Friday, August 28, 2015

"When God's Judgment Is Difficult to Accept"

            This Sunday (August 30th), I will be concluding my summer sermon series on the “Parables of Jesus.”  Our last parable is the “The Workers in the Vineyard,” in Matthew 20:  1-16.  I have always found this to be a difficult parable because it seems to affirm a troubling theory of justice. 

            The parable is about the owner of a vineyard, who goes out early in the morning and hires workers for the day.  The owner and laborers agree that they will be paid one denarius for the day.  This was the usual daily wage rate at Jesus’ time, although this wage was barely enough to maintain a family at a subsistence level.  Several hours later—around 9 o’clock—the owner sees some other laborers idly sitting around the village marketplace.  When he discovers that no one offered to employ these workers, the vineyard owner hires them for the day and sends them out to his vineyard to join with those already working.  To this second group of workers, starting a few hours after the first group, the owner promises to pay, “What is right.”

            As the parable continues, the vineyard owner goes out and hires additional workers at 12 noon, again at 3 pm, and finally some even at 5 pm.  When evening comes, the laborers gather up to receive their pay.  One by one, the vineyard owner calls up each group and each man gets the same compensation, 1 denarius, regardless of how long they worked in the vineyard.  The first group, who have been laboring in the hot sun all day long, had assumed that they will be paid more than the standard 1 denarius per day because they have labored so long and because the owner has already given 1 denarius to those who worked for just one hour.

            When the first group complains to the owner that they have received the same pay as those who worked just one hour, he reminds them that they had eagerly agreed to work all day in the vineyard for 1 denarius.  Then, he says:  “‘Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last [group] the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’” 

            Now, here’s where I struggle with this passage:  I agree with the first group of workers who labored all day under the hot sun.  It is unfair that the early bird workers get paid the same amount as latter groups who did not work for nearly as long.  This violates the fundamental principle of justice as fairness which states that we should always treat equals the same.  For instance, we do not believe it is fair to pay a man a higher salary than a woman, just because he happens to be male.  There should be equal pay for equal work, but in the parable the work is not equal.  So, it is not fair that those who worked 12 hours in the vineyard get the exact same wages as those who worked for only 1 hour.

            How do we resolve this tension between the parable and our commonly accepted understanding of distributive justice?

            The key to interpreting this parable is to see that Jesus is not offering a commentary on economic justice, as important as that topic is.  Rather, this parable points to a greater and deeper spiritual truth.  For Matthew, this parable concerns the eschaton or end-time.  The parable is an allegory, in which the owner represents God and the “pay” represents God’s judgment.  Matthew intends his Gospel to be read and studied by members of his local faith community.  Thus, the audience is comprised of “insiders” in the sense that they are all members of Matthew’s church. 

In the parable, the final judgment for Christian disciples is based upon God’s generous and overflowing grace.  By grace, we mean God’s support and help as we strive to connect with the Divine.  The point of this parable is that we do not earn forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  Instead, forgiveness and reconciliation are a free gift, given through God’s grace.  In the parable, all of the workers receive the same wage of 1 denarius because this compensation represents God’s forgiveness and reconciliation.  Our relationship is not based upon longevity or how hard we have labored to help build God’s Kingdom here on Earth.  We do not earn our salvation, even though as followers of Christ we are expected to join joyfully in the work of building God’s Reign on Earth.

Jesus concludes by observing:  “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus probably told this parable as a means for explaining and justifying his willingness to accept tax collectors, prostitutes, and others who were outsiders in the Jewish culture at the time.  The members of Matthew’s church, reading his Gospel for the first time, would probably have also interpreted the “first” as referring to the original Jewish Christians, while interpreting the “last” as the more recent Gentile converts to Christianity. 

So, historically, this has been a difficult parable for many Christians.  In my case, I was born and nurtured in the Church.  I have been a Christian all of my life—and an ordained pastor for over 30 years.  I clearly see myself as an “early bird” worker in the vineyard.  It’s just human nature to believe that I am entitled to some status and special treatment because “I have earned it.”  Yet, that’s not the way God thinks.  God’s grace extends to everyone and all of us are specially loved by God.  We do not earn God’s grace and love so much as we simply receive it.

            This is a difficult truth for me to accept, as well as many others, who have been a faithful part of a certain congregation for a long time.  Slowly, subtly, we drift from seeing it as “Christ’s church” to thinking of it as “our church.”  We find our niche and become very comfortable. 

