Archive for July, 2013

Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan

July 15, 2013

The background for the parable of the Good Samaritan is this. Long before Jesus’ day animosity existed between the Jews and the Samaritans, and it continued in Jesus’ day. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, while the Jews worshiped on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Samaritans who came to the Temple in Jerusalem were not allowed beyond the outer court, that is, the Court of the Gentiles. Even their offerings were treated as if from a Gentile; furthermore, no Jew was allowed to marry a Samaritan. In fact, the very word ‘Samaritan’ was a term of contempt.

Now, in today’s Gospel when the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus saw an opportunity to give one of his greatest teachings. Let us remember that Jesus was addressing his own people, Jews. They all knew the law, which the lawyer had recited correctly, “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.” So far so good, but did they know how to apply the law? Interpret the law?

Knowing how to apply the law is exactly what we prayed for in today’s collect. We prayed that we may “know and understand what things we ought to do.” For instance we ask ourselves, how shall I spend my discretionary time and my money? More specifically, a friend of mine is questioning whether she should ask her son to move out until he stops using drugs. Our national church questioned for years whether we should stop consecrating gay bishops. I mention these things to let us see that we have a lot in common with the lawyer.

When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus realized that the lawyer did not know how to apply the law. So Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, otherwise known as the parable of how to apply the law. He started his story off with a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a Jew like themselves. There is a wild, deserted stretch along that road, and sure enough the man was mugged. The first passer-by, a priest, might have helped him. That he did not help, we cannot attribute to purity concerns. Nothing in the law prevented the priest from helping. The second passer-by, was a Levite. Levites were descendants of the tribe of Levi who served as assistants to the priests in the temple. Nothing in the law said a Levite could not help the man.

Jesus used these two figures as examples, because, being associated with worship, we would expect them to have a greater regard for the law than the ordinary person. And the law was clear, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

So far the story is not very interesting. We all know that we cannot always trust even those we look up to, to do the right thing. But then the story does get interesting. Jesus’ hearers would have expected him to say next that an ordinary Jew passed by and did the right thing. No! It was a despised Samaritan, a man outside the pale.

The scholar Amy-Jill Levine calls attention to an important detail at this point in the Gospel. Jesus pointedly asks the lawyer, not what do you hear in the law, but “What do you read in the law?” He is calling attention to the word for ‘neighbor’ and the word for ‘enemy.’ In written Hebrew they are identical, because as written, Hebrew leaves out vowels. They do not sound the same, but they read the same. And in Jesus’ eyes they were the same: that is, both deserving of the same care and attention, the same loving kindness — enemy and neighbor.

How was it that Jesus understood so well how to apply the law — while the lawyer and, no doubt, many of his own followers did not? It is a question of where to turn when we are in doubt about how to “know and understand what things we ought to do.” Jesus turned to two places. The first was the very law the lawyer had recited. Actually that is a composite of two laws; but they can be taken as one.

Jesus also turned to Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, where Moses is giving his last address to the people of Israel. Speaking to the people about keeping the law, Moses said, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” In other words, there is the letter of the law, objective and external; and there is also the meaning of the law, internal and perhaps even illogical.

Let me give you a real-life example of what Moses was describing. This comes from the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. This is the story of a woman who suffered from heart disease and chronic angina. Up until she had surgery, she had been able to keep most of the pain away by means of diet and meditation. But from time to time excruciating pain would shoot through her heart. She started to pay attention to the circumstances when this would occur. It turned out that whenever she acted without “observing the word that was very near her, in her mouth and in her heart” the pain flared up. After a while she noticed that she felt the pain when she only thought of acting without doing that. She did not use that biblical language, of course, but it amounted to the same thing: when she went against those values that lie within, too deep for words, her heart gave her great pain. The surgery ended that; and she commented that losing her ‘alarm bell’ was the only thing she regretted about the surgery.

So when Jesus did not “know and understand what things we ought to do” he turned to two places. First, he turned to what is written in the law. Next, he turned to what is written in his heart. Authority outside of himself and authority within.

We could think of them as two poles. At one extreme we consult the outside authority, and let it govern. That authority could be the Bible, or church teaching, or civil law. At the other extreme we can act straight from the heart, follow our gut. Seen this way, as two poles, we have a continuum. We consult the Bible, church teachings, tradition, civil law and whatever other external authorities bear on the question, and we consult our inner wisdom. Where we fall on that continuum from inner to outer, outer to inner, marks our level of maturity. One extreme is no better than the other; neither “do what feels right” nor “do what is ordered.” Maturity lies near the middle. Consult both; but in the end the decision needs to come from within.

Some people may be forced to depend on the law, on the external authority, because the Word has not yet taken up residence in their mouth and heart. In other words, there is no second pole. For that second pole to exist, we do have to open ourselves to it, for the Word does not force its way in.

Opening is another word for prayer. If we spend time reading the Gospels with an hungry heart and if we spend time in meditation, then seepage takes place. From the page to the mouth and the heart, the law seeps into us. Authority shifts ever so gradually from outer to inner. As God’s living presence becomes more real, more alive in us, we feel less and less dependent on a paper God, a written law. At that point we consult the written law as a wise guide, not as a master. In its place we have the personal experience of God’s wise presence.

Let me sum this up. When the lawyer gave Jesus the correct answer, by reciting the law, he consulted only one pole, the written law. When he asked Jesus his second question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus knew he was missing the second pole. The lawyer had no inner authority to consult.

Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan and then said, “Go and do likewise.” He did not only mean help anyone whom you find in need. Jesus had a deeper teaching than that, a much harder one. He meant: see as the Samaritan sees; or see as I see. That is, see the neighbor and the enemy as one, see with the same loving eyes.

