Let us pray: God, come among us this morning. Bless our hearing of your Word, that it might open our hearts to hear you speak to us this morning. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
On our Travels
I once heard a story while visiting family that has stuck with me ever since. I was in Columbus, the home of Ohio State University. We were talking about college football, specifically Ohio State’s rivalry with University of Michigan. My family started with a few smaller stories, like accidentally wearing Michigan colors to work and hearing about it all day, but eventually they told one final story. It was about an Ohio State player who was driving somewhere, and for whatever reason his trip took him over the state line into Michigan, where he ran out of gas. Then, instead of buying gas in Michigan, he pushed his car back across the state line into Ohio rather than buy gas in Michigan and support, however indirectly, his team’s football rival.
It’s like the opposite of the parable of the Good Samaritan, where a traveler gets into trouble and refuses to even consider needing or accepting help. Rather than getting a lift from a friendly Michigander, rather than walking to the nearest (Michigan) gas station, rather than seeing Michiganders as people at all, he gets himself back to Ohio and friendly territory. This player in no way was going to accept help from anyone.
We often talk about this parable as a reminder to help others, or of the unexpected places that help can come from. Both of those things are true and important, but I’d like to go in a different direction this morning. The framing of this parable is important, for instance; we have a lawyer who’s come to Jesus with a question. This is a lawyer of religious law, that is, the Torah, someone who’s an expert on the Pentateuch and the details of the law that God gave to Israel from Mount Sinai. When they approach Jesus, they usually intend to test Him, not learn from Him. This lawyer seems to be no different: “How do I inherit eternal life?” could be an honest question–it’s one I’ve asked, one many of us struggle with–but rather than accept Jesus’ reply about the Law, about how it commands to loving God with everything in you and loving your neighbor, the lawyer keeps pushing: “And who is my neighbor?”
Paul Lehmann talks about a distinction I’d like to make here. There is a difference between taking the law as gospel and the gospel as law. When we take the law as a gospel, we see the law as the most important thing. The rules become important above all else, because after all, they were given to us by God. That means they must be important, right? And, as we cling to the rules, they become all-important and also full of human opinions. The rules become more and more specific as we try harder and harder to follow this all-important, God-given system. But, as we see in this parable, when we do that, we also define people out of the system. The priest and the Levite, both of whom were serving God, both of whom were deeply concerned with following the rules, both pass the hurt traveler by. And they don’t just pass him by; they cross to the other side of the road. They actively ignore him. And we see the same in the lawyer, who presses Jesus for further details about the neighbor; by asking for a definition of ‘neighbor,’ he is trying to narrow the term and exclude as many people as possible.
When we take the gospel as law, though, everything changes. When we take the gospel as seriously as we take the law, when we take it as the most important factor in our life that should shape everything, life looks radically different. By gospel, I mean precisely what’s outlined at the beginning of our parable: “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.” When that shapes our life, we see others. We love others. We are filled with grace and compassion for those around us, and we allow even the most unexpected to gift us with grace and compassion in return.
Sometimes we are the Samaritan, managing to see the need around us. Sometimes we are the priest or the Levite, passing that need by. Sometimes we are the traveler, in need of help, battered beyond belief, alone and with nowhere to go. All the characters need God, need to rest in God and be given faith: it takes faith to help a stranger, along a dangerous road when it could be a trap; it takes humility to accept help; it takes compassion to break through our certainties and our fears to see the needs around us, really see them.
No matter who we are in the story, no matter where we find ourselves today, may we, through God’s grace, rest in God. May God give us all faith. May God give us all that we need for the journey, and through us help others.