This teaching of Jesus on love gets to the heart and soul of God’s will for humanity. I get to preach on this text yearly, because all three Synoptic Gospels has a version of this passage, and the Revised Common Lectionary includes this text yearly as part of its readings. Each version is different, and Luke’s version deviates significantly from Mark and Matthew’s version. Only Luke includes the story of what we have come to call the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is why I love preaching Luke’s version of the story. All three versions make it clear that these two commandments – to love God with the totality of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves – constitute the goal and fulfillment of healthy religion and what God longs to see in human relationships and society.
Luke, however, clearly puts the emphasis on the command to love one’s neighbor. For Luke, loving one’s neighbor is how one loves God. Actually, these are not two separate commands, but one command. When we love our neighbor as ourselves we are loving God whether we realize it or not. According to the Apostle John this is the central way we express love for God, namely, by loving others. John writes, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (4:12a, 16b). Whenever we love others, we are loving God. God is love, says John, and wherever love is God is. This is true regardless of what one believes about God. Now, I think we should be intentional in cultivating a relationship with God, but a relationship with God that doesn’t focus on loving others is no relationship at all. In fact, we are just fooling ourselves if we think we are pleasing God through all our religious activities and observances, if we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.
This is clearly Paul’s take on these two commandments as well. In fact, Paul doesn’t even mention in any of his letters the first command to love God with the totality of our being. Paul makes everything hinge on the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. In his letter to the Roman in chap. 13 he says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul goes on to say that all the commandments can be “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then he concludes his argument by saying, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul is clearly echoing the teaching of Jesus. Then, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul instructs the church not to use their freedom from the law for self-indulgence, but rather, he admonishes them, “through love become servants of one another.” “For the whole law,” says Paul, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” He doesn’t mention two commandments as Jesus did. He narrows it to a single command. The reason he can talk about loving our neighbor alone as the fulfillment of the law is because loving one’s neighbor automatically means loving God. We love God by loving our neighbor. Paul says a paragraph or two earlier that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. This was a sacred rite and ritual to faithful Jews. Rather, he says, “the only thing that counts is faithfulness expressed through love.” That’s the only thing that matters says Paul.
Luke’s version of the story begins with a lawyer or scribe asking Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” One might inherit something now or in the future, so it’s hard to know exactly what the scribe intends. He could be asking, “What must I do to possess eternal life now or what must I do to receive eternal life in the next life?” A major point that John’s Gospel makes is that eternal life is now before it is later. Eternal life is life in God, with God, and for God. Of course, the scribe may have taken the view that eternal is something that is future. Either way, he wanted to know what he needed to do. He was right in thinking there was something he needed to do, but he was wrong, if he thought eternal life was a reward for doing something. Eternal life is not a reward that we earn. Jesus’ practice of welcoming all to the meal table symbolized God’s inclusive grace. Jesus challenged the major beliefs and practices within Judaism that made God and eternal life something you earned. Jesus would abolish all systems of meritocracy. Eternal life in God is a gift. However, it is a gift that needs to be unwrapped and appropriated. We appropriate and experience the gift by what we do, not by what we believe. You were not taught this, I know. I wasn’t either. But it’s clearly what this passage teaches.
Jesus responds to the scribe’s question with his own question turning it back to the scribe: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” In Luke’s version it is the lawyer, rather than Jesus, who recites the two commandments about loving God and loving neighbor. Then, after he answers by reciting these two commandments, Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Not believe this. Do this and you will live. Do this, namely, love God and love your neighbor (or we could say, Love God by loving your neighbor) and you will live. That is, you will experience and express the very life of the eternal God. We intentionally and consciously enter into a friendship and partnership with God through what we do. And what we do is love our neighbor as ourselves. As Paul says, that’s the only thing that counts.
I have shared before and will share again the story Phillip Gulley tells about the time when, as a young minister, he accepted a call to pastor a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis. It was a small community, but a very loving and caring community. The main reason for the contagious caring spirit that characterized that faith community rested in the presence of a couple who had helped start the congregation years before, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley met them in 1990, they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to ministering to others. Lyman volunteered each day at a homeless shelter. Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so, says Gulley, with such good humor and joy that to be in her presence was a redemptive experience.
