Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dan Hall's Sermon, July 14, 2013

Sermon for St. Andrews—July 14, 2013

The Discussion with the Self-Righteous Lawyer

I am delighted to be with you this morning while Bruce is away on some well deserved vacation. You seem to be managing well in your itinerant and peripatetic worship here at PTS while your own building is under renovation. As a bivocational priest who does a fair amount of supply work, it is my particular joy to worship with different communities throughout the region and enjoy some of the wonderful variety of people and personalities that make up the body of Christ we call the Church. Thank you for having me.

The gospel text this morning is one of the most familiar parables of the entire bible. It is a story that has seeped into the fabric of our culture and history so much that being a “Samaritan” is simply understood to mean somebody who is merciful and kind beyond the usual call of duty. Indeed, when I was growing up outside of Boston in the 1970s and 80s, there was an advertising company that organized “Good Samaritan” vans that patrolled the beltway during rush hour to help stranded motorists.  If your radiator over heated, or if your drive belt broke, or if you got a flat tire, the CVS Good Samaritan Van was there to help you out of the jam—free of charge—as a way to build good publicity for CVS or any number of other corporate sponsors whose logo was painted on the side of the mobile repair shop.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a lovely story with a tried and true moral message about how to be a good person who, in the idiom of contemporary bumper stickers, practices random acts of kindness. And I suspect that something along these lines ran through your mind when you heard Jean read this story yet again. You see, we typically take this parable as instruction that we should show mercy to the outcast, the oppressed and the down-trodden. It is difficult and demanding work, but it is the hard work to which we are called, so man up and put your shoulder to the plow as we till the fields for justice.

Such a reading is all well and good, and I’m all for working to bring justice to the poor, the outcast and the oppressed.  But I’d like to suggest that it is NOT what the parable is about. The parable may be about the Good Samaritan, but the scripture passage from Luke is about the lawyer. In fact, I think we would better see the point if we knew this story as the Discussion with the Self-Righteous Lawyer rather than the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Let me explain.

First, notice that Jesus is not talking to the Samaritan. The Samaritan is a fictional character described by Jesus in his discussion with a lawyer. And for the lawyer, Jesus wants to make a very specific point.  Did you catch it?

The lawyer wants to test Jesus, so he asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. As an expert in Jewish law, the lawyer is trying to test Jesus’ sophistication in the highly technical field of Torah study. The lawyer accurately summarizes the commandments into the single teaching that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And Jesus agrees. But the lawyer is not satisfied because, as the Luke writes, he wanted to “justify himself”.  So in an attempt to justify himself, he asks, “And who, precisely, is my neighbor”.

To understand his question, you need to know that in the context of the Jewish law, the obligation to love the neighbor was narrowly circumscribed around the Jewish people. The obligation to others was binding only for other Jews. And it was certainly not binding for the Romans who occupied the land, or the other gentiles that worked the bustling trade routes through Palestine. It was not even binding for the other Semitic peoples of the region, such as the Samaritans, who claimed to worship the same God as the Jews, but did not recognize the temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion as the center of worship life.  Instead, the Samaritans had their own temple on near by Mount Gerazim.

For the lawyer in the gospel reading, the obligation to love the neighbor applied only to other Jews. And when the law was so narrowly circumscribed, you can understand how the lawyer might think that he had actually satisfied the terms of the law. You can see how he might think that he had successfully loved God and neighbor as commanded in the Torah, and having done so, he thought himself justified. He was looking for confirmation that he would inherit eternal life (which was a hope of many Jews of the time). His hope was in the law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and from the point of view of a faithful Jew, placing trust in God’s law was meet and right so to do.

But of course, the point of Jesus’ parable is that the law is MUCH more demanding than the lawyer presumes. Jesus shows the lawyer what neighborliness means. And in so doing, Jesus pulls the rug out from under the lawyer’s self-righteous confidence in his ability to fulfill the terms of the law.  Jesus’ words to the lawyer are intended not as moral guidance, but as judgment. The parable does not instruct, it convicts. Jesus shows the lawyer how far he has fallen from the expectation of the law. He shows him that, contrary to his self-righteous attitude, he stands convicted by the law—not justified.

