Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:10-14, Luke 10:25-37
Did you notice that a lawyer introduces the story of the Good Samaritan? At first it may seem that the gospel of Luke is reinforcing the bad reputation that lawyers have in our own time. The lawyer stands up to test Jesus. And then asks a question to justify himself. And the passage could be read that way. Lawyers may deserve at least some of those lawyer jokes.
But there is something going on here in the church of Luke and also in the churches of Asia Minor to whom Colossians is written. That something has to do with the law. Or we might say principles. For as Christian communities emerge and then develop, one of the big issues is “how shall we live?” By what rules, guidelines, laws, and principles should we lead our lives? What are the norms of our community life together? And to whom shall we be responsible and in what ways? How shall we treat our neighbors?
Perhaps the events of this week lift up starkly the importance of the norms of community life and the values, guidelines, and laws we use to create safety and opportunity for all. Perhaps the events of this week remind us of the importance of engaging all of us as we face the complicated matters of racism, violence, the availability and use of weapons, and challenges facing all those involved in law creation and enforcement.
Now we may have a dislike for lawyers and even distain law and regulation as bureaucratic intrusion into our personal liberties. Those are the themes of our times. And there is a second prejudice against law that comes with being Lutheran. For Luther founded our tradition on the importance of grace and love as the way to God rather than obeying the law. And we Lutherans have spent centuries now condemning those who say you can earn your way to heaven by living a good life. We Lutherans say it depends upon the grace of God. So American Lutherans, focused on the need for human liberty, will have little trouble seeing the lawyer as the villain in the story.
But the lawyer is not the villain, rather the inquirer who raises the question that matters to the church of Luke? Ok, so we believe in Jesus. How shall we live? What are our principles? Our guidelines for living well as Christians? And how do we treat those around us? How do we build a common good in these fractured times? Do we favor those who are like us? Or is everyone our neighbor? And how would that work?
Some of the rules, guidelines, laws, and principles of early Christians seem grounded in the Jewish tradition. There is some attention to the commandments and the Hebrew law. A sense of fairness and compassion along with human decency that is present in these Hebrew principles. But limitations are also placed on the Jewish law in early Christian communities. Circumcision is not practiced. Nor are the dietary laws. Nor are the laws of sacrifice and worship.
These early Christians are actually constructing their principles around a somewhat different center: a challenge we may face today in our common life. You can sense the newly emerging principles and guidelines for living in Colossians. There are four emerging principles, norms, or laws for the good found in this short passage: (1) Christians are called to know God: to spend time drawing close to God in reflection and prayer. (2) Christians practice patience. (More of a Greek stoic virtue than a Hebrew one) (3) Christians are called to be joyful and thankful. (Notice how joy and thankfulness is not a personal feeling in Colossians but a principle for living.) And (4) Christians share life together. So Christians not only believe in Jesus, they also in the name of Jesus live the good life of drawing close to God, sharing, joyful thanksgiving, and patience.
The Luke Christians see two primary principles upon which to build a life in Christ, two laws that could be summarized by a good lawyer. Love of God or knowing God and then loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
At the core of this second principle of compassion is the necessary legal, moral and personal question: Is there a limit to my compassion? Who is my neighbor? And what are my responsibilities to others as a Christian?
Thoughtful Christians drawing close to God, patient, joyful, thankful, sharing of themselves, and filled with compassion want to know the answer to the limits of caring.
We sometimes ask ourselves this question at St. Johns. Many weeks only one out of six people who come through our doors does so for religious reasons. The rest come for some sort of shelter, assistance, or recovery program. This place sometimes creaks under the load of the compassion this little band of Christians attempts to provide. It seems that there is no end to the people beaten up by life on the side of the road who need our help.
Some time ago I read Jessica Wrobleski’s, The Limits of Hospitality (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2012). Now some people just want to avoid the poor and all their problems. Or blame the poor, the homeless, and the struggling for their problems. Jessica is not like that. She would fit into the compassion of St. Johns very well. She’s Roman Catholic, teaching religious ethics at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. She has spent a life doing shelter programs and meal serving in the catholic worker tradition for the homeless and those in need in West Virginia and elsewhere. She is an example of a contemporary Good Samaritan who with deep compassion and experience wonders about the guidelines needed in order to care well.
In her book she addresses the limits one faces in a life dedicated to serving an infinite number of those in need. She talks about the need for structure and rules, the need for safety and security, the need to sustain oneself, the challenges to our sense of self, the need to get beyond a helping mentality, the limitations on one’s resources, the occasional scarcity that plagues life, and the regrettable struggle with boundaries.
These are issues facing not only the Christians of Luke but also today’s Good Samaritan, who provides immediate relief to those who are different, enlists the assistance of partners in ministry, the innkeeper, and establishes a budget for the caring, two denarii; all so that he can be that neighbor and yet go on with his journey. In the end, what makes hospitality and compassion work seems to be a sense of courage and the capacity to treasure relationships with those who are different from us while managing our own limitations.
And this lawyer in Luke, who carries the question of what the limits of our caring might be, is told by Jesus to go, be that neighbor; yes, work with the budgets and boundaries, attending to security and scarcity, but always have the courage to care and always to treasure the opportunity to be with someone whose suffering may mirror the face of Jesus.
So in this place, it’s not a problem that so many come here for help rather than worship. Their coming is our opportunity to worship more fully and completely, deeply and richly in the name of Jesus.
This courage to care means not only relating to different people, but also thinking in different ways. Caring compassion means bandaging those wounded on the side of the road. And it also means making the roads safer to travel so that there are fewer people being attacked by robbers, fewer travelers on life’s way subjected to violence.
That is the point of a book by another contemporary Good Samaritan, Laura Stivers’ Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches (Fortress Press, 2011). Caring for those in need involves thinking about what causes all those people to be so much in need. In her book, Stivers digs into structural causes of poverty and homelessness as they intertwine with the personal issues involving mental illness or addiction. And as poverty has increased in America in the last thirty years, more and more people, especially African Americans, are finding themselves caught in this personal and systemic web and without homes.
She sees providing shelter as important, and she also calls for advocating for changes in how we approach housing, mental health, and addiction for those on the margins so that we can disrupt the process by which people become ensnared in a web of hopelessness, poverty, and dependency.
And as one who cares about those in need, as a contemporary Samaritan, if you will, she lifts up this strange thing called the church, called the congregation, as a most important crucible for forming, shaping, and sharing a more prophetic vision for how we can address homelessness, as well as other social problems. For congregations, these places both intimate and public, are the places where we can both advocate and also work within the deepest recesses of the struggling heart. The courage to care, calls us to attend to our limits, to recognize our own fears and doubts, to relate to those in need, and to advocate for those who are vulnerable.
And from the beginning, this compassion was one of the earliest principles, guidelines, or laws of faith. First Christians, in these readings were learning to know God, learning patience, practicing joy and thanksgiving, sharing life together, and helping those in need as they were given the grace to do so. And so must we in our own challenging times.