Sunday, March 05, 2017

Who Is My Neighbor?

The lection this morning was the Good Samaritan, and Mary and Martha; two very familiar stories from Luke’s Gospel. Seemingly two different stories, Luke places them together for a reason. Let’s see if we can figure out why.

In the first story, a teacher of the Law decides he’s going to have some sport with this itinerant rabbi, and so he asks, “how can I inherit eternal life?” A couple things here with this question. How would one inherit eternal life anyway? Well if you’re a child of Abraham, you likely thought you could – the Children of Abraham, the People of God – because it was passed on by natural birth (didn’t Paul say something about “not by the will of man?”). For now though, let’s pay attention to that question – how can I get eternal life. Don’t lose sight of that question.

Jesus doesn’t say you’re a child of Abraham, so you’re in. No, he turns the question back: what does the Law say? The teacher responds with the two greatest commandments (we’ll be told that combined, all the Law and prophets hang on them as the greatest command), and Jesus says “you’re right!” The second of those two commands is “love your neighbor as yourself.” The teacher is right to be a bit wary of this approval because in his world, neighbor is somewhat constricted. He has probably treated his friends, other teachers, and most Jews of his caste pretty well, but he has a sneaking suspicion that there’s a catch here some place. And so he asks (seeking to justify himself), who is my neighbor?

Jesus again doesn’t answer the question but tells a story this time. We don’t need to review the details here because you know the story, but there are a couple details we want to examine. The first are the two who pass by the victim, the priest and the Levite. The text doesn’t give us much detail about these two or why they crossed the road and avoided the victim. We do know that they serve in the Temple of God in Jerusalem – the priest and the Temple functionaries, the Levite. What is interesting here is the contrast between the jobs of these two and their behavior in relation to this victim. The job of a priest – the definition of the function – is to mediate between God and people; to speak for the people, to lift them up, to help them in relating to their God. The Levite, as a Temple functionary has the same sort of job in a supporting role to the priest. What Luke presents us with here are two people whose very jobs are to intercede for people in their misery and yet they avoid this one; not lending a hand or lifting him up. Contrast the behaviors of these two countrymen whose functions should compel them to help, with a Samaritan. Samaritan are outcasts, marginalized people, unclean and detestable. Jews don’t like Samaritans because they’re not “true Israelites,” and Samaritans don’t like Jews because well, who would like someone who treats your people in the ways that Jews treat your people?

To address the teacher’s question, Jesus asks this question: who is his neighbor? The response again is spot-on – the one who “had mercy on him.” OK, go and do likewise.

Let’s review. The question the teacher asked was, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Our response is likely that of the teacher – keep the Law, do good, get the stuff right.

But that’s not the answer Jesus gives him. Jesus’s answer?

Do mercy.

You want to have eternal life?

Do mercy.

To people you don’t like – and perhaps more especially – to those who hold you in contempt.
Who is your neighbor? Those guys over there who are spitting on you, that’s who.

Show mercy to them, and gain eternal life.

So now let’s visit Mary and Martha. Jesus comes to town and comes to the house of these ladies. Mary sits down to listen to Jesus and Martha busies herself in the kitchen. It is premature for us to jump from here to lesson application. This story isn’t as neat as, “the better part is to listen to Jesus when he’s in town.” Oh no, Luke didn’t put this story here for such a mundane reason.

How do we know this? Because twice we are told that Martha is distracted and worrying about “stuff.” You see, it isn’t that Martha is fixing dinner – that would be fine. It is that she is distracted and worried. About what? That Mary isn’t helping her. Poor Martha is slaving away in the kitchen to take care of the company – we’re going to really honor this rabbi, and she’s grumbling about Mary’s lack of helping. This is Martha’s problem and this is what blinds her to what is happening in the front room and makes her complain to Jesus. If you’ve raised kids, you can hear this – “Daaaaad! Tell Mary to help me!” And you know, if you were raised with siblings what Martha would have done if Jesus had said, OK Mary, go help your sister. Martha wouldn’t have stopped grumbling. Oh no; she’d be muttering things like “oh yeah, now that the rabbi told you come help, here you are. Why didn’t it dawn on you to help me from the beginning? You just don’t appreciate all the work I do around here. Well never mind, I’ve got it almost finished already – no thanks to you, miss prissy!”

Or some such. You’ve heard it; you’ve probably done it. You’re Martha in this story, believe it or not.
OK, so what’s the connection between these two stories?

