July 14, 2019

Pentecost 5  July 14, 2019  Psalm 82, Deuteronomy 30;11-16, Leviticus 19:17-18,33-37; Luke 10:25-37   How to inherit eternal life


An expert in the religious law asks “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus asks back –“What’s written in the law? What do you read there?” (Like – ‘How do you hear the law speak to your question?’)

The man says immediately “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” – giving the short version of a passage from Deuteronomy (6) that observant Jews say several times a day every day – adding from Leviticus (19:18) “and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Rabbis and teachers of Israel were used to combining the commandments to love God and neighbor. The lawyer’s answer was pretty much conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom isn’t always a bad thing. Even Jesus starts off with conventional counsel – as he tells the man “Good answer – do this and you will live.” A condensed version of our reading from Deuteronomy 30 today where we’ve heard, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… loving the Lord your God… walking in his ways… then you shall live…

Love the Lord your God – love your neighbor – you will live… is pretty much the theme of the whole book of Deuteronomy. (The part about living forever might be implied…I don’t know. But the lawyer who asked doesn’t have a follow up question about eternal life…)

Both the lawyer and Jesus quote familiar scripture. We’re told, first, that the lawyer is testing Jesus, then that he wants to justify himself. But we never hear the lawyer or Jesus disagree with the other. If there’s a dispute, it’s unspoken.

But we have been told the religious leader is testing Jesus. So we often assume he’s trying to out-debate or find fault with Jesus.

But – what if the lawyer just wants to test and see– is this Jesus guy as good as people say? Or – what if something in his life is making him question what he’s doing or what he believes – and he’s testing to see if Jesus might be able to help him find a better way. What if this lawyer, who, yes, is testing Jesus – actually wants to learn from Jesus?

So, remembering the advice of Rabbis of old who said – always give the other person the benefit of the doubt – and considering the advice of some contemporary scholars – who remind us the students of the Rabbis of old were expected to test their teachers with hard questions, and be tested back – I’m wondering if when we also hear that this lawyer testing Jesus wants to justify himself – maybe we should consider the possibility that he wants to justify his now slightly shaky faith against his own doubts and fears. What if he’s asking Jesus “who is my neighbor?” because he used to know – but now he’s not so  sure?

So – I’ve been trying this week to see our lawyer friend in the story as an honest seeker –someone who’s heard people say Jesus is a prophet from God –  and also heard people say the opposite – and – like many a spiritual seeker today, now he’s part skeptic, part hopeful, part curious…

And it’s always good to try and see ourselves in all the characters – try to relate to each as we would like to be related to if we were they… Which is  especially good practice when a story is so familiar that we tend to go to a default position – and identify with whoever looks like the good guy (or the bad guy) – and judge other characters accordingly. Like – Thank God I’m not like that lawyer testing Jesus, asking “what’s the absolute minimum I’ve got to do to get saved and live forever?” Thanks God, I never go there. Thanks God, my questions for Jesus are always about “how can I do more to love and serve you Lord?”

Yea right. Jesus laughs out loud with me whenever I catch myself thinking like that… Well then – how about: I thank God I’m not like those religious leaders – that priest and Levite (that bishop and evangelist) – who pass by the wounded man without stopping. The one Jesus describes as beaten, robbed, and lying bleeding by the side of the road… I’m sure I would stop and try to help…

Well.. Unless, maybe…I started thinking about my friend Wayne’s brother in Oregon… who stopped to help someone whose car had a flat… and while he was jacking up the car a drunk driver ran him over and killed him… Thinking about that, I suppose, could make me think twice about stopping…But most of the time I’d stop… (I hope.)

Which has me thinking now of a story I saw this week in a church magazine about a study someone has done – about what we see – and don’t see. People in this study were told to watch a group of people, half of them in black shirts, half in white shirts, passing basketballs back-and-forth – and count the number of times the people in white shirts pass the ball. Then groups of ten or twelve people come in a room and start passing balls back and forth… And someone dressed in a black gorilla suit walks through the middle of the room and leaves… Ninety percent of participants in the study say they’re very sure they’d notice if a gorilla-look-alike were to walk by. But when participants watching and counting as balls are being passed back and forth are asked afterwards if they had noticed anyone in a gorilla suit – less than 50% had noticed. When people are told to watch for a gorilla nearly100% see one. What we see depends… on what we’re looking for.