In vital, growing congregations, this can create unique challenges and difficulties.  As new persons become members of our community of faith, they bring new perspectives and new ways of doing things.  In short, they have new ideas.  Sometimes, we may need to step aside from positions of responsibility and power in order to make room for these newcomers who have new ideas.  We catch ourselves saying, “But, we’ve never done it like that before.” 

Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard contains what may be a challenging message to those of us who have been long-standing “pillars” of our congregations.  This parable reminds us that the church does not belong to us, but rather to God.  It tells us that sometimes the most faithful response is to take a risk—to try something new and different.

            As someone who would be one of the first laborers in the vineyard, this is a difficult parable to accept.  In my struggles, I have found “The Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition” to be a source of solace and perspective:

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.[i]

Come, join us at Christ Church this Sunday, August 30th, as we struggle with the “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” and what it says to 21st century congregations striving to be faithful to God.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989), No. 607.

Friday, August 21, 2015

"Of Dirt and Discipleship"

            In my sermon series on the “Parables of Jesus” this week, we encounter a unique parable.  Our parable is the “Parable of the Sower,” as recorded in Matthew 13: 3-9.  What makes this parable unique is that later, while he is meeting privately with his closest followers, Jesus explicitly interprets the parable; see Matthew 13:  18-23. 

            This parable tells the story of a farmer who goes out to plant his field.  Unlike contemporary American farmers, who use sophisticated GPS equipment to precisely plant their seeds, the farmers in Jesus’ audience planted their fields by hand.  This involved walking the field, carrying a sack of seeds.  As the farmer deliberately walked along, he would reach into the seed bag, scoop out some seeds with his free had and sling the seeds in an arc across the ground in front.  Continuing to walk, he would scoop another handful of seeds and sling those seeds in an arc in front.  He would continue this process until the field was covered with seeds.

            As you can imagine, this method of sowing seeds does not give the farmer much control over where the seeds fall.  And, it was this lack of control over the seeds that is pivotal in Jesus’ parable.  In his parable, Jesus describes how the seed falls into different types of soil.  Of course, the quality of soil significantly determines the ability of the seed to sprout, grow, and reproduce more seeds. Jesus describes four different types of soil where the scattered seed fell:

     1.      A hardened foot path.
     2.      Rocky soil.
     3.      A plot of land filled with thorny thistles
     4.      Good, rich soil.

           Here is the parable, as Jesus taught it:  “And as he [the farmer] sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.  But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”  (Matthew 13:  4-8)

           Later, when he is alone with the disciples and his closest followers, Jesus interprets the parable.  In Jesus’ interpretation, the parable is an allegory that explains how different persons hear and respond to Christ and his teachings:  The sower in the parable is Jesus Christ; the seed represents the teaching or preaching of Jesus; and the various soils represent how we may differently hear the Word of God through Jesus and respond.

           For instance, Jesus interprets what happens to the seed that fell on the hardened foot path in this manner:  “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.” (v. 18) 

            The interpretation of what happens to the seed on the rocky ground is similar.  This second soil signifies a superficial understanding of the faith.  When someone has a superficial faith, they are not prepared when they encounter difficulties in life.  Consequently, they lose their faith in times of trouble because it is not deep enough to sustain them.

            The third soil, which is already crowded with thorny thistles, represents persons who allow distractions to crowd out and, ultimately, kill their faith.  Jesus describes these distractions as cares of the world and the lure—or, temptation—of wealth and affluence.  Finally, the good soil represents disciples who hear and understand the Word.  These disciples develop a deep faith, which sustains them and allows them to productively serve God by helping to establish God’s Reign on earth.

           I’ve tried to capture the different types of soil and what they represent in the following table:

Responses to Jesus by the Individual
Hardened foot path
Failure to understand leads to eventual loss of faith
Rocky soil
Superficial faith, leaves the individual unprepared for difficulties in life and they fall away from Christ and the church
Already crowded with thorny thistles
Other activities and distractions, as well as lure of personal wealth chokes down and marginalizes love for Christ and faithful discipleship
Good, rich soil
True studying and understanding the Word, leads to a deep faith that sustains the disciple and enables them to work productively as a partner in building God’s Reign on Earth

 Usually this parable is heard and understood as exploring the individual response of particular persons to the teachings and vision of Christ Jesus.  However, in my message this Sunday (August 23rd), I am going to explore expanding the scope of the parable to include whole churches, which I understand to be collective, communities of faith.  For instance, what kind of church response does the hardened foot path represent?  What kind of church does the rocky soil represent?  Put another way, I want to examine what a third column on my grid might contain, depicted as follows:

