Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.
Fulfillment of the law is humanly possible. The covenant obligations imposed upon Israel are not hopelessly unachievable ideals. God has far better ways to spend time than devising rules nobody can keep and then punishing everyone’s failed efforts to attain the impossible. The law was made to be kept. Lest there be any doubt about it, Jesus did not come to replace the Torah with some simpler, easier, more enlightened and less demanding moral teaching. To the contrary, he stated that not a single stroke of the law will pass away as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17.
Fulfillment of the law is not merely a human possibility. It is an accomplished human fact. The law, we are told, was fulfilled in the obedient human life and faithful human death of Jesus. So let us forever dismiss lame excuses like, “Nobody is perfect,” “I’m only human” and “I can only do my best.” There is nothing in the law that you cannot do. You can worship the Lord your God; you can both rest from your labors and give rest to your laborers; you can respect your neighbor’s life, property, marriage and livelihood; you can be a good steward of creation living gently on the land and contributing more than you consume. This “word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. Deuteronomy 30:14. Neither Saint Paul nor Martin Luther ever said anything different.
Our problem with the law is not our inability to keep it. Our problem arises from believing that our success in keeping the law wins us God’s favor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even perfect obedience to Torah could not win God’s favor. That is because obedience is not necessary for that purpose. God cares for and redeems us because God loves us as a parent loves a child. Good parents love their children the minute they come forth from the womb, before they have had a chance either to make them proud or break their hearts. So, too, God loves the good world God made and the creatures made in God’s image because that’s the way God is. God’s heart breaks when we transgress the law-not because God is a stickler for the rules-but because God cares so deeply about the pain we inflict on ourselves and the rest of creation as a result of those transgressions. People were not created for the sake of the law. The law was given for the protection of God’s people. That is why the two great commandments call us to love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The entire law must be interpreted and put into practice toward these ends only-not in order to placate, please or impress God.
It is for that reason Jesus asks the lawyer in our gospel lesson, “What is written in the law” and “how do you read?” Luke 10:20. It is critical that the law be read and interpreted as God’s gift to be used in the service of worshiping God and loving the neighbor. To his credit, lawyer gets the answer right: “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 neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27. You’ve got it, says Jesus. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:28. But the lawyer is not interested in doing the law. As lawyers are wont to do, he is trying to find a loophole by which to escape the law’s demands. So he asks Jesus a question designed to demonstrate that the law is ambiguous, unclear and subject to multiple interpretations. Who, after all, is my neighbor? Surely it is not the gentile altogether outside of the covenant promises made to Israel. Surely it is not the Israelite who, through his or her sinful acts has separated himself or herself from the community of Israel. Surely it is not those Israelites whose teachings are contrary to the traditions handed down to us by the elders. Where does one draw the line when it comes to the scope of my duty to my neighbors? If the line cannot be drawn with legal clarity, then how can I be expected to keep the law?
But Jesus will not debate the meaning of Torah on the lawyer’s terms. He responds with a story in which neighborliness is practiced between mortal enemies. A Samaritan acts with compassion one would never expect him to show toward a Jew. Why? Simply because when the Samaritan saw the broken man on the side of the road, he didn’t see a Jew. He saw only a wounded, vulnerable, dying man. And we are told that “he had compassion.” The Greek word used here for “compassion” goes beyond its English counterpart. It means a deep seated, heartfelt identification and solidarity with the victim. It’s being able to get inside his or her skin and see the world through his or her eyes. It is the kind of identification God expresses toward God’s wounded creation by sending his only begotten Son. We are never more genuinely human nor are we more reflective of the divine image than when we exercise compassion toward one another. Neighborliness is not a legal obligation whose scope can be measured by statutory prescription. It is a miracle that occurs when, through God’s Spirit, God is recognized as our loving Father and the person standing in need of our compassion is recognized as a sister or brother made in God’s image. This miracle in the depths of the human heart, says Jesus, propels us into action that fulfills the Torah.
Fulfillment of the law is not a task far beyond the reach of human effort. It is as close as your nearest neighbor and it is as clear as your neighbor’s need. It is in your mouth. It is in your heart. To be sure, it is not easy. But it is humanly possible. You can do it.
Here’s a poem by Jan Beatty about exercising the kind of compassion I believe Jesus is talking about.
