Sunday, July 14, 2019

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

"Who is my neighbor?"

Rev. Kealahou Alika

Colossians 1:1-4 & Luke 10:25-37

I have books stacked on my bookshelves at home that are gathering dust. I have books stacked on the floor that reach half-way to the ceiling. I have decided that retirement will be a good time to finally catch up on reading the books that I have purchased myself and the books that some of you have given to me as gifts.

One of the books I recently received seems more timely than the others. It will be at the top of my retirement reading list.

Hans Rosling was a medical doctor, professor of international health and a public educator. He was one of Time magazines one hundred most influential people in the world. He died in 2017, having devoted the last years of his life to writing a book in collaboration with his son and daughter-in-law.

The book entitled Factfulness has as its byline “Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think.” Of the book itself, Rosling writes in the introduction: “This is . . . about the world and how it really is. It is about what you can do about it and how this will make you feel more positive, less stressed, and more hopeful as you walk out . . . and back into the world.”

That sense of hopefulness is what I find in our reading of Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the parable of the Good Samaritan in The Gospel According to Luke. While the authorship of the letter to the church in Colossae is disputed by some, its tone and content is more recognizable as something Paul would have written. He addresses his letter to a church that had neither established nor visited, but one that was started and nurtured by Epaphras, a devoted co-worker (Colossians 1:7; 4:12) (Preaching through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, page 334).

Though the exact details of the controversy surrounding what Paul saw as the false teaching in the church is not clear, “the letter presents us with a bold statement of the . . . uniqueness of Christ” (Colossians 1:15-20) (Op. cit.). After extending his greeting, Paul offers a prayer in which he sets the tone of the letter. It is both reassuring and hopeful.

Paul prays for the Colossians “to grow in their capacity for spiritual wisdom and discernment, especially as it pertains to [doing] the will of God” (Colossians 1:9-10; Romans 2:18; Ephesians 5:17; Acts 22:14; James 4:15; Peter 1:21; Luke 12:47) (Op. cit.). The Biblical text reminds us that “coming to proper knowledge of God and growing in that knowledge are part and parcel” of our Christian experience (Philippians 1:9; Philemon 6; 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:3; 2 Timothy 2:25; 3:7; Titus 1:1; Hebrews 10:26; 2 John 1) (Preaching through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, page 335).

But knowledge for the sake of knowledge, like “factfulness” for the sake of “factfulness,” is not enough. Discernment in knowing is about how we “lead lives worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Philippians 1:27; Ephesians 4:10). For Paul, this means that they - and we - must “bear fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10; Romans 7:4; 2 Corinthians 9:8; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; 2 Timothy 3:17; Titus 2:14; Mark 4:8, 20). It is about what we do and not simply about what we say.

This brings us to our reading from The Gospel According to Luke. The reading begins with an encounter between a lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Perhaps because Jesus is aware that the lawyer is knowledgeable in what he knows, he invites the lawyer to supply the answer to his own question.

The conversation between them eventually leads to the parable of the Good Samaritan. “The questions are important and so are the answers, but Luke’s Jesus makes it doubly clear that the kingdom of God is not a discussion, even between two leaders. Twice Jesus says do what you know” (Luke 10:28, 37) (Preaching through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, page 336).

Luke introduces the parable that is focused not on love of God and love of neighbor but only on love of neighbor. We may be inclined to think that this is an isolated instance but on at least two other occasions Paul said in his letters to the church in Rome and the church in Galatia that the law is summed up in the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Romans 13:8-9; Galatians 5:14). What is striking about the parable is the question “Who is my neighbor?”

The lawyer apparently wants a definition but Jesus shifts the attention to “the kind of person [you and I are] to be rather than to those who are or who are not [our] neighbors” (Op. cit.). In telling the parable, the question lies outside the parable itself (Luke 10:36; 35). For Jesus the question is not how we define who is our neighbor, but how we respond as neighbors to those in need.

In the parable, the story assumes that its hearers know about the priests, Levites and Samaritans. We know the Samaritans were descendants of mixed marriages who occupied the land following the conquest by Assyrians in 722 BCE. We know that in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple (Ezra 4:2-5; Nehemiah 2:19). They built their own place of worship on Mt. Gerizim.

There is no doubt that Jesus was aware of the bitter tension between the Samaritans and the Jews (John 4:9). It is against this background of hatred that the parable is told. It is not the priest or the Levite who proved to be a neighbor but the Samaritan. It is a shocking and almost incomprehensible turn in the story shattering whatever thoughts those hearing the parable may have had about who are and who are not the people of God (Op. cit.).

Luke’s message to the church in his day and the church in our day is this: As people of God, we are to always act in love and compassion. Love draws no boundaries and no borders and expects nothing in return.

It is not enough to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus compels us to ask the question, “How may I be a neighbor to others?”

What am I to do? What are we to do? How might we apply the words of Jesus to our lives today – even at this moment?

We need not look very far or ponder the question for any length of time given what is happening across the U.S. today. Thus says the Lord, “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22).

“Give the members of your community a fair hearing and judge rightly between one person and another whether citizen or resident alien” (Deuteronomy 1:16). We know these admonitions are foundational to our faith. But again, knowing is not enough.

Jesus asked the lawyer, “‘Which of [the] three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ [The lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:36-37). We must go and do likewise!

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