You can’t show mercy if your life, your attention, your focus – your pride – is wrapped up in grumbling about other people. Wrapped up in how you’ve been dissed, hurt, ignored, taken advantage of. It’s hard to be merciful when you’re in that frame of mind – or frame of life.

And here’s the rub:

If you can’t show mercy, you can’t inherit eternal life.

Because, if you want to inherit eternal life you have to be merciful – even toward those who don’t like you, to those who insult you by leaving you to do all the work, to those who you think are trying to show you up by currying favor with the new rabbi.

To those who spit on you and call you all sorts of pejorative names.

Want eternal life?

Do mercy.

To everyone.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Set Your Face

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In the first half of this reading, Jesus has set his face - he has purposed - toward Jerusalem. This is to be his final trip to Jerusalem, the center of God's people, and the place of God's own house. He has set his face toward Jerusalem because he has to be killed there. He came to Earth to both live and die - two ways to give his life for mankind. His life has been lived dedicated to doing the will of God - healing, raising, blessing - to declare that God has come into the world and to show us how God would live if he were living among us. Which he was. Now, he will die. His death will not be just to die, but will be the culmination of a life lived in subjection to the will of God, just as all that has gone before has been. This death will declare that his faithfulness in life is of such depth and strength that he will let his creatures kill him without cause and will not protest against the injustice. His love for mankind will result in this full submission to the will of God. This cup will not pass and Jesus is on his way to drink it.

The second half of this lection tells of the need for his followers to be as faithful in their calling and lives as he has been in his. Once committing to follow Jesus; to return to God, faithfulness demands complete focus on his life, rather than competing interests. Worried about comfort? Don't come. Worried about other obligations? Don't come. If you come, don't look back. There is an interesting brace in this second half of our reading. It is this, ""Lord, let me first go and bury my father." And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."" Instead of burying the dead, proclaim the kingdom of God. Or, instead of caring for the dead, proclaim that Life has come into the world.

Not having a place to lay one's head when you've walked through Samaria to Jerusalem is problem enough. If you set your face in the same direction as Jesus's, there is the unstated assurance here that having joined with God, you will have whatever is needed for your task. You may not have a pillow or a comfortable life, but you will have whatever is needed to be a disciple - to do the work of God in the world.

This Lent be Jesus. Set your face toward your own negation and lose your life so that you might find it in Jerusalem, after having been faithful to and dying to yourself for the kingdom of God. This is serious business though. Once you start on this road, you can't look back, you can't be distracted toward other, lesser things. Don't return to death, but continue on to Life with God.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Life in Dying

Lent is a season to refocus or repurpose ourselves in this common faith. The season looks toward the Triduum, as a sober period that focuses on the movement of God in the world - namely the reconciliation of all people to God.

The season calls for reflection on the need of that reconciliation and my part in that need. This period though, isn't primarily about denial or self-flagellation, but intentional and deeper reflection. At the risk of sounding morose, let me observe that this period leads toward, or focuses on our own death; our own self-giving of ourselves for and to others.

Looking toward death, living in death is counter-intuitive in most societies. One of the more interesting ideas in some monastic communities is a reminder of the "moment of death." In these circles, this moment is to remind us that we are mortal and that no matter who we are or what we accomplish, we remain mortal. As mortal, we will all proceed to that moment.

All of us will proceed to that moment, but some of us will progress to that moment - our movement toward it will be characterized by living more and more in death. Our own death. And in that living in death, we will become more and most fully alive. This is one secret of the Christian life - that it is in dying that we gain life, real Life. Not at the end of our physical existence, but right now. Dying to ourselves is the only way to have - to experience here - real Life.

This is the Life of Jesus - self-given for and toward others so that they might both have Life and see the path to it. This is what Jesus really means when he says, I am the way, the truth, the Life. Yes, Jesus is God and we need to believe that on some level. More importantly though, it is his living death that is the way to the Father.

The Friday before Easter is called Good Friday, not Black Friday or Death Friday. Good Friday because it is in the death of Jesus that Life is secured for the world. It is in our death that we gain Life for ourselves and extend Life to others. You are, in this life, a Life-giver to others; a small Jesus; a little Christ. This season reminds us of the invitation of God to find Life by dying.

Joyously dying because in our dying, we declare with the heavens and with God himself that the path to home is in giving Life to others. We do this with relish, with gusto, with intentional desire not only to gain Life, but because we are Living in death.

Take the time to refocus. If you do, you will even more be prepared to rejoice on Easter morning when Life really does erupt from death!

This is Lent.

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