Responses to Jesus by the Individual
Responses to Jesus by the Church
Hardened foot path
Failure to understand leads to eventual loss of faith
                                Rocky soil
Superficial faith, leaves the individual unprepared for difficulties in life and they fall away from Christ and the church
Already crowded with thorny thistles
Other activities and distractions, as well as lure of personal wealth chokes down and marginalizes love for Christ and faithful discipleship
Good, rich soil
True studying and understanding the Word, leads to a deep faith that sustains the disciple and enables them to work productively as a partner in building God’s Reign on Earth

 Come, join us this Sunday, August 23rd, as we explore the “Parable of the Sower” and what it says to us as individuals and as collective communities of faith.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Christ Church Has Talent!

            This weekend, I continue my series on the “Parables of Jesus,” looking at his “Parable of the Talents.”  In this parable, a very wealthy man is preparing to take a long journey.  Before embarking on his journey, the rich man summons three of his servants.  He gives each of them a particular sum of money to safeguard.  Each servant receives a certain amount, based upon his ability to safeguard and invest it.  One man receives five talents; another receives two; and a third receives just one talent.  Then, the master sets off on his lengthy trip.
            After the owner leaves, the first servant, who received the five talents, invested the money that he had been entrusted with and earned a profit of five additional talents.  Likewise, the second man invested his two talents and earned an additional two talents.  However, the third servant secretly dug a hole in the ground and buried the one talent entrusted to his care. 
           After a long interlude, the owner finally returns from his trip and asks for an accounting from the three servants.  The first and second servant return their original sum to the owner, along with a proportionate amount of profit which they have earned through shrewd investments.  The owner is very pleased with both of these servants. 
However, the third servant returns the lone talent which the master had given him, saying:  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so, I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here, you have what is yours.”  This response greatly angers the rich master.  He wonders why the third servant did not invest the talent with bankers, so that at least the rich master would have received his talent back with interest.
The parable concludes with the rich owner directing that the third servant’s Talent be given to the first servant.  Further, the rich master gives instructions for the third servant:  “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The Parable of the Talents is very popular among Christians.  Usually, we interpret this parable as a teaching about how each of as disciples of Jesus must use the talents and gifts and expertise that God gave us to serve the Church and help build the Kingdom of God on Earth.  In my 30 years of ministry, I have frequently preached on this parable during the Fall, as the church Nominations Committee was beginning to seek out individual members to fill various offices and positions within the church.  The thrust of my sermons went something like this:  God has given each of us talents and gifts, and God expects us to use these talents for the church by agreeing to serve in the positions requested by the Nominations Committee.  This is certainly a valid interpretation and use of the parable of the talents.
However, it is important to recognize that our understanding of the word, “talent,” as gifts and abilities did not come into usage until the Middle Ages.  As originally used in the parable, the word, “talent,” refers a financial unit of measurement.  As we saw several weeks ago, in our discussion of the “Parable of the Unjust Servant,” a talent is the equivalent of six 100-ounce silver bars.  One talent alone is equal to the wages of a manual laborer for 15 years.  In monetary terms, a little over half a million dollars.
Now, the servants in this parable were not slaves who worked in the field or cleaned the house or cooked the food.  Just as in the parable of the Unjust (or, “Unforgiving”) Servant, the servants in this parable are administrators.  Think of them as investment bankers.  So, it would be the same today as when a very wealthy person—perhaps a professional athlete or someone who has invented a new computer application and then sold it for several million dollars—gives some of her surplus to an investment banker and asks them to invest it.
            In Jesus’ parable, this very rich man gives investment capital to three different individuals.  In today’s dollars, he gives 2.5 million dollars to the first investor; 1 million dollars to the second investor; and $500,000 to a third.  When the day of reckoning arrives, the first investor has wisely invested on behalf of his client and doubled the investment, so that he returns 5 million dollars to the client, and the client is very, very, very happy.  The second investor has also doubled his money, so he returns a cool $2 million dollars and the client is once again very happy.
Then, it is the third investor’s turn to report.  There is some disagreement among biblical scholars, concerning whether the third investor has truthfully portrayed the Master as a harsh man, who reaps where he did not sow.  Some argue that Jesus intended for this to be an accurate description of the rich man.  But, others argue that the third investor is really just making an excuse; he’s sort of whining and trying to explain why he didn’t attempt to do anything with the money which he had been given.  This second group of interpreters point out that the Master has already been very generous in his reward for the first two investors and—by the end of the parable—he gives an additional talent, $500,00, to the first investor.
At any rate, it is important to recognize that when Jesus originally told this parable, he was not primarily focused on the importance of using our gifts and graces and talents to serve God and build God’s Reign.  Instead, Jesus is focusing on something deeper.  To fully understand and appreciate this parable, we must examine what separates the third steward from the first two.  Stated a different way, we need ask what do the first two servants have in common, which the third one does not have? 
The answer to that question is that the first two stewards were willing to take risks in order to serve their Master.   The first two servants were willing to take risk, by investing the money which the Master had entrusted with them.  Of course, a parable is a short little story that is intended to illustrate a much broader and deeper point.  So, the Parable of the Talents is only superficially about investment banking.  At a much deeper level, it is really about the Christian life and how Christian disciples should spend their time while waiting for Jesus Christ to come again in his final glory.  Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, M. Eugene Boring observes, “The meaning of being ‘good and faithful’ is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk…”.  That is, “good and faithful” disciples will take initiative and risk in order to build up the Kingdom of God on Earth, as we await Jesus’ final coming. 
The Kingdom of God was begun through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; yet, the Kingdom of God will not be fully established until Jesus comes again.  So, God’s Kingdom is both already here and not yet here--at the same time.  It’s begun, but not yet complete.  God’s Kingdom is pervasive.  The Kingdom is in our individual hearts and minds and ultimately it will also encompass the social, political, and economic world with God’s Justice.  What the Parable of the Talents seeks to convey is the point that we must use our gifts and talents and experience and expertise to help build God’s Kingdom; that being “good and faithful disciples” means being willing to take initiative and to take risks to continue building God’s Kingdom.
  Come, join us this Sunday (August 16), as we explore what it means to take initiative and risks in the 21st century, so that God’s Reign may become fully established.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"On Spiritual Self-Care"

