Note: I preached a version of this sermon on July 14, 2019 (Proper 10C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the Talmud, a story is told of the council of rabbis that decided matters of Jewish law. They had met to discuss a new kind of oven. Was it kosher? Rabbi Eliezer argued that it was. All the rest argued that it was not kosher. Rabbi Eliezer could not convince his colleagues.
So he said, ‘If I am right about the oven, the carob tree will prove it.” So the tree uprooted itself and moved far away. The other rabbis argued that a carob tree can’t prove any matter of law.
Then Rabbi Eliezer says, “If I am right about the oven, the stream will prove it,” and so the stream reversed and flowed backward. The other rabbis said that you do not cite streams in settling a rule of law.
Finally, an exasperated Rabbi Eliezer says “If I am right about the oven, heaven will prove it.” And then a voice from Heaven says, “Why do you other rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer; his opinion is always in accordance with the kosher laws.” But one of the majority, Rabbi Joshua, responds, quoting today’s reading from Deuteronomy: “It is not in heaven.”
God (and Rabbi Eliezer) had to admit defeat. “My children have triumphed over me,” God says in the story, smiling.
In the passage we hear from Deuteronomy today, the people of Israel are being instructed before they enter the promised land. They are told what they must do to gain blessing, and what they must refrain from doing to avoid a curse.
And these instructions, God says, are not too hard. If they seem too hard, you maybe interpreting them too strictly, or you may need to think about your own obstacles to hearing and obeying. And more importantly, God’s Word is not far away, not in heaven so that anyone should ask “who will go up to heaven and get it for us?” No, in fact, the Word of God is close at hand, on your lips and in your heart.
This moment is so important because it makes it clear that the Word of God is not mysterious or hidden. It is not esoteric. No angels or divine messengers or wise men sunk in meditation are needed to discover its meaning. It’s there for you for you to hear and do. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily totally obvious or plain, especially not after 3000 years of history and translation into new languages. But you don’t need any mystical insight or inspiration to “get” it. You don’t need a vision or a voice from Heaven. You simply need to hear and act.
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus applies this truth in a particularly challenging way. A student of the law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says, “what does the Law say?” The man answers with the two great commands, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus: “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 confirms that he has answered correctly; do this, and you will live. But the man is not satisfied. He needs to know more. “Who, then, is my neighbor?”
Jesus answers, as he so often does, with a story:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, a road famous for its lawlessness. And he fell into the company of robbers, who stole everything from him and left him for dead.
A priest happened by and passed by on the other side of the road, avoiding the bleeding man.
A Levite also passed by and avoided him.
But a Samaritan came by and felt pity for the man. He cleaned and tended his wounds, and took him to the inn and paid for his care.
Which of these three was a neighbor to the wounded man, Jesus asks. “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer says. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him.
My favorite theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, wrote that when someone asks Jesus a question like this, Jesus “imprisons them in the answer.” The man who asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?” is looking for an answer that will assure him that he is righteous. That he has done the right thing and that he has done enough.
This is the way teachers of the Law, and theologians, and even pastors like to talk: What actions are included in “love”? What kinds of relationships make someone a “neighbor,” and who is not a “neighbor”?
Jesus does not get drawn into this trap. He does not get involved in the distinctions. He simply gives an example and in doing that he traps the questioner. Because the answer to “what is love” or “who is my neighbor?” is not in heaven. There is no secret meaning to the commandment. There is no limit to it that we need to figure out and then measure ourselves against. There is only a plain command, and our willingness to obey it, or not.
The priest and the Levite in this story could make plausible arguments. The road is dangerous, and a bleeding man suggests the presence of bandits nearby. I am not obligated to help him at risk to myself. And besides, if I help a man who recklessly traveled this dangerous road by himself, won’t that just encourage him to take more foolish risks in the future?
The Samaritan could have made an additional argument: This wounded man is not of my community and my nation. He is not a neighbor but a stranger or even an enemy. I owe him nothing.
They all could have said this to themselves, and no one in their communities would have blamed them. We are all being invited to say this to ourselves, all the time. These are some of the craftiest arguments of the world and the devil. And they work! We can silence our conscience by repeating them. If we ignore the protest of conscience long enough, it will eventually stop.
“Who is my neighbor?” is the central question of our public life, and it will be for as long as any of us lives. And we will be given all kinds of answers to use to justify ourselves. The convict sweltering in a Florida prison with no air conditioning is not my neighbor because he committed a crime. The asylum-seekers herded into unsanitary and overcrowded camps are not our neighbors because they belong to another country and a different community. The parents of legal residents and citizens who get picked up and deported this weekend are not our neighbors because they do not have legal status. The pregnant mother who can’t afford another child, the child in her womb, the child caught in the juvenile justice system, the people with severe disabilities—there’s always a way to say “not my neighbor.”
In the story Jesus tells, the Samaritan doesn’t say any of that. He is moved with pity. He sees the wounded man and doesn’t see a moral puzzle to solve. He isn’t out looking for ways to do good or make himself into a better person. He simply sees a fellow human who is suffering, who will die if he goes without water for four days, who will bleed to death in minutes or hours if his wounds are not bound up, who will wither away from infection if he is not cleaned. Who sweats and breathes and passes gas and loved his mother and misses his children and is less than perfectly honest and could do better and be better but who most importantly is there. Before the Samaritan’s eyes.
And this moment creates an obligation, a bond between the Samaritan and the wounded man. The priest rejected the obligation. The Levite rejected the obligation. The Samaritan accepted it. And despite the risk to himself, despite the cost to himself, despite the lack of friendship between his people and the wounded man, he acted as though it was the only decision in his life that would ever matter.
“It is not in heaven.” The Word is not in heaven, your neighbor is not in heaven, that anyone should say “who will bring it down for us,” or “who will reveal them to us,” or “who will solve this dilemma?” The Word, and the neighbor, is close at hand, on your lips and in your eyes and in your heart. Amen.