Sermon, 7/10/22: Declaring Boundaries on Love of Neighbor as Self!

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5 Pentecost

Psalm 82:1 – 8; Amos 7:7 – 17; Colossians 1:1 – 14; Luke 10:25 – 37

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Lk 10:36

The story of the Good Samaritan, rehearsed just moments ago in today’s gospel according to Luke, is so well known that even non-Christians can recite it. And that is perhaps so, because many of the states of our country have enacted laws which bear the title “The Good Samaritan Law.” That regulation is there to encourage individuals to offer aid, to be concerned in cases of emergency. Such laws offer a limited shield to the individual when such aid fails or when further complications develop. This is not a modern-day philosophy or development.

Rabbinic thought, in which we share and from which we Christians benefit, is rife with tales similar to the one told by Luke. You may perhaps recall, in a homily which I offered not too long ago, that I recited an ancient rabbinic story, in which the Rabbi asked his students to define when night becomes day. The Book of Leviticus offers in detail how one is to respond to neighbors in need, especially to those whose crops had failed. The story which Jesus presents is an extension of that tradition, and so I raise today, where might be found the origin of that tradition. It comes, then, as no surprise to you, that I turned to our Book of Records, the Bible.

The question before the house is: How did we arrive at the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ I would suggest that the question raised and answered in Luke’s gospel completes a trilogy of questions raised in the Book of Genesis. I suggest further that fundamental to the question in Luke’s gospel is the question: What does it mean to be truly human? That fundamental question can be rephrased: To whom and for what am I responsible? The Bible offers an answer by way of the individual, the familial, and the communal. There is the story of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:9). There is the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:9). Thirdly, there is the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1 – 11) From a literary point of view, the one provides a base for the other, concluding in giving us a deeper understanding of today’s gospel story.

The individual: In the saga of Adam (literally, humanoid) and Eve (literally, lifegiver), God enters the Garden of Eden and, not finding Adam immediately, calls out: “Adam, where are you?” Adam responds that he is in hiding. He hides because in eating the apple, Adam had gained knowledge, but that knowledge was not simple, objective knowledge, regarding the flavor of the apple. Rather, Adam gained awareness of a new dimension of his being. He gained self-awareness, which causes him to be evasive in his response. There is something in his newly acquired knowledge which urges him to be protective of self-interest. When God asks Adam directly, if he had eaten from the tree, Adam responds not with a simple “yes.” Rather, he says, “It was the woman that you gave me. She gave me to eat.”

Adam is evasive in his answer. The knowledge gained grants him autonomy and independence, but it presents as well a moral issue which has become embedded in our DNA. Self-preservation forces Adam’s descendants to avoid potential consequences, by placing the blame of a decision or an action onto another. To use the first person singular: I shirk my responsibility to myself and to the Other, a responsibility which would have been to refuse, to refute, or to correct.

The Familial: In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain imagines that his brother is held in higher esteem than himself. When, as the story tells us, Cain kills Abel, we, the disinterested reader, feel that a venom of jealousy has been injected into human endeavor. Once again, God asks a simple question, “Where is your brother?” And Cain, like his father, is evasive. He responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) He doesn’t lie outright, but nor does he tell the truth! In his answer he appears to reject any responsibility for his brother, again suggesting an autonomy and independence whose principal reason is the protection of his own ego.

The Communal: The story of the Tower of Babel contains a question delayed. Men come together on the plain of Shinar and bake bricks, in order to erect a tower. To the disinterested reader, to erect a tower that could serve as a watch tower for an approaching storm, would have satisfied a communal need for safety. That, however, was never the purpose for which the tower was to be built. On the contrary, the intent of their “coming together” was never for “meeting the needs of the others.” They sought from the very beginning to develop communal autonomy and independence from God, as well as from others outside of their tribe. Theirs was an action in which the action of Adam (the individual) and Cain (the family) had morphed into that of the tribe, and a tribe that protected their special individual interests.

I suggest to you that this development, this way of thinking of The Other, is precisely what Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, calls “the power of darkness.” (Col. 1:13) The builders of the Tower of Babel had failed to recognize and share the magnanimous love which the God of Creation had for all. Paul differentiates between being able to see with the naked eye and to see with the eye of the heart. One could see, but still be blind, blind to the basic question of what it means to be truly human.

The late Reinhold Niebuhr, whose works were a staple during my years in theological training, often pointed out the limitations that we place on our compassion, if left to ourselves. However, as people of faith, as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we have pledged ourselves—have we not?—to exert all our strength against the DNA that changed Adam. It is a DNA that limits who we are intended by God to be. To be what God created us to be, created in God’s image, suggests a reciprocal relationship between the grace, the love, which we receive from God, and the grace, the love which we extend to others.

A man, a lawyer by training, not God as with Adam and Cain, asks the simple question: “Who is my neighbor?” That is the question delayed that would have challenged the builders of the Tower of Babel. And with that delay we are given opportunity to reclaim participation in the continuing work of Creation. And in the year 2022, Jesus gives an answer that extends beyond individual, familial, class, ethnic, tribal, national and religious boundaries. It is God’s Messiah who reminds us that building the kingdom of God, not a replica of the Tower of Babel, requires that we exert every effort in our spiritual being to overcome that change in our spiritual DNA structure, caused by Adam’s weakness.

Paul prayed then and now: “We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9f.) That is the prayer which we pray for ourselves, but for others as well. Amen.