A Very Bad Question
What must I do to live?
That is the first question the lawyer poses to Jesus in today’s gospel. It’s a good question. What is the essence of life? What must I do, what does it mean to live fully, to live abundantly, to live eternally, to live the life we were created to live?
The lawyer is trying to test him, but Jesus asks the lawyer a question in response: “What is written in the law? And the man replies:
“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 neighbour as yourself.”
This is the right answer, Jesus says so himself. But when you hear this answer, how do you hear it? Does it sound theoretical or practical? Do you hear this teaching as an obligation or a joy? Does it feel like a burden, or does it feel life-giving? Or do your eyes just glaze over because you’ve heard it so many times before?
We’re meant to hear this, these two great commandments, as practical, joyful and life-giving. Do this and you will live!
But I don’t think the lawyer hears it this way. He wants to justify himself, he wants to know if he is doing enough to comply with the obligation.
And so he asks Jesus a question which is both a really important question and a really bad question.
Did you know that a question can be really bad and yet really important?
“Who is my neighbour?” This is a limiting question. The lawyer is trying to put limits around the obligation to love his neighbour. Surely we’re not talking about everyone, are we? Who qualifies as my neighbour? How far do I have to go? Is it just Old Ottawa South, or do we have to include those people who live on the other side of the river in Alta Vista?
It’s a bad question because by asking it the lawyer is turning the life-giving teaching of the great commandment into an obligation that needs limits put upon it.
But it’s an important question as well. Why? Because undoing the limitations of the lawyer’s question has been the most difficult, the most challenging and the most important work of the last 2000 years, and there is still work to be done.
Are foreigners my neighbours? Yes.
Are Catholics my neighbours? Yes
Are muslims my neighbours? Yes.
Are indigenous people my neighbours? Yes.
Are poor people my neighbours? Yes.
Are brown, black and people of colour my neighbours? Yes.
Are queer people my neighbours? Yes.
God created humankind in God’s own image. All of us. All human beings are God’s children. No one is excluded. We are all neighbours. We are to love one another, we are to love our neighbour as ourself not because it’s an obligation but because it’s who we are. This is what we were made for. This is what it means to be made in God’s image. This is how we are to live because for us this is life-giving.
‘Who is my neighbour’ is a bad question.
Which is why Jesus changes the question. Did you notice? It’s subtle, but it’s there. He changes the question from the limiting question of “who is my neighbour?” to the more practical question of “what does a good neighbour do?”
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
“The one who showed him mercy.” That is, the Samaritan.
“Go and do likewise.”
Sometimes I imagine the Samaritan many years later as an old man, on his deathbed, taking stock of his life. When he reflects back on this day, the day when he bandaged the wounds of the man who had been beaten, the day that he put him on his animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him, the day he gave the innkeeper a large sum of money to pay for the injured man’s care, when the Samaritan at the end of his life thinks back on this day, do you imagine he’ll think of it as a good day or as a bad day?
He'll probably remember it as a hard day, as an exhausting day, maybe even as a day he feared for his life. He may have painful memories of the wounds of the man he helped and he may even now feel sad about the losses that the injured man sustained. But I have a feeling that he would also think back on this day as a really good day. A day when he felt fully alive. A day when he lived the life that he’d been created to live.
Which one was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
The one who showed him mercy.
Go and do likewise. Do this and you will live. This is what you must do to really live.
I admire the Samaritan in this story.
But I also have compassion for the priest and the Levite. Because I don’t think of them as bad people. I just think that as they were walking alone on that dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road that was known as a place where thieves would ambush vulnerable travellers, I think that when first the priest and then the Levite saw the man lying half dead on the side of the road, they were terrified.
Completely overwhelmed by fear. And when fear overwhelms us, we stop thinking, and our reptile brain takes over and we run, passing by on the other side. It’s not just the priest and the Levite, it happens to all of us doesn’t it?
The difference with the Samaritan is that when he sees the wounded man, rather than being overwhelmed and paralyzed by fear, he is moved with compassion. The Greek word used here is even more evocative, esplagchnisthE, which means that his whole body was moved, that he felt compassion way down in his gut.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. thinks of the difference between the men in another way in his famous sermon on this passage. He imagines that when they saw the injured man, the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
How do we become the sort of people who ask the second question and not the first. How do we become the sort of people that when confronted with the need of our neighbour, we respond with compassion rather than fear? How do we become the people that God created us to be?
You know, I think that the lawyer who questioned Jesus was ready to get into a theological and philosophical debate with Jesus about all of this. He was ready to discuss the finer points of the law, to test how far his obligation extended, to dispute Jesus’ interpretation. He was ready to justify himself, he was ready to be a critic.
But Jesus wasn’t interested in a philosophical debate.
Instead, Jesus tells a story about how to be a good neighbour, about what it looks like to be a neighbour, demolishing the ‘who is my neighbour’ question in the process.
And then he concludes with very practical and very concrete advice:
“Go and do likewise.”
“Do this and you will live.”
Homily. Yr C P15, July 10 2022, Trinity
Readings: Amos 7.7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37
Image by Ofir Eliav