This is not so much a parable about ‘who is my neighbor?’ but about developing that second pole — what Moses, speaking poetically, called the mouth and the heart — that is, the inner authority. So this is not so much the parable of the good Samaritan as the parable of how to apply the law.


Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

July 7, 2013

This morning I want to talk about happiness, genuine happiness. To do that we’ll go through the Gospel reading and ask four questions. In the end we’ll discover that not only do we long for genuine happiness but that is God’s desire for us also.

After years of healing and teaching and walking the roads of the Holy Land, Jesus has finally accomplished what he needed to do. He can now head for Jerusalem with all the risks that he knows that will entail. He could not have turned toward Jerusalem any sooner. The first question is this: Why not until now? Until now his disciples were not yet prepared. Only recently had they been ready for that fateful question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking for all, had replied, “The Messiah.” Jesus did not need to hear more. Those words told him that his disciples had finally reached the point where they were fully committed to him. So now if he, Jesus, should die, his mission would not die with him. He can go to Jerusalem.

The second question is this. Jesus sent out seventy disciples: What is significant about seventy? Moses, you may remember, had appointed seventy elders to help him oversee the whole of the people of Israel. Seventy signaled to Jesus’ disciples that their mission also extended to the whole people of Israel; and ultimately to all people everywhere, even to our own day.

Third question: Why did Jesus use the image of a harvest? Harvests, as even we non-farmers know, involve urgency. When the grain ripens, laborers must gather it quickly lest rain wets it or birds eat it and the harvest is lost. So too with people. Many people wait and wait for their lives to be fulfilled and grow desperate waiting. Jesus wants his disciples to realize how urgently help is needed.

A modern day example will show us why Jesus impressed his disciples with the urgency of their mission. Archbishop Anthony Bloom was a well-known spiritual leader in the Russian Orthodox Church. In his book, Beginning to Pray, he tells this story of his own “harvesting.” Anthony was born just before World War I, the son of a Russian diplomat. He spent his childhood in Persia, where his father was posted; but the Russian revolution turned him and his family into refugees. They finally washed up in France. With no money, the family could not stay together, and Anthony’s childhood was rough and violent.

He started working at age 12 to pay for his schooling, and eventually became a medical doctor. But as he himself wrote, until he was in his late teens he hated everything to do with God. By this time his father had been able to bring the family together under one roof, so that outwardly Anthony’s life seemed smooth and happy; but inwardly Anthony felt his life to be hollow, empty, stale. He gave himself a year to find out if life had meaning, and if not, he would commit suicide.

Months went by. During Lent the leader of his Russian Youth Organization persuaded him to attend a lecture by a Christian priest. Anthony went under protest, determined not to listen; but he could not help himself. He went. What he heard enraged him. Fairytales! Garbage! He went home and opened the family Bible to see what it really said. Since he expected it to be a complete waste of time, he counted the chapters and chose the shortest of the Gospels, the Gospel of Mark.

As he read along he became aware that he was not alone. Across the desk from him, most powerfully, was a presence. He became absolutely certain that it was Christ, and that certainty never left him. Now he knew from first-hand, personal experience that Christ lived and that he, Anthony, had been in Christ’s presence. He could no longer call the resurrection a fairytale. His search for the meaning of life had found an answer in genuine happiness. Thoreau wrote of people living “lives of quiet desperation.” As a teenager contemplating suicide, Anthony did not appear desperate, most people do not; but Jesus reads the heart and he knows the urgency of our need.

We’ve asked why then, and why seventy. We’ve asked why speak of a harvest. Here’s the last question. How could the image and urgency of a harvest apply to religious people? After all, the people in these villages were people of faith. Were they not already happy? Already fulfilled? You have probably reflected, as I have, that religion can serve as an inoculation against spiritual experience. Jesus’ greatest challenge was to make those with perfectly good eyesight actually see. Or those with acute hearing actually hear. Or those filled with the traditions of a perfectly good religion actually feel their hunger and thirst for God’s living presence.

Could the same be true in our own day? Might we, also people of faith, be missing out on something because we believe we have it? Here is a brief fable says maybe so! One day a hound looked up and saw a fox. She leaped to her feet and gave chase, baying full voice. The other hounds heard her, saw her race off, and joined the chase. After a long while the other hounds began to tire and drop off. The first hound never slackened her pace. In time she followed along alone. What happened to the others? They had never actually seen the fox.

We could put it this way. Jesus’ mission, and the mission he passed along to the seventy, was to point out the fox. In his day and in every generation religion can be a matter of seeing the chase and hearing the cry and joining the throng; but never actually seeing the fox. Jesus knew that seeing the fox, that is, actually experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit, as Metropolitan Anthony did, lies within the reach of every person. Nothing stands in the way of anyone – not age, not education, not health, not personality.

Two things, however, are vital. It is vital that we be told that there is a fox to be seen. Jesus did that during all the years of his ministry. That is the job he gave to the seventy — to tell people there is more to religion than beliefs and ritual, and even right action; there is coming face-to-face with the living God. Second, it is also vital that we be open to the possibility that we have not yet seen the fox; that even we — baptized, confirmed and ordained — have something to seek.

In sum, then: God desires genuine happiness for each one of us. Our religion is meant to serve us the way the seventy were sent out to serve. That is, to alert us to the possibility of encountering, personally, the living Christ – the possibility of finding genuine happiness – the kind of happiness that cannot be increased or diminished by circumstances. Our religion is not that fulfillment; Scripture is not that fulfillment. The seventy are not that fulfillment. But we know we have Christ living within us when we are filled with loving kindness toward others, with compassion for the sufferings of others, with joy at the joys of others, and with empathy for the feelings of others. That is genuine happiness and we can only find it in loving service to others.