I love the pairing of these two stories and think it has much to say to us about living the Christian life. It speaks to us of a balance between mission and nurture, between doing for others and looking after our own needs.
Both stories are very familiar. In the first, one of the Jewish authorities, a teacher of the law, has an encounter with Jesus which leads to Jesus telling the parable we have come to know as “The Good Samaritan.” The lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “What does the law teach you about that?” The lawyer answers, “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.” Jesus has nothing to add, so he says, “That’s right. Do this and you will live.” The rub is that to this point nobody has truly been able to “do this.”
The lawyer then takes the fateful step of asking a follow up question, not about what it means to love God but about what it means to love neighbor. “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a story about a man traveling the treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, who is beaten and robbed and left to die alongside the road. A priest and a Levite pass by without stopping, but a Samaritan stops, binds his wounds and takes him to an inn and pays his expenses to be cared for there. He asks the lawyer which one was a neighbor to the injured man. The lawyer has no choice but to answer, “The one who showed him mercy,” not being able to make himself say “Samaritan.”
The lawyer’s question makes clear that he didn’t think he had to regard every person as his neighbor, and there is evidence that there was a vigorous debate within the Judaism of the time as to how to define “neighbor.” Was it someone who lived within a certain distance of you? Was it someone of the same nationality? Was it someone of the same religion? Was it someone of the same color?
Jesus turns the question upside down by making the victim the person everyone is intended to identify with in the story and the hero a person who was ordinarily despised by the audience. If you were here for the Ash Wednesday service this past Wednesday you heard a story from the previous chapter in Luke in which Jesus is beginning his journey towards Jerusalem. The straightest route was through a Samaritan village, but messengers sent ahead to prepare the way were told that Jesus and his friends would not be allowed in that village. James and John were furious and asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire on that village and destroy it. That’s how Jews and Samaritans felt about each other in Jesus’ day. So for him to shortly thereafter make a Samaritan the hero, the role model in his story, is radical and shocking. The question is turned from, “Who do I have to be a neighbor to,” to “who would you be willing to have act as a neighbor to you if you were in the ditch dying?” Who is my neighbor is a very different question when you are in control than it is when you are not.
There have been some great examples in the news recently. A contemporary telling of this story would probably involve Jews and Muslims. The following stories were all recounted in Friday’s “Greenville News” paper. When a mosque in Victoria, Texas was destroyed by vandals a month ago, members of a local Jewish congregation allowed the displaced Muslims to worship in their synagogue. When vandals damaged headstones in a Missouri Jewish cemetery two weeks ago, Muslim benefactors raised more than $125,000 to pay for repairs. Three days later a mosque in Florida was torched in an arson attack. A repair fund was established by Adeel Karim, and he was curious when many donations were received of $18 or multiples of $18. He looked at the donor names: Avi, Cohen, Goldstein, Rubin, and found that Jews donate in multiples of $18 as a form of what is called ‘chai,’ which wishes the recipient of a long life. Each Hebrew letter has a number value, and the letter for 8 and the letter for 10 form the word ‘chai’ which means ‘life.’
And that’s not all. The Muslim student associations of Florida State and Florida A & M delivered bouquets to campus Jewish organizations and local synagogues in a show of solidarity after two attacks on Jewish cemeteries. And Jonathan Greenblatt, a Jew who heads the anti-Semitism watchdog group the Anti-Defamation League, declared at a conference that if U.S. Muslims were forced to register with the government, he would register as a Muslim too. He received a standing ovation. (from The Greenville News, March 3, p. 3B)
These are the kinds of stories which get across the schocking point of the parable Jesus told, not stories about people in your neighborhood helping a neighbor who had a fire. And the point is not really to lay a guilt trip on us that every time we see someone in trouble we have to stop and help no matter how dangerous it might be. The point is to quit seeing some people as being less valuable than you are because of their nationality, color, or creed. When we compartmentalize people into different groups and saying some matter and some don’t, we are just asking for Jesus to teach us a lesson. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 15)
Immediately following the parable of the Good Samaritan comes the story of Mary and Martha. Just when you think you have caught the essence of the Gospel, you read another story that emphasizes something very different. Coming off the “aha” moment about who my neighbor is, we come to a story which emphasizes the importance of the first great commandment, which is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Jesus comes to the home of Mary and Martha. Martha welcomes Jesus into their home and immediately goes to the tasks required to provide hospitality for a guest – maybe preparing food, making beds, putting out water to wash and clean towels to dry. Meanwhile her sister Mary follows Jesus and sits down to listen to him. Martha gets mad, and who can blame her? She is being a good neighbor, a good Samaritan, one who serves others. Her sister is doing nothing, flaunting the role and expectation of women in that time by being right there in the midst of guests listening to Jesus teach.
But instead of “putting Mary in her place,” Jesus tells Martha that Mary is where she needs to be, and that she has allowed herself to become worried and distracted by many things, first and foremost her frustration with her sister for not doing what she thinks she ought to do. Jesus does not tell Martha to put away her apron and come sit down with Mary. Perhaps providing hospitality is what brings joy to Martha and she would be unhappy sitting down and listening to the conversation. He is simply telling her not to let her happiness be determined by what someone else is doing or not doing.
The balanced Christian life will find times and places for loving the neighbor and times and places for loving the Lord with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind. The life of service and the life of spiritual growth are both essential to our growth and health as Christians. And we don’t need to get worried or distracted about how everyone else is doing it or whether they are doing the same part of it at the same time and in the same way we are. And it is always going to be the case that in a church there will be some people who are stronger in serving the neighbor than other, who believe that mission and service are the heartbeat of the church; and there will be others who are stronger in Bible study and prayer and believe that spirituality is the heartbeat of the church. It’s important to have that mix, and it is important to accept that diversity and rejoice in it and learn from it rather than forming rivalries and resentments like Martha was having toward Mary.
Jesus is consistent in holding these up as the two great commandments, and says that every other religious law or expectation that is valid grows from these two: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. It is important for us to continue to strive to learn the implications of those commandments for our lives and in our times.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
March 5, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church