….I love our cover art picture today by artist Olga Bakhtina. I love the way she paints both the Samaritan who stops to help and the man beaten, robbed, and left by the roadside. Her painting has got me seeing both of these characters as Jesus-look-a-likes…

The Samaritan man looks to me like Jesus who touches and heals people that others don’t always notice. And the man beaten and robbed looks to me like Jesus as he’s taken down from the cross….

And I’m thanking God for what I’ve been blessed to see this week…of people in our parish helping others… One of our members driving another member who doesn’t drive to visit her husband in rehab… Another member volunteering with the group known as (yes) The Samaritans – listening to people for five hours at a stretch who are desperately lonely, in need of a sympathetic listening ear – a word of hope – a prayer.

And last Monday I got a call from Vicki Carr working at the Thrift Shop, saying they had a visitor in distress. A young woman who came in talking about leaving a shared housing situation that she got into by mistake, where people were using drugs. Arriving at the Thrift Shop by taxi with all her worldly goods – clothing, books, groceries (even frozen pizzas)… Saying she’d had the taxi drive her around till she found a church that looked open. Quite distraught.

Our Cataumet ladies who staff the Thrift Shop on Mondays listened to her…  Prayed for her.. Had me talk with her briefly by phone… I prayed too. Asked her if she would like a bible. She said she had her’s with her. Asked if she’d like a food card, she said she had money. After awhile Wilma, Noreen and Vicki took turns watching the shop, while one of them took the young woman down the hall to a Sunday School room with a couch, helped her get comfortable, told her she was welcome to stay…

After awhile, just sitting quietly, having been welcomed, listened to, prayed for… made to feel at home… she calmed down… made some phone calls, found a friend who could come later, around six, pick her up, take her back to metro-Worcester where she’d come from…

When I called Wilma to say I’d go down to the Bourne church before six to help load her stuff into the car when her friend came, Wilma said, “It’s all taken care of. We waited with her after we closed at 3 till sometime after 4… Her friend arrived early, and we got all her things in the car, and she left… She seemed a whole lot better, all calmed down…”

A few minutes later Vicki called to let me know they had prayed with her, and she was going to be ok. While we were on the phone the woman herself called me and left voice mail while I was on with Vicki, saying “Thank you, thank you, thank all your church so much. Please thank those amazing women – who took such good care of me! I would like to stay in touch with your church. Can I do that? Thank you, thank you very much.”

It was great to see our Monday group doing the Good Samaritan (the Good Cataumitite) thing so well… It felt good to get such nice feedback from the woman they helped… Which I hope to remember…on days when trying to help doesn’t always seem to work so well…

Because I’m sure I’m still not seeing every gorilla in the story but.. I do see Jesus never finishing his story… Never telling us what happens next. Never saying the man who gets all this help from the so-called good Samaritan – (not a phrase Jesus ever uses – Jesus, who elsewhere says don’t call anyone good except God – tells us also – don’t expect to be told you’re doing good – for doing what disciples are supposed to do) – Jesus never suggests the man who received all this help from the Samaritan traveler ever even says “thank you.” Nor does Luke the gospel writer ever tell us the lawyer decides to follow Jesus after he’s thought about the story.

On the other hand, neither does Jesus suggest – this Samaritan was out looking for people in need. Rather, he seems to suggest – stopping to help is either instinctive behavior – or learned behavior – but either way, something he is used to doing…

And Jesus never says it directly but – I’m guessing he’s suggesting – this so-called-good-Samaritan-behavior is something we all know how to do when a situation occurs. I don’t see the whole picture but I have begun to see – how often the parables of Jesus are not even about teaching us something we never knew before. So often the parables of Jesus remind us of things we’ve known since we were children… Like –

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself” – and –

“Do unto your neighbor as you would like them to do unto you…” and

“Every neighbor is your neighbor, because, remember – your ancestors were immigrants in Egypt – and America… So all neighbors, anywhere, are your neighbors…”

Love God. Love your neighbor.

Don’t ask “who is my neighbor.”

Do this – and we will live.

Forever. Together.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.