Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Changing the Question

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2013, which was also the day after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin--George Zimmerman case:  Luke 10:25-37 (Proper 10C)

Which one of these was a neighbor?

          When you drive into Corning from the south on what is now Interstate 86, on a hill above the roadway is a large series of letters spelling out “Christ is the answer.”

          From as early as I can remember I would look at that sign and wonder, “What is the question?”  During my brief evangelical days in college, I learned to say, “Every.”  Jesus is the answer to every question.  I suppose that is right in a way, but as I have read the Gospels more and more over time it seems to me that Jesus is not so much concerned about being the right answer to every question.  Jesus is concerned with asking the right question to begin with.  Frequently “the answer” that Jesus gives us is to change the question.

          The Parable of the Good Samaritan begins with a question.  A lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

          I good question for us to ask is, Where did that question come from?  The text says it comes from a lawyer.  In Jesus’ day that means it comes from someone who knows biblical law backwards and forwards, a little different than a lawyer in our day.  This is a scholar going toe to toe with one he calls “Teacher.”  And the text implies that his motives are less than pure.  He “stood up to test Jesus.”  He has an agenda, although we are not made privy exactly to what that agenda is.

          The question he asks is a peculiar one.  It sounds like a perfectly normal religious question to us, but it would not have been in Jesus’ day.  “Eternal life” is not a great concern of the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, as we call it.  In Luke’s Gospel up to this point it is also not a major concern.  It is a mystical question, a metaphysical question, a question about the state of life transcendent, beyond the things of this world.

          Characteristically, Jesus does not answer his question, but asks him to answer it for himself.  That is one reason why the sign below Corning is a bit simplistic and even misleading.  Jesus was rarely “the answer guy.”  The sign might better be, “Jesus is the question.”

          The lawyer gives the answer it would have been obvious to give.  He speaks the summary of the law found at Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  An interesting side note.  He adds to Deuteronomy 6:5.  That verse tells us to love God with three things:  all our heart, soul, and strength.  The lawyer adds “with all your mind.”  I think that is a significant addition. God wants us to love him with our minds.

          I suspect Jesus hoped that would end the conversation, but also wasn’t surprised when the real trap was set.  The lawyer has a follow-up question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

          This question was not a new one. It was as old as the text of Leviticus itself.  To whom do I have this obligation to love equal to myself?  It is a very important question because human nature has a tendency to choose up sides.  Much time is spent in the Book of Deuteronomy, for instance, defining who is to be excluded from, driven out of, the land.  And of these nations, it will be said in the Book of Joshua, Israel is not to mix with them.  So the answer in many people’s mind to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” was a fellow Israelite, or at least a proselyte, a non-Jew seeking to follow the Jewish tradition.

          Again, Jesus does not answer the question. He tells a story.  Again, perhaps the sign below Corning might better say, “Jesus is the story.”

          It is a story that is known well, and the hero ends up being a non-Jew, a Samaritan, generally despised by Jews.  It was brave of him just being on that road outside of Samaritan territory, and to linger on it should a lack of self-preservation.  Nevertheless, compassion ruled his actions.

          When the story is ended, Jesus his “answer” with a final question.  “And who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

          Now noticed how Jesus has changed the question?  We have gone from a question about the state of the eternal soul to one about showing mercy to those in need.  We have gone from a question about me and the state of my soul to my neighbor and the state of his body.  We have gone from the mystical to the practical.  Who have gone from a question about how we can please God to what we are called to do to those around of us.

In short, we have learned that the two parts of the commandment—loving God with all that we have and our neighbors as ourselves is, in fact, the same commandment.  Luke emphasizes this in that he does not have the lawyer give numbers to the two commandments, like is normally done. “And the second is like unto it…”  Luke wants us to know that loving our neighbors is not a second commandment like loving our God, it is the same commandment as loving our God.  It is impossible to do one without doing the other.

          Jesus has changed the question and, in one sense, ended up where Moses did.  Moses said,

This commandment is not too hard for you…No, [it] is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to do it.

          And Jesus answers the question with the same verb,

Go and do likewise.

          It seems to me that the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin story is an anti-parable for our times about this very thing.  We are so conditioned to assume that the stranger is our enemy, a threat to us, especially if that person is a young black male.  And people can say that there are plenty of reasons for that, although every single person who has ever threatened me has been a young white male.

          The bottom line is that we have created a world in which “threat” is assumed and not “neighbor.”  Jesus wants us to take the risk—and I absolutely believe he knows it is a risk and sometimes a great one—to assume the stranger is a neighbor and not a threat.  How different would it have turned out if George Zimmerman had assumed Trayvon Martin was a neighbor and not a threat.

          This is a huge part of the work of conversion that we are to be about in this world.  When we think about what it would mean to convert the world, we think about the lawyer’s first question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  But the work of conversion Jesus does with the lawyer is to help him change his perspective on who his neighbor is and what it means to be a neighbor.  Isn’t it time we got evangelical about that?

          Jesus' vision of the kingdom is a world of neighbors.  Actually it is a world of neighborliness, being a neighbor, an action not a concept.  And, like everything else, it starts with me and you doing what we are called to do, even when it is hard, and helping others to do the same, even when it means they must change the way they perceive the world to do it.

          Kurt Vonnegut was once addressed by a young man at a symposium, “Please tell me it will all be okay,” which is a kind of way of asking about eternal life.  Vonnegut replied,

Welcome to Earth, young man.  It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It’s round and wet and crowded.  At the outside, Joe, you’ve got about a hundred years here.  There’s only one rule that I know of:  Goddamn it, Joe, you’ve got to be kind.”[1]

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), p. 107.  Quoted by Douglas John Hall in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 240.

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