         This Sunday (August 9th) we will explore two of Jesus’ parables on prayer and spiritual self-care.  The two parables appear in Luke 18:  1-14, and it is clear that Luke intends for us to read them together as complementary perspectives on prayer.

            The first is the “Parable of the Unjust Judge” (vv. 1-8).  In the first verse, Luke provides us with a lens for understanding the subsequent parable.  He says that Jesus taught this parable about the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  Jesus begins the parable in the next verse by setting the scene.  In a certain town there was a certain judge.  In the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition, the role and duty of a judge was to maintain social harmony and adjudicate conflicts between Israelites.  Judges were expected to be fair and impartial.  In Deuteronomy, a biblical book, Moses’ instructions to judges include these words:  “Give the member of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another; whether citizen or resident alien.  You must not be partial in judging:  hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s” (Deuteronomy 1:  16-17).

            Judges were also expected to watch out for and protect weak and vulnerable members of society.  Among the most powerless members of society were widows.  According to the Jewish law, widows were prohibited from inheriting any property when their husbands died.  Instead, by law, all of the deceased man’s property went to either his brothers—or, the husband’s sons, if they were of legal age.  Since in Jewish culture there was no Social Security or Medicare or other forms of social support, widows and their orphaned children were some of the most vulnerable and marginalized persons in the community.  This meant that there were frequent legal disputes among families.

            In his parable, Jesus describes the judge as someone “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  In other words, this man was not fit to serve as a judge because he could not be relied upon to be fair and impartial--or to watch out for the marginalized members of society.  Sure enough, when a widow brings a complaint to him for judgment, he has no interest in helping her receive justice.  Jesus does not tell us what the widow’s complaint is, but he clearly intends for us to infer that the widow’s case is legally justified.

            Since the judge refuses to act on the widow’s case, she is forced to press it repeatedly.  We can imagine that every day, the widow seeks out the judge, pleading for justice.  At first the judge ignores her, but after some time he finds her constant supplications tiresome and bothersome.  So, ultimately he decides to rule in her favor, just to get her out of his hair.

