July 10, 2016 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I’m always relieved when someone in the bible asks the same question I ask. It’s the question. It’s our question. It’s the deepest longing of our souls and the persistent nagging of our lives expressed in eightsimple words: what must I do to inherit eternal life? It means we want to know that ultimately everything will be ok. That’s why we’re here, right? Because we want to be right with God in the everlasting sense. And, if this isn’t the place to learn that, know that, and experience that, why would we bother coming here on Sunday morning?
Now, part of me wishes that the lawyer who approached Jesus had asked, “What must I believe to inherit eternal life?” because that sounds a lot safer—like something I can accomplish from the armchair in my den or the cushy pew in my church. But, as we’ve seen over the last few Sundays, Luke isn’t interested in separating belief from action, and, as today’s gospel lesson makes clear, what we believe about God affects what we do in God’s name. A meaningful faith demands that we live the life that God has given us in a particular way. And that means that the answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” isn’t going to be easy. It’s not going to be an exercise in philosophical abstraction. It’s going to be hard work. Are we ready for that?
I think that my favorite part about Luke’s version of this encounter, which also occurs in Matthew and Mark, is that in his version Jesus doesn’t give the answers; he asks more questions. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks. “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks in reply. And the answer was clear: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds simple enough. As Moses himself said in Deuteronomy 30, “This word is very near to you.” In other words, it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. It makes sense: love God and love your neighbor, and you’ll be ok. We usually think of Jesus as the one who came up with this clever distillation of the law, but in Luke it is the lawyer who makes the elegant pronouncement. And, Jesus tips his cap to the lawyer, saying, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But part of me wonders whether Jesus was smiling when he said that. I’d bet that Jesus knew that, even though the answer to that question was simple, getting it done wasn’t nearly that easy. So I wonder whether Jesus winked at his disciples before he said anything to the lawyer because he knew that a follow-up question would come next. “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked, wanting to justify himself. That means he wanted to be sure, wanted to know without a doubt that he had done everything that he was expected to do. If inheriting eternal life really was that simple, wouldn’t you want a crystal clear definition of exactly what was expected of you so that you could be sure? Like us, the lawyer wanted to know that he would go to heaven, and he wanted to be sure, so he asked his clarifying question. But, when he asked it, he exposed the trap that he had already set for himself.
Again, Jesus didn’t want to give the man the answer. He wanted him to figure it out on his own. So he told him a story—a story about a man who was beset by robbers and left for dead. Wounded so badly that he might die at any minute, the man lay forsaken on the side of the road. First, a priest and then a Levite passed him by. Both of them were religious figures, and both of them would have known that to come in contact with a dead body was a violation of the law. But both also would have known that saving a life was the most important duty of all. It trumped even the rules about touching a corpse. The lawyer would have known this as well, so, at this point in the story, he would have seen that Jesus was setting him up. But what he didn’t know—what he couldn’t have known—was how the story would end. A Samaritan—a dirty, ungodly, descendent of traitors, half-breed Samaritan—found the half-dead man, treated his wounds, took him to a nearby inn, spent the night looking out for him, paid the innkeeper enough for two-weeks of additional care, and offered to come back and repay anything more that was spent. “Now which one of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?” Jesus asked, smiling. Unable even to say the name of that hated tribe, the lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” And, then, for the second time, Jesus said, “Then go and do it.”
No one saw it coming, but, by the time Jesus finished his story, no one could deny the answer. It was that clear. It was that simple. Now, if you’re like me, your instinct is to accuse the lawyer of looking for the easy way out. “Just give me the bare minimum I need to do to get to heaven,” we assume he was asking Jesus. And we hear Jesus’ reply as a way of shaming the man into realizing that getting to heaven isn’t about doing what is required. But that misses the whole point of this gospel lesson. In fact, that kind of “you-always-need-to-do-more” reading of this passage is more troubling than the man’s half-hearted approach to the faith would have been in the first place. The real power of this encounter comes when we recognize that the man’s intentions were good—just as good and genuine and earnest as our own. When he asked, “What must I do?” and “Who is my neighbor?” he believed that the path to heaven lay in the answers to those questions. But Jesus’ story shows us that asking the questions as if they can be answered is itself the fatal mistake.
The problem with Jesus’ story is that it sets us on a slippery slope of love that has no end. No one was as hated as the Samaritans. In Hebrew the word for neighbor means fellow, companion, friend, countryman. The last people on earth who would qualify were the Samaritans. If a merciful Samaritan proves to be my neighbor, who isn’t deserving of my love? A thief who steals from me to feed his family? The woman whose unscrupulous heart destroyed my marriage? The man whose addiction-fueled drunk-driving took away the most precious thing I ever had? The one who in a perverted religious quest kills innocent lives? Are they my neighbor? Who isn’t my neighbor? Where will it stop?
It doesn’t stop. And that’s the point of the gospel. If God chooses to love everyone, we don’t get to choose whom we will love. We inherit eternal life because of God’s indiscriminate love. In Jesus Christ, God shows us that he loves all of us—no matter who we are or what we have done or what we believe. God loves us all, and he loves all of us exactly the same—Samaritan or Jew, Christian or Muslim, black or white, male or female, Protestant or Catholic, gay or straight, faithful or atheist, church lady or axe murderer, police officer or sniper. And, if God loves all of us, we must love one another—everyone—because, if we don’t, we deny the power of God’s indiscriminate love for us. If we love less than that—if we decide that there is someone on this planet, even one person, who doesn’t deserve our love—then we have placed limits not only on our love but also on God’s love, and, if God’s love has any limits, we are all damned.
Do you want to inherit eternal life? Do you want to spend eternity with God in heaven? The only way that’s going to happen is love—God’s unlimited, unconditional, indiscriminate love. If you want to go to heaven, you must believe in the power of that love, and, if you believe in the power of that love, then there can be no limits on your love either. Jesus teaches us that no one in this world is unlovable. You must love indiscriminately because you are indiscriminately loved.
 Gratitude to Steve Pankey for making this point in his blog post “Do Thou Likewise,” 7 July 2016 at Draughting Theology: https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/do-thou-likewise/.