What’s so wrong with such an innocent question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ But after the first serpentine question, ‘Did God really say?’ there are indeed no completely innocent questions about God’s will. We can’t go back to a state of grace where our sinful assumptions and desires don’t in some way infect even our most innocently-meant questions about God’s word.
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C)
July 10, 2022
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The questions people ask can be very revealing. Take the student in history class who either during or after a lecture asks the teacher, ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ Depending on the tone of her voice, she may be in anxiety because she wants to be sure she passes, or, alternately, she may be annoyed because she feels her time is being wasted. She either does not grasp the material well enough and hopes that’s not a problem or does not care about the material and hopes she never has to care about it. In either case, her relationship to knowledge and wisdom is at least in some sense an adversarial one. Knowledge is not an end in itself, to be received and enjoyed and delighted in, it’s partly or maybe only a means for her to pass whatever requirements the school has for her.
same, but possibly worse, is true about the student who asks, ‘When are we
going to use this in real life?’ This question, when asked by a student who is
too young to know anything of ‘real life’ at all, is almost always a
justification for his own active disinterest. It implies someone asking who at
least in the moment believes he already knows everything he needs to know and
does not want or need to learn any more. The appeal to practical use is almost
never meant in earnest but is a dodge. A wise teacher will not spend valuable
time in answering the question because no answer exists that will satisfy an
unteachable spirit who asks such a question. A brave - and perhaps tenured - teacher
might patiently and skillfully help him to reflect upon why he is asking the question
and what it says about his own outlook on life.
Jesus is not to be put on trial. He is the one who puts us on trial – he puts us to the test to see what we are made of, not to shame and humiliate us but to convict us and, if we are willing, to save us – to move us from being unteachable to teachable – to transfer us from the realm of darkness to his kingdom of light. And so he refuses to answer an unanswerable question and responds with a question of his own. The Scripture scholar at least knows enough to respond with the heart of the Law – ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ But he immediately follows with a question that, as Luke helpfully notes, is meant to ‘justify himself.’
What’s so wrong with such an innocent question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ But after the first serpentine question, ‘Did God really say?’ there are indeed no completely innocent questions about God’s will. We can’t go back to a state of grace where our sinful assumptions and desires don’t in some way infect even our most innocently-meant questions about God’s word. Even when meant in earnest they still serve in some way to reveal our rebellious hearts and our need for forgiveness and healing.
We know about the world the man imagines because it’s our world – the world whose assumptions we uncritically adopt as our own. It’s a very tolerant world that can accommodate both God and aggressive warfare and violent crime, grand and petty larceny, sexual abuse and exploitation, gossip and libel and slander. It’s also the world where we indulge our own weaknesses and perhaps those of our children but are quick to see fault in every other person, from the teenager in the drive-thru lane who messes up her order to the pregnant mother with her two children in front of us at the grocery store fumbling with her WIC checks who still somehow has enough money for a smartphone – Doesn’t she know what causes that? That’s my tax money she’s spending! Our excesses are to be smiled at with a loving heart, but is that person, whoever she or he is, someone deserving of patience and toleration? How patient and compassionate, how loving must I be? Do we not see the problem with such questions, that they imply that patience and compassion and love are somehow impositions on our true, free and independent selves?
Who is my neighbor? Jesus will not answer this question, for if he does, he will be giving credibility to this godless notion that the world that God intends is one divided between those I must love and those I need not love. Instead, he tells the famous story of the man who fell among thieves and lies half-dead, and of those who see him from afar and pass by, and of the one who comes close and sees him and is moved with pity, is full of compassion, and who does deeds of mercy and healing.
It’s not that the Samaritans at that time were naturally more neighborly than Jews or any other people. But in this story, it had to be a Samaritan who was the neighbor, for the Samaritan was not bound by any law to help, was not impelled by blood or shared creed or citizenship. If either the priest or the Levite were the ones who showed mercy, it might have reinforced the notion that they helped because they had to for some reason outside of themselves. This other person helped because it’s who he was.
With his last question, Jesus does not give us about knowledge about things outside of ourselves, the imagined neighbor who is deserving of our attention, and the imagined person who isn’t, but he gives us knowledge about ourselves. I never need to know about another person’s qualifications to receive mercy: I need to be merciful. To answer Jesus’ question, Who was the neighbor? with the answer, ‘the one who showed mercy,’ is to open oneself to the implied question. Who are you? and who do you want to be? Do you want to be the neighbor who comes close, who sees, who has pity, who helps and heals? If so, go and do likewise.
To answer this question, Who do you want to be? does not mean that life will suddenly become more simple. We might in our unbelief long for as simple and straightforward a way of being Christ-like as giving first-aid to a person we don’t know and providing for his hospital stay. But if we stay with our Lord Jesus, if rather than standing and asking him to justify his ways to us, we sit at his feet and ask our further questions in earnest, we will find that he will indeed lead us to find those answers too. Sometimes by asking us more questions.