And so it is with each and every one of us. Can any of us honestly examine our conscience and find ourselves blameless under the terms of the 10 commandments? And when we moralize the parable of the Good Samaritan to mean that God has even higher expectations of us when it comes to serving the needs of others, that parable turns around on us like lighting. If we think that we are to be like the Good Samaritan, we either burn ourselves out in a doomed attempt to fulfill the law, or we merely delude ourselves like the lawyer into thinking that we have somehow managed to punch our ticket to eternal life by being a good enough Samaritan.

But under this higher and more stringent standard, it is even less likely that we can honestly claim to have met the terms of the law without fault. Like the self-righteous lawyer, and like St. Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and every serious Christian throughout history, we each and all stand convicted before the law, utterly unable to fulfill its demands.

That’s the bad news. Any hope we might have that ignores or soft-pedals our terminal diagnosis as sinful creatures is false hope. The good news, however, is the gospel of grace. Through Jesus, God promises to forgive our sin and make us a new creation in baptism. The entire arc of Luke’s Gospel drives toward this mystery and this promise. That is, after all, why they call the gospels, “gospel”.  The word literally means “good news”.

And it is the good news of Jesus that remains the focus of the rest of the New Testament. God’s promise of forgiveness that frees us from the stringent requirements of the law is precisely the focus of all Paul’s preaching. You will remember that Paul was just like the lawyer in Luke’s Gospel. Before his conversion, he persecuted Christians, self-righteously confident in his own ability to fulfill the terms of the law.  As he writes to the church in Philippi: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.”

When it comes to forgiveness and eternal life, the only thing that matters, and everything that matters is Jesus. And that is Paul’s point in his letter to the church in Colossae that we begin reading today. In the opening sentences of that letter, Paul reminds us that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

But as you will see over the next 3 Sundays as you continue to read Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the Christians in Colossae were falling into a familiar trap. Surely, they thought, there must be something more required of us.  There must be something more that we must do—something we must do to earn salvation.  And they began to create new obligations about purity and ritual. They created expectations to avoid eating certain foods and touching certain unclean objects. They created expectations to worship in a particular way, observing “festivals, new moons and Sabbaths”. In short, they began to think that Jesus was not enough. They began to think that they needed to add something to Jesus’ promise of salvation because it seemed too easy.  Like us, they wanted the sense of security found in clear rules and expectations.  They wanted a set of behaviors that they could accomplish and in so doing find justification before God. In short, the Christians in Collasae were just like the lawyer in Luke’s gospel.  They wanted to justify themselves before God by fulfilling the terms of a law.  And they wanted it so badly that they started to invent a new set of laws that would be binding on Christians.

The promises of legal justification are so tempting. Give me a clear set of expectations and I can set about the task of fulfilling those expectations with skill and efficiency. Those expectations are so comfortable that we often end up inventing them to make us feel better. Like the Christians in Colossae, we end up looking for something more that we can do. We latch on to something visible in which we can put our trust.  But the point of both Paul’s letter to the Colossians and Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan is the same: Jesus and Jesus alone frees us from our bondage to sin.  It is Jesus and Jesus alone who frees us from the stringent requirements of the law, literally nailing those requirements to the cross. And it is on Jesus and Jesus alone on whom our hope is founded. Hope in the law’s power to justify is false hope. Hope in Jesus’ promise to forgive is the sure foundation of our faith, and it is hope that you can trust.

Hoping to get to heaven by being a Good Samaritan?  Think again. Hoping that your work on the millennium development goals or inner city soup kitchens will lead to eternal life? Good luck with that. Hoping you can save yourself by eating hormone free, grass fed, free range, locally sourced food? Fat chance. Hoping your prayers will get preferential treatment for setting them in 6 part harmony in the context of tasteful liturgy? Not likely. But trusting that Jesus will show up as promised in bread and wine and water for the forgiveness of sins? You can take that to the bank. All you will ever need is right here. And his name is Jesus.


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