We’re sitting in Uncle Sam’s Subs, splitting
a cheesesteak, when Shelley says:
I think I should buy a gun.
I look up at her puffy face, and she’s staring,
her hands shaking. On medication for
schizophrenia, she’s serious.
I say, Tell me why you need a gun.
Her voice getting louder: You know why.
No, no I don’t, I say.
In case I need it. I might need it to shoot somebody.
I give her a hard look — You don’t need a gun.
No one is after you.
She stares back: You might be after me.
I don’t know what to say — I never know what to say.
I know it’s not her speaking, but it’s my friend,
far away in some other stricken mind.
What’s it like to know you’re right/
you’re in danger —
and the world says no?
Every woman I know has lived that.
I say: I would never hurt you. I’m not a threat to you.
She laughs, says, Well, you might be.
The laughing scares me.
I want out of this place,
this sub shop, to walk away,
knowing she can’t walk out of her mind, leave
the illness behind. The long minutes,
the long, long minutes. She says, What do you think?
I think we should eat our sandwiches, then
take a walk, I say.
What about the gun?
Let’s talk about it later, I say,
not knowing a thing.
Not knowing a goddamn thing.
Source: Poetry Magazine (April 2016). Jan Beatty is the author of The Switching/Yard (c. 2013 University of Pittsburgh Press). She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The language of this lesson naturally grates on my Lutheran ears. Since I was knee high to cricket I have been taught that it is impossible for human beings to keep the law; that the law always and only accuses us and shows up our sinfulness. I was always taught that the purpose of the law is to drive me to seek God’s forgiveness. So what does God mean by telling Israel: “this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you…”? vs. 11. I think we need to make an important distinction here. As I said above, the law was not given to Israel so that she could earn God’s favor. She already had God’s favor. God demonstrated God’s unconditional love for Israel when God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to Israel so that she might remain free, so that she would not become yet another Egypt. God calls Israel to obedience in Torah, not because God is a neurotic rule maker who cannot abide violations. God calls Israel to obedience because obedience is the only way for Israel to prosper and live well in the land.
When Moses declares that the law can be kept, he does not mean that it can be kept perfectly or flawlessly. Indeed, Moses knows otherwise. That is why the law makes provision for sacrificial offerings and rites through which God’s forgiveness is declared and reconciliation is facilitated. It should be noted that in the larger context of today’s reading, Moses assumes that the people will be disobedient to God’s commands, that they will suffer the consequences and that they will be carried into exile. Nevertheless, Moses goes on to say that God is merciful and forgiving; that God will always hear Israel’s prayers and will always respond to her expressions of repentance with forgiveness. God may punish Israel, but he will never reject her. God is always there for Israel to help her begin anew.
Again, as I said before, when Saint Paul and Martin Luther declare that people are incapable of keeping the law, they are simply saying that the law cannot be used to curry favor with God. When the law is employed to please God rather than to serve the neighbor, it becomes a curse instead of the blessing it was intended to be. Where law becomes the measure of righteousness before God, then we find ourselves embroiled in those endless “where do you draw the line?” discussions. What constitutes “work” in violation of the Sabbath? What constitutes “good cause” for divorcing my spouse? Who exactly is my neighbor? All of these questions suggest that if only we can figure out where to draw the line between obedience and disobedience to the law and stay on the right side of the line, we will be OK in God’s sight. That was precisely the outlook of the young lawyer in our gospel lesson. He was appealing to the law “to justify himself.” He wanted Jesus to clarify for him his duty of neighborliness so that he could be sure he was meeting all of its requirements.
But as Paul and Luther point out, that is not how law works. Sin is not a matter of keeping or breaking the rules. It is a matter of the heart. It all boils down to whether we love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and our neighbor as ourselves. You can keep all the rules but still lack faith and compassion. Indeed, there is no clearer evidence for lack of faith than a false dependence on and pride in keeping the rules. Israel has not been called to a slavish compliance with nit picking demands. Rightly understood as pure gift, Torah is the shape human life takes when drawn into covenant with a gracious, merciful and forgiving God.
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37;Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. In these psalms, each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:
Awesome is our God and Creator.
Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.
Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.
And so on down to letter Z. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests.
Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50,The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.
