Loving your neighbor
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Summary of Three Questions
This is the story of Nikolai, a boy who “sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act.” To learn he seeks the answers to three questions: when is the best time to do things, who is the most important one, and what is the right thing to do. He asks his animal friends for help and while they have some answers none of them are fully satisfying so he seeks the wisdom of Leo, the Turtle. When he asks the questions, he does not get an answer. Instead, Leo keeps digging in his garden, so the boy helps him. Then he hears a cry of help and goes to answer it and helps a panda who is hurt. Once he helps the panda he learns her cub is also lost so he rushes out to help the baby panda as well. After doing all this, the boy was still sad because he has not found the answers to his questions, so he asks Leo again. The turtle explains the answers using the example of the boy’s actions. The most important time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. The most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.
Thoughts on the passage:
It is not often that I use the same passage two weeks in a row. The passage from Luke lends itself to examination twice because there are two clear parts. The initial question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” and the follow-up “Who is my neighbor.” The question of “who is my neighbor” seems like typical hairsplitting of those of us who seek to do the right thing and to make sure we don’t do too much work. We are supposed to love our neighbors, so we want Jesus to tell us who those people are so we don’t mistakenly love the wrong person by mistake.
Jesus however, is having none of that sort of thing. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan he is challenging our typical assumptions of who is righteous and who is not. The first people to pass the injured man on the road are people of importance and religious significance. They are the people we would assume are already on their way to eternal life. The third person is the one who is morally questionable, a Samaritan. Samaritans were not a part of the chosen people. They were ritually unclean. They were second class citizens compared to the Jews. These were people who were not to be trusted. Yet this is the person that is willing to be a neighbor to the stranger.
The priest and the Levite could offer excuses for their actions. Their roles require them to be ritually clean, which includes not touching blood and certainly not touching dead bodies. For them, moving to the other side of the road could be their attempt to stay clean so they can fill their roles in the temple. I feel for them. As a pastor, balancing the many different parts of the job is hard. It is hard if you are a teacher. It is hard if you are a police officer too. Knowing what the right thing to do is hard. The question of the legal expert is a fair one. It echoes the same struggle that Nikolai has in our other story today. We want to do what is right but we just do not always know what that means.
In The Three Questions we again see the struggle to know what the right thing to do is. What we learn is that the right thing to do is based not on some perfect answer that exists, but is born in each moment. What is right to do in one context is wrong in another. In the story, the right thing for the boy to be doing is helping the turtle to garden, because when he does he hears the cry for help from the panda. That does not mean that gardening is always the right thing to be doing. Instead, the actions are born of the circumstances.
Most of us find those sorts of answers frustrating. We are like the legal expert who wants it clearly spelled out. We want to be Christ’s disciples and we want to do the right thing, we just wish Jesus would clearly tell us what it is so we can get it done. Instead we have to pay attention all the time for what it is that we are being called to do. Being a disciple of Christ means always listening for God’s call in our lives and the seeing the needs of those around us as a part of that call.
When we talk about a “call” in the church we often refer to a specific moment. We can point to times that different people are called in scripture, like Samuel, as a little boy, being called in the temple or Isaiah and Jeremiah and their calls to be God’s prophets. Even Jesus calling the disciples focuses on that moment when they set aside their nets and follow. Maybe we need to instead remember that what we have is not a singular call, but a calling. A calling is an ongoing call, an ongoing action that drives us forward. We are not called to a singular purpose and moment, we are instead being called into a life of discipleship and how that life gets lived out changes.
Right now, God is calling me to be the pastor for our congregation here, in this time and place. When I first heard God’s calling in my life over twenty years ago I had never heard of Willmar. At the time I would not have said that serving Willmar is what I was called to do. However, when the Bishop asked me to serve and I prayed about it, I did feel that God was calling me to this place and this time to be the pastor for this community.
God has a calling for all of us. Sometimes that calling remains the same. There are people who faithful continue to do the same things over and over in the church because that is what God is calling them to do. There are other people who might do something for a season or a time and then feel called to something else. What we need to do is keep asking ourselves what we can being doing right now to do good for those who we are with. We need to keep looking for those neighbors in the ditches that need our attention and care.
Questions to Ponder:
What gifts has God given you to use?
Who is a neighbor in your life that is in need?
What can our church be doing to reach out and do good for our neighbors?
How is God calling you to do good in the church in the coming year?
Over and over you call to us, God. Each time you remind us that we are loved and that you are with us. Again and again you then call us to something more, to faithful service in your name. Help us to respond with joy and courage to your call. Give us the wisdom to see those neighbors in our lives that need help. Give us the strength to reach out and help them in whatever ways we can. Amen