“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 10:25
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Lawyer asks Jesus in our Gospel today. It is THE question – what must we do to have life that is rich and full, meaningful and wonderful, now and forever? In one way or another, it is why we are here, why we retreat to this holy sanctuary on a Saturday evening or on a Sunday morning. It is why Liz and Eric carry their infant daughter Olivia to the baptismal font today and why Olivia’s grandfather, Pastor Scott Cady came to our noon Ash Wednesday Worship last March, the day after Olivia was born, to give thanks to God for her birth and to pray that she might inherit eternal life. Of all the things and experiences, we give our children, eternal life is what we want for them. It’s what the lawyer wants. It’s what all lawyers want, whether she’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg or he’s Rudy Giuliani. Eternal life, it’s what we all want.
Like the good teacher he is, Jesus answers the Lawyer’s question with a question, “What is written in the law?” This man knows the law. He quotes Deuteronomy 6: 5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, strength and mind” and then follows up with Leviticus 19: 18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “You got it,” Jesus replies, “Do it and you will live.” So simple, “Love God. Love neighbor. Live.” But he’s a lawyer which means he’s trained to attend to the fine print – all those little details in a contract that can trip you up. And one of those details is how does one define neighbor, are they the people next door, the ones on your street, in your town, county, state, nation, world? It gets complicated. If you’ve ever been part of a homeowner’s association, attended a session of borough council or participated in a contentious family meeting, loving your neighbor can seem almost impossible. Just how many neighbors was this lawyer going to have to love? He wants some fine print that tells him who is his neighbor and who is not. Then he’ll know where his responsibilities for being a neighbor begin and end. Perhaps it’s at the borders between nations, political parties, classes, race, sexuality, religions… He wants to know and I suspect deep down so do you and I.
Jesus responds by telling a story. It was a favorite at Vacation Bible School last month. All the kids participated. We had a gang of robbers, a priest/pastor, a Levite/teacher, a traveler, a Samaritan who was explained to be a foreigner who was viewed as an enemy along with his donkey and an Innkeeper who ran a fancy resort with a water-slide a few miles southwest of Jericho, because more parts were needed. Then they acted out the story. A certain traveler was going from Jerusalem to Jericho along a windy, dangerous road when he was attacked by band of robbers, a number of which needed to be told to curb their enthusiasm, and left him half dead laying aside of the road. A pastor walked by, noticed the man, but was too busy saying her prayers to stop. Then a teacher, but he thinking about his lesson plan so he too ignored the man. Then a Samaritan with a donkey who was played by one of the teenage guides – came by, saw the man, gave him first aid, and then put him on the donkey, and took him to the resort where he paid the innkeeper to care for him and promised to come back on his return trip to pay more if necessary. The story ended and then came a question, the same question Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, the pastor, the teacher, or the Samaritan, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” They all shouted, “The Samaritan.” It was obvious for he was the one who took care of him. So, we prayed that we too would care for others in need, that we would be Good Samaritans. Then the children eagerly headed to their next learning station, science.
Meanwhile back at the story, when ask by Jesus, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” unlike the children, the lawyer couldn’t even get the word Samaritan out of his mouth. Instead he replied, “The one who showed him mercy, who had compassion.” Notice what Jesus did here, he shifted the question – from who is my neighbor to who was a neighbor? In order to answer this second question, the lawyer needs to shift too. He must become the half-dead man in the ditch. For the question who was a neighbor can only be answered by the victim. Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine put it this way, “To hear this parable in contemporary terms, we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, and then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.”[i] Remembering that the ancient kingdom of Samaria is now the West Bank, Dr. Levine translates the parable. Now the man in the ditch is an Israeli Jew; a rabbi and a Jewish member of the Israeli Knesset pass him by, but a member of Hamas shows him compassion. She then concludes, “If that scenario could be imagined by anyone in the Middle East, perhaps there might be more hope for peace.”[ii]
How would you translate the parable today? An undocumented immigrant offering an ICE agent a drink of water? A diver of a pick-up truck with waving American Flags and the bumper sticker, “Proud to be Everything Liberals Hate” changing a flat tire on a Prius with a bumper sticker declaring, “Impeach Trump: Make America Great Again”?
And then go deeper. In fact, that’s what Jesus does in another parable, this one in the 25th chapter of Matthew. You might remember it as the parable of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus is the one in the ditch, hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, in prison. He is at one with all who suffer, at one in brokenness, pain, and fear. Jesus is the wounded healer, our Savior, our Lord. In him we, and today, Olivia, are given life beyond fear-filled anxiety, beyond our understanding, beyond death into eternal life. This truth empowers us to cross boundaries, to be compassionate, to love others and to let others love us. Eternal life — now and forever. Amen.
[i] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, Harper One, 2006, 149.