Over the years, the small faith community there took on their demeanor. A joyful and grateful spirit infused the church’s worship and ministry. The little church was incredibly generous, regularly emptying its bank account to help the less fortunate. Because of the church’s close proximity to several resources for the homeless, they were frequently visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. So often, people who needed to be touched in a special way, after a divorce, after the death of a loved one, or in the throes of a very painful experience, would stumble into their little church and find strength, comfort, and hope.
The church did eventually attract more people. But as gracious as the people of the church were, Gulley would often find himself frustrated by their apparent indifference when it came to growing their numbers and getting more people in the community to come. On one occasion, frustrated that the church was not growing in numbers the way he wanted it too, he asked Harriet why that was. Her response was, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church.” Their denomination, as almost all denominations do, had spent considerable resources trying to attract new participants to their congregations, so Gulley was a bit surprised and not a little concerned by Harriet’s response, which seemed to contradict their denomination’s priority. Gulley was young and energetic and wanted the numbers to increase. I remember being the very same way. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” She said smiling, “To love.” That’s why we are here. Gulley could have passed for the scribe and Harriet for Jesus. Do this and you will live, says Jesus. Love your neighbor as yourself, says Jesus, and you will experience God’s life and spread God’s life wherever you go.
Then the scribe, says Luke, “wanting to justify himself” asks, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s hard to know the scribe’s intention. Luke tells us earlier in the passage that he wanted to “test” Jesus, but testing can be a negative thing or a positive thing. I think this scribe was genuinely interested in being right with God. So he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is it, then, that I need to love in order to experience the life of God and be right with God? In response, as Jesus loved to do, he told a story. I like to tell stories, because you will remember a story, when you forget everything else.
Jesus begins the story with, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Last week I told about Author Nikos Kazantzakis in his native Crete passing an elderly woman carrying a basket of figs. She paused, picked out two figs, and gave them to Kazantzakis. “Do you know me, old lady?” he asked. She said, “No, my boy. Do I have to know you to give you something? You are a human being, aren’t you? Isn’t that enough?” It’s not a Jew or a Samaritan or a Gentile or a scribe or teacher or soldier or anyone else – just a man, a human being, one of God’s children who gets robbed and beaten and left for dead.
Many who read this story from within an exclusive Christian viewpoint see the story mainly as an illustration of the kind of love we should show to a neighbor. And certainly that is part of it. The one who stopped to help the suffering man made sacrifices of time and money. It was both costly and risky. It could have been a trap, so he took a risk. And the help needed required an investment of both money and time.
But as true as that is, that’s not the main point Jesus intended. The question asked by the scribe is not, “What do I need to do to love my neighbor?” But rather, “Who is my neighbor?” I suspect, being an interpreter of scripture, he knew what he was supposed to do. The law and the prophets are full of exhortations to love – to act in compassion and to do justice on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. The question is, “Who should I extend such costly and risky care and compassion to?”
Let’s not miss what Jesus says. Two religious leaders among the Jews, a priest and a Levite, did not think “the man” was worthy of their time and money. They passed by on the other side of the street so they wouldn’t even have to look at the man and see his face, and feel guilty for not stopping. A man asked his wife who had been to church that morning what the preacher preached on. She said, “Ignorance and apathy.” He said, “What’s that?” She said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” That was the approach of the two religious leaders in Jesus’ story. But then a Samaritan passed that way, someone different racially and religiously than Jesus and the scribe. In fact, there was an ongoing feud between the Jews and the Samaritans. For the most part, the majority of both groups mutually detested and despised the other. As I have often said, if Jesus were telling the story today in our context, the two religious leaders who passed by would be a Baptist pastor and the worship leader. Mac, you and I wouldn’t look good at all in this story. The one who stopped to offer costly and risky care and help would be, perhaps, a Muslim, or undocumented person, or someone of a different religion and race. That person would be the hero in the story, just the way Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero in the story Jesus told to his fellow Jews. And many of us would be as mad at Jesus as the Jewish leaders were for making a Samaritan the hero who demonstrated what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself.
When Jesus asked the scribe who it was among the three that loved his neighbor as himself, the scribe could not even bring himself to say the Samaritan. He said, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus makes it all about doing. Jesus asks us, Do you want to share in and cooperate with the eternal life and will of God? Do you want to know God and be right with God? Then go and do likewise. Go and love your neighbor- the Muslim, the undocumented person, the person of a different religion or race or sexual orientation. Go and love that person, your neighbor, as yourself.
Gracious God, inspire us, lead us, empower us to love like Jesus, and extend God’s welcome and acceptance and grace to all people, especially those different than us. Amen.