            At this point, Jesus draws a comparison.  “Listen to what the unjust judge says,” Jesus tells his audience.  If an unjust judge will grant justice because he is worn out by the constant supplication of the widow, how much more likely is God to grant justice to “his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?”  Jesus’ comparison is a special type of comparison, moving from the lesser-to-the-greater.  That is, if an unjust judge will grant justice because he is tired of the widow’s persistent pleading, how much more likely is it that God, who is compassionate and just, will respond to our continual prayers?  Then, Jesus goes on to affirm:  “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”

            There is a serious danger with mis-interpreting this parable, if we are not very careful here.  Read superficially, the parable seems to imply that God will grant all of our desires if we are simply persistent in our prayers.  Unfortunately, this is the way many Christians think about God and prayer in our culture.  Viewed erroneously from this perspective, God becomes nothing more than a giant genie from a magic bottle, who will grant our every wish and desire, if we only pray long enough, pleading with God to grant our wishes and desires.

            The key to avoid such a superficial and erroneous understanding is to focus on how Jesus describes God in the parable.  God is compassionate and just, seeking the well-being and flourishing of all. As the biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper observes in The New Interpreter’s Bible:

“Once God’s compassionate nature has been clearly stated, then the call to pray and not lose heart takes on a different tone.  The God to whom we pray is compassionate, ready to respond to the needs of the powerless and oppressed.  How does such a God hear our prayers if they are self-centered, concerned with only petty issues, or irrelevant to God’s redemptive purposes?  To those who are worn out, hard pressed, and lacking in hope, Jesus says to pray night and day.  …To those who have it in their power to relieve the distress of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger but do not, the call to pray night and day is a command to let the priorities of God’s compassion reorder the priorities of their lives.  …therefore, the unjust judge and persistent widow calls for a reexamination of our faith.”
For those of us who are privileged and comfortable, prayer may be more about re-ordering our priorities and aligning them with God’s priorities, rather than making a wish list and treating God as a magic genie. 

            In a second, complementary parable on prayer, Jesus tells the story of two men who went up to the Temple to pray.  The first man was a Pharisee.  In the culture of the New Testament, Pharisees were very devout Jews.  They were very assiduous in keeping all of the Jewish laws, including fasting two days a week and giving a tenth of their income to the Temple.  They were religious over achievers.  And, in the parable, this Pharisee was very proud and arrogant of his devout religiosity.  His prayer is one of self-congratulations:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other people:  thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

            The second man was a “tax collector.”  Here, it is important to understand that a tax collector in New Testament times was not the same as someone who works for the tax division of the government today.  At the time when Jesus tells this parable, tax collectors were seen as evil, dishonest, traitors of their country.  We need to remember that Jesus’ country had been militarily conquered and occupied by the Roman Empire, which took out money and resources and reduced it to servitude.  To collect taxes, the Romans recruited Jews who went around their home region and collected the taxes from their Jewish countrymen.  These tax collectors did not receive any salary.  Instead, the Romans simply assumed and encouraged the Jewish tax collectors to over-charge their neighbors on their taxes and keep the extra money for themselves. 

           A tax collector could become quite wealthy, if he was willing to over-charge and cheat his neighbors.  This meant that tax collectors were despised as traitors and cheats by their communities.  In Jesus’ parable, the tax collector is painfully aware of his sinfulness and his prayer is one of contrition:  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 

        Jesus concludes his story by observing that only one of the men—the tax collector—went home justified; “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (v. 14b)  Taken together, these two parables convey some important truths about prayer and spiritual self-care.  They stress the importance of humility in prayer; constancy in prayer; as well as seeing prayer as fundamentally a realignment of our wills with God’s Will.

        Come, join us this Sunday (August 9th), as we explore more deeply prayer and spiritual self-care.  During the message, I will suggest a simple model for daily prayer that I have found feasible for adults and youth alike.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Who Is Our Neighbor?"

            My series of sermons on Jesus’ parables continues this Sunday (August 2nd) with the popular parable of the “Good Samaritan,” in Luke 10: 25-37.  In his teachings, Jesus uses parables to answer a question or illustrate a point. 

            This parable occurs in the context of a debate between Jesus and a scribe or lawyer.  Luke, the Gospel writer, records that a lawyer stood up to test Jesus with a question.  In Jesus’ culture, such a test is really a challenge to the honor of the teacher—in this case, Jesus.  The lawyer asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The basis of this question is the Jewish understanding that they are a covenant people who belong to God.  God has set the Hebrews apart as a special, chosen people.  As a chosen people, the Hebrews believe that God has promised them eternal life in God’s own kingdom.  So, the lawyer is really asking Jesus, “What must one do to remain in good standing as part of God’s covenant people who have been promised eternal life?”