At this point it is clear that the church is beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire and is “bearing fruit.” Paul opens his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the faith of the church at Colossae of which he has heard. It seems that Paul has never actually visited this church because much of what he seems to know has come through what he has heard or been told by others, specifically, “Epaphras.” Vs. 7. Paul then moves into a prayer for the Colossian church, that it may be strengthened, filled with wisdom and understanding so that it may “lead a life worthy of the Lord.” Vss. 9-10. As we will see in the weeks to come, Paul makes a sweeping argument for the cosmic impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus in whom “the fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” Colossians 2:9.
In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from Judah and the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem, eventually establishing their own capital city in Samaria. This break up took place after the death of Solomon, David’s son around 922 B.C.E. The Samaritans asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel that existed prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith.
The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendents born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.
According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the vacinity of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.
As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. That the conflict was very much alive in the first century is evident from Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria at the well of Jacob. The first question she asked upon learning that Jesus was a prophet involved the proper place of worship: the temple in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim? John 4:19-26. This background information important as it makes clear that the neighbor to be loved includes not merely the stranger on the side of the road with a flat tire, but the mortal enemy that would kill you given half a chance.
The antagonist in this story is a lawyer. While we need to take care that we do not read too much of what we know and understand about lawyers today into what the New Testament means by the term, there are some parallels worth noting. Lawyers typically focus on the outer limits of the law. Modern lawyers advise their clients concerning the extent to which certain conduct might violate the law. Thus, a corporate client might want to know whether its newly designed logo is sufficiently different form a similar one belonging to another company to ensure safety from liability for trademark infringement. A company might consult a lawyer to determine whether it can safely designate certain income as non-taxable without incurring the scrutiny of the IRS. Similarly, lawyers in Jesus’ day were responsible for determining what conduct lay within or outside the parameters of the Torah. The Rabbis spoke of erecting a “hedge” around the Torah consisting of prohibitions and requirements that went beyond Torah. The thinking was that if you observed these “hedge” provisions, you would never get close enough to the Torah to violate it. The problem was, however, that these provisions sometimes prevented people from getting close enough to Torah to obey it. The case of the lawyer in this story is an illustration of that very thing.
The lawyer first seeks to “test” Jesus by asking him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus will not take the bait. “You know the answer to that question well enough.” Jesus replies. “What does the law require?” The lawyer correctly responds with the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Right,” says Jesus. “Do it and you will live.” Here Jesus is on the same page with Moses. This command is doable and understandable. Of course, that does not mean that it is easy, but that is another question and perhaps the very one the lawyer seeks to avoid. In true lawyer fashion, the lawyer manufactures a hurdle to obedience by seeking to render the statute ambiguous. “All well and good to say, ‘love your neighbor,’” he says, “but who is my neighbor?” Obviously, the lawyer is trying to drag Jesus into one of those hopeless “where do you draw the line” arguments. You know what I am talking about: “If your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Yes, but what if he does it again? How many times do I have to let him hit me? What if I am an abused spouse? Do I just stand there and take it? What do I do with an armed maniac who points a gun at my dear old grandma…” On and on it goes.
Jesus will not be drawn into this silliness. He simply does not answer the lawyer’s question because he knows it will only lead to more stupid questions. He will not get into an argument over who should be classified as “neighbor,” but instead tells a story about neighborliness. Now if Jesus had told a story about a Jew who happened upon a wounded Samaritan and helped him, the lawyer might have nodded with approval. “Yes, we Jews certainly know how to act like neighbors-even to Samaritans. But tell me Jesus, how far do we have to go with that? What if the Samaritan is threatening me? What if he is trying to rob me?” That would bring us right back to the “where do you draw the line” argument.
But Jesus tells a story about a neighborly Samaritan. This takes the whole matter of neighborliness outside the realm of law, regulation and custom-the very ocean in which the lawyer swims. The Samaritan, to the lawyer’s way of thinking, was a man without any true law. The lawyer is now completely out of his element-like a fish out of water. There are suddenly no longer any points between which lines might be drawn and therefore no more lines to argue about. There is simply the Samaritan feeling compassion, a word Luke uses in Zechariah’s song of praise to describe “the tender mercy of our God.” Luke 1:78. The question now is no longer “what legally constitutes a neighbor,” but who is acting the neighbor. At its root, this is a grammatical problem. For the lawyer, neighbor is a noun to be defined. For Jesus, it is a verb to be acted upon. So Jesus tells the lawyer who asks him “who is my neighbor,” to stop obfuscating and be a neighbor. “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.