Follow What is Right
Proper 10, Year C, RCL, Track 1, Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
A legal expert or a layer is the center of attention today. The laws being questioned are not the secular laws of Rome but the laws of Judaism, biblical law. Many of us will come into this story thinking that there is an adversarial relationship between Jesus and this layer. Yet, there really is little basis for this thought. Unlike our unfortunate modern context, having a free and open debate about the meaning of scripture, its impacts, and influence on our daily lives has been and continues to be a common aspect of the Jewish tradition.
So in our Gospel reading, we have a scholar, focused on the law, who has been listening to Jesus and has some questions about what Jesus is saying. Respectfully, he says, Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? A question that some of us have probably asked ourselves on occasion. Jesus says you are a lawyer, tell me what you know. The Lawyer, distilling the scriptures, quotes two lines of the law; one from Deuteronomy and the other 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." No one listening can argue with this well thought out answer. Even Jesus says he is correct. “Do this, and you will live.”
Then, we hear the lawyer trying to justify himself. Again, this phrase has a negative connotation to our modern ears, but it doesn’t need to be. Being justified or righteous under the law is the normal practice of Judaism. You follow the law and you are righteous. If you don’t understand the law you have to figure it out, often with the help of a rabbi or lawyer. Since he is in the presence of a rabbi, or teacher, he is looking for clarification. Just as any lawyer in our day and age knows, if the word isn’t defined then the meaning can be lost.
Within Judaism, the word neighbor had several meanings based on context and situation. Neighbor at its most general meaning is anyone who you may meet in a day including a sojourner, a foreigner just passing through town. But the scriptures are inconsistent. So the lawyer asks a clarifying question, “Who is my neighbor.” In return, Jesus tells a story; a common way to answer a question back in the day.
We know this story of a man left for dead. The priest passes by. The priest is likely justified in his actions. No one would think that he did anything wrong. For if the man was dead and the priest were to touch him or even got close enough to smell a decaying body, he could be ritually unclean for a week. Think of COVID quarantine. No one wants to do that on purpose. Whether the same implications apply to the Pharisee is less clear. But what is clear is that in the story neither the lawyer nor anyone else listening seems to empathize with the two people who pass the injured man by. Who was the neighbor to the man left for dead? It was the “good for nothing” Samaritan. And yes, the implication of being ritually unclean, much like the Pharisee, would have applied to a Samaritan in his community as well. It is clear to everyone listening to this story who the neighbor is. The Samaritan does what is right, regardless of the possible consequences. Humanity comes first and no one argues with this.
This story points to two important and related ideas. The first is that our neighbor is anyone we may meet in our day. And Jesus means anyone. But equally important and what I would like to emphasize is that this passage tells us what a good neighbor looks like. A good neighbor goes out of their way to help a stranger. A good neighbor doesn’t care what the implications are of helping someone who is in need. The Good neighbor is willing to even pay the financial cost. Jesus basically says, doing right makes us righteous. Doing right is what Christ calls us to and is what he says will allow us to inherit eternal life. In the other synoptic Gospels, this phrase is said to be the new commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”[i]
We find righteousness to be the central theme of our other two readings as well. In Amos, we hear God taking a plumb line to the people of Israel. The covenant people of God are supposed to know that there is a right way to live in this relationship. This type of relationship is called righteous. Let’s not think of holy righteousness but simply living the way God has called them to live. If you live the ways God calls you to live then you are righteous. So, God holds up this plumb line to see if His people are upright. What God finds is that the wealthy and elite Israelites of this kingdom are not.
During this time, history tells us that the Northern Kingdom of Israel is living in its most prosperous time ever. And Amos tells us that there are systemic problems of materialism, selfishness, and idol worship. Their wealth is being built through the oppression of the poor. So, Amos tries to point out these shortcomings to Amaziah, the king’s priest. What we find is that the king and his priest want nothing to do with the truth or the prophecy. The leaders of the country don’t see a problem. Eventually, the Northern Kingdom does fall into the hands of the Assyrians and the upper class people are exiled, just as Amos predicted.
In the letter to the Colossians, the writer uplifts and commends the church of Colossae. He prays “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Why does he want this? “So that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.” Though what we read is just the introduction to the letter, we find that we have an ability to “grow in the knowledge of God.” This growth comes from us “bearing fruit in every good work.” What is the good work? Loving God and loving neighbor, just like the Gospel tells us.
All told, there are 613 commandments or laws that the Hebrew people were following. 613 laws that a person is to follow, and make amends when you fall short, so you can become righteous again. Jesus came not to abolish these laws, but to fulfill them. If we have all these laws but are not allowed exceptions under certain circumstances, people get hurt. An injured man is left for dead. A person with an illness cannot be healed on the Sabbath.
If we can love God and our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, as much as Christ loves us, then all the other laws fall into place. We don’t need legalism to know if we are breaking the law or not. If we love God and our neighbor as much as ourselves, then we are righteous. This is the freedom we find in our tradition. Instead of wondering if we are going to break a law, we can look toward empathy and mercy as our guide. For ultimately empathy and mercy is what Christ has for us. And if God can have this for us, than surely we can have this for others.
[i] Matthew 22:39 & Mark 12:31