            Although this is a very crucial question which everyone contemplates—the question of life after death—keep in mind that the lawyer and Jesus are engaged in a public debate.  Recognizing that his interrogator is an expert in Jewish law, Jesus answers the lawyer's question with another question:  “What is written in the law?  How do you interpret it?” Jesus’ question is also a challenge back to the lawyer.

            The lawyer responds with an exquisite answer that goes to the heart of what it means to be faithful to God.  He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  I love the lawyer’s answer to Jesus’ question.  He says that we should love God with our whole being (our heart); with the very essence of who we are as an individual (our soul); and also with all of our personal resources, including our very physical strength and our deepest intellect.  In sum, we should love God with all that we have and all that we are, in all of the dimensions of our existence. 

Then, the lawyer adds that we should “love our neighbor as ourselves.”  That is, the lawyer sets up a threefold type of love.  We love God, love our neighbor, and love ourselves.  And, we love in this priority:  God, then neighbor, then self.  We are to love ourselves because if we can’t love ourselves, then we can’t love anything. 

            Jesus responds to the lawyer’s answer by saying, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”  Now, in the context of a public debate between Jesus and the lawyer, it is important to see that Jesus’ reply is a put down of the lawyer, causing him to lose face in public.  We need to keep in mind that the lawyer is publicly recognized as an expert in Jewish law.  In response to this question about inheriting eternal law, Jesus has asked the lawyer what the law says.  In other words, Jesus shifted the debate to the lawyer’s area of expertise.  But, Jesus' response, “You are right,” actually assumes that Jesus understands the law more deeply and, therefore, is above the lawyer when it comes to the lawyer’s own area of expertise.

Jesus overwhelmingly wins the first round of the debate with the lawyer.

            So, the lawyer seeks to justify himself by launching into a second round of debate with Jesus.  “And, who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks.  The question of who is our neighbor is highly charged in a highly regimented society, such as first century Israel.  In Jesus’ society, as in many societies across history, there were clear boundaries which separated people into different groups, with specific rules about how persons were to treat each other.  For instance, there were divisions between men and women, Jews and Gentiles, etc.  So, the lawyer’s question concerning who counts as the neighbor we are to love is a very tricky trap.

            It is at this point in the debate that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  The parable is his answer to the lawyer’s challenge. Jesus begins the parable with the words:  “A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was very steep, descending nearly 3300 feet over 17 miles.  It winds through many narrow passes, providing excellent locations for bandits to lie in wait of travelers.  Notice that Jesus provides no details about the man who was beaten and robbed.  Based upon Jesus’ description, the man cannot be classified or categorized in any way.  He is simply a human being in need of assistance.

            Almost immediately after the attack, there is a ray of hope for the victimized man, a priest is also traveling along the road.  Yet, instead of stopping to help the victim, he passes by on the other side.  Similarly, a Levite passes by without offering assistance.  Within Jewish society, both the priest and the Levite are highly respected persons.  Yet, neither offers the victim any help.  At this point, the parable has reached its climax.  We know that a third person will see the victim and this third person will break the pattern by stopping to help the beaten man.  Undoubtedly, Jesus’ listeners would have expected that this third person will be a very faithful, devout Jew.

            Yet, Jesus has a surprise for his listeners.  The third person is not a kind, faithful Jew.  Instead, he is a despised and hated Samaritan.  Although both Jews and Samaritans shared a similar faith and similar sacred texts, they disagreed bitterly over how to interpret God’s Holy Word and the implications of that interpretation for how they lived their lives.  For the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim should be the center of worship, whereas for the Jews the center of worship was the Temple in Jerusalem.  The animosity between Jews and Samaritans was so great that Jews avoided all social contact with Samaritans out of fear that they would become ritually impure. 

            Of course, the man lying in the ditch couldn’t care less about ritual purity.  He is in desperate need of help.  When the Samaritan sees the beaten man, he is moved by pity and compassion.  He stops and offers first aid to the beaten man.  Then, the Samaritan gets the broken man up on his own animal and gets him to an inn where he can rest and recuperate.  The Samaritan even pays the innkeeper to care for the victim.

            At this point, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of the three, do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  Still repulsed by the thought of a Samaritan being the hero in the parable, he can only respond:  “The one who showed him mercy.”

            In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus defines “neighbor” not in geographic or cultural or national terms.  Instead, for Jesus, our “neighbor” is simply the person who needs our help.  For 21st century Christians, the question becomes, “Who needs our help?”

Come, join us this Sunday, as we explore the implications of the Good Samaritan parable for following Christ in the 21st century.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.