turning; he’s running through all the possibilities and trying them out, and he’s growing.

And maybe we’re starting to grow too, when we can put ourselves into a story like this, imagine it different ways, put up with discomfort, stretch our imaginations and our empathy.

This story is a chance to grow in our ability to love people. It teaches three of the hardest skills we need most to love others: the humility to admit we’re wrong (if we go with the priest and the Levite), the empathy and imagination to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes even when they differ from us (if we go with the Samaritan), and the self-awareness to understand our own needs in relation to other people (if we go with the one who’s injured).

So this story teaches some of the most important things that we need to learn to love our neighbors: humility, empathy, and self-awareness.

The lawyer asked for a ruling on who he was supposed to love, and what he got was a story that actively trained him (and us) in how to be more capable of love.

And even as all that uncomfortable growth was happening, Jesus turned the tables on the lawyer’s actual question too. We might not notice it’s even happened until we get this twist at the end. Jesus asks the question back, “Which person was a neighbor to the man who got beat up?” And again, our lawyer friend has the right answer. He’s good at having the right answers. The neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.”

And what that means is that the question “who is my neighbor?” had it backwards all along. The Samaritan’s act of love is what created a neighbor relationship between him and the traveler who got hurt. He “comes near” to that person in love and becomes his neighbor. So, it turns out that we don’t first figure out who our neighbors are and then go love them—what happens is that we love people, and that love is what makes us neighbors with them.

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Show mercy. Love people and become neighbors with them. This isn’t a rule, it’s grace. We don’t know who our neighbors are until we love them. Which means that everyone is a potential neighbor. It’s beautiful. It’s freeing. It’s open. It’s grace.

And I have to say a little more, because sometimes we turn what’s meant as grace into a giant burden we have to carry. And so if we’re in our grind culture, always-work-harder mindset, we might think that the lawyer’s main problem in this story was that he tried to do less work by limiting who counts as his neighbor.

We might think that the moral of the story is, “Whatever we’re doing, we always need to do more, because our neighbors are everyone and we have to go out there and love them all and help them all or we’re not doing enough.” Our takeaway might be, “We always have to work even harder.” Y’all, I do not think that is the point of this story.

I think there’s a deeper growth to be found here. Let’s remember the parable’s invitation to imagine ourselves in need of help, as well as helping. Loving our neighbor doesn’t mean going out into the world and working really hard to fix everybody’s problems; it can be about receiving love; it can mean being cared for and healed and receiving love from the neighbors we meet. And of course it means doing what we can for folks when we see a need we’re able to meet.

But it doesn’t mean losing ourselves in other people’s needs. We love our neighbors as ourselves, which means that we have to love ourselves as a foundation; we have to be gentle with our own needs, we have to move in our own integrity, we have to value our own flourishing too, so that we can share that same compassion with other people because we know how good that compassion is.

And when we feel like we’re always inadequate, like we are never doing enough, that doesn’t really help us love our neighbors any better.

Maybe that fear of not working hard enough, that fear of inadequacy, is what’s behind the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” and his urge to justify himself. Maybe he’s really asking, “Am I enough?” this whole time.

And Jesus meets that question under with compassion. Jesus knows the lawyer is asking the wrong questions out loud, but he doesn’t berate him for that or tell him why he’s wrong. Instead, Jesus picks up on the lawyer’s real strengths—his knowledge, his insight, his ability to get to the heart of the matter. Jesus uses those strengths that are already there to guide the lawyer toward better questions, better answers, stronger skills, new perspectives: toward the growth that.

So I wonder how we can shift the question from “Are we enough?” to “How can we grow?”

Maybe if we do that, then little by little, we can stop trying to justify ourselves, and start living in this moment, where we are loved and loving and flawed and growing and failing and bearing fruit all at the same time.

We can tell and hear stories that help us to grow, even when those stories make us uncomfortable. We can practice the humility to admit when we’re wrong, we can strengthen our empathy, and we can become aware of our own needs. We can learn to show mercy to others (and even to ourselves) without keeping score.

Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” The goal here is life. It’s resurrection, renewal, flourishing. Jesus wants us all to enjoy these good gifts, and Jesus is our gentle teacher who will use whatever good that is already in us to help us grow toward them.

The life Jesus offers is for us, it’s for the neighbors we already know, and it’s for all the strangers who will be our neighbors once we try loving them and they try loving us. We learn this life together. We pray for the wisdom to know how to love our neighbors well and the strength to do it. And we can trust that the wisdom and strength and grace we’re longing for are already growing among us.

Amen.

The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh (accessed through Wikimedia Commons)
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