Is the law your gospel, or is the Gospel your law?
By the time Jesus was born, the religion of the people of Israel was so rules-driven that it seemed that every aspect of the peoples’ lives was defined, restricted, and measured. Food, clothing, worship, household order, everything had some sort of rule associated with it. Jews who wanted to live in a way that they thought was righteous were continually checking to make sure they were in compliance. Rabbis and priests and scribes spent a lot of time explaining the rules, settling arguments about the right way to do things, and enforcing proper practices.
Have things really changed? As much as we complain about them, the fact is we actually like rules. We like to know what our boundaries are, even though we sometimes complain about them. They give our lives order and structure, and that makes us feel safe. And in a world that sometimes feels awfully unsafe, the comfort and control that following a specific set of rules is something we cling to.
That was the case of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. They were, of course, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. They were also under the very strict guidance of the religious leaders, who were all about following the rules, thousands of pages of rules. Their intent was good: they thought that all these rules would keep them in good relationship with God. But somewhere along the line, things shifted, and it became clear that the rules became an end unto themselves, that it was no longer about God. The law became the gospel, and it wasn’t good news. But then along came a new rabbi, a teacher from Nazareth, and his teachings seemed different to those who heard him. The talk about the law seemed to go into the background.
And so it was no surprise that it was a lawyer who stood up to question Jesus about his teachings in the Gospel today. After all, aren’t lawyers about the rules and the law and the meticulous parsing of the language to see how the law might apply in a particular situation? Of all the people who might be curious about laws, and about how Jesus interpreted the laws, it would be the lawyer in the room who just couldn’t stop himself from asking the question. In this gospel, it is referred to as a test, as if Jesus was a defendant sitting in front of a jury having to defend himself in the midst of tough questions.
For this lawyer, the law was all. It was the center of his existence. You might even say the law was his gospel, the very thing that guided his life.
Now Jesus was no simpleton. He knew where the lawyer was going in his questioning. So he responded as any good Jewish rabbi would. He asked a question back. “What does the law say?” You can’t do that to a lawyer in a courtroom, but you can certainly do that when conducting teaching about God…it was the common practice to have dialogues and Q&A sessions. Remember when I first began here and we had the Stump the Priest session? I was following an ancient tradition!
So Jesus posed that question to the lawyer – what does the law say? – and the lawyer responded by quoting the law : "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." And Jesus said, “Great answer! Follow that law and you will go to heaven!”
But the lawyer had a follow-up question – don’t they always? – that was a loaded one. “Okay, so who is my neighbor?”
Now imagine you’re living in a place where you aren’t treated very well by the authorities, where there are groups who follow other religions living nearby, and things aren’t always too peaceable between you, where you’ve been pushed around by other people since the beginning, and you can get a picture of what a dangerous question that is. “Who is my neighbor?” Is it the person who lives nearby who always plays loud music at night on the weekends? Is it the kid who throws his trash on my front lawn as he walks to the corner? Is it the homeless guy who stands at the foot of the Laburnum off-ramp every day with his little sign begging for money, even though he seems to have the resources to have a cell phone and an iPod? Is it the woman who has bumper stickers expressing opinions that I think are vile?
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks, and Jesus responds.
Jesus tells him a little story, a parable that is very familiar to us. It’s the story of the good Samaritan. Now when we hear the word “Samaritan,” we think of someone who is helpful and good and sweet. Our understanding of that name is based on this story. But it’s not quite as simple as that. By building his answer to that dangerous question around a Samaritan, Jesus is actually doing something even more dangerous, something quite radical.
Look first at the set-up. He first talks about those who pass by the person in the ditch, the priest and the Levite. Now when we hear of what they did, we immediately think badly of them – they’re the ones who didn’t help. Simple, right? Well, perhaps not.
Start out with the setting. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho is a dangerous one. There are robbers and cut-throats on it. It isn’t a surprise to anyone hearing this story from Jesus’ lips that something bad happened to the man in the ditch – they’d probably say he was stupid to be traveling that road alone. And when the priest and then the Levite see him there, what would go through their minds?
If this fellow was actually dead, they couldn’t touch him without becoming ritually impure, thus making it impossible to conduct religious services. That was the law. They might also have thought that this was a trap on this dangerous road, and that if they went over to help him, he might leap up to attack them. And if they had a mission to carry out, perhaps going to Jericho to carry out some sort of religious ritual, the wisest choice, and the one that would keep them in compliance with the law, would be to pass the injured man by. For them the law was their gospel.
But then along comes this other person, this Samaritan. The very word Samaritan would signal to the listeners that this was someone they all hated and thought was dirty and stupid and not good. But we don’t hear it that way, because to us, the word ‘Samaritan’ is something very different.
So to get that same sense today that Jesus’ original audience would have, let’s do a little exercise.
Close your eyes. Imagine a person who is the one person you would NOT like to help you if you are in trouble. The New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge ‘she offered help’, or ‘he showed compassion?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.”
A Samaritan, to a Jew in Jesus’ time, was hated, thought to be unclean, certainly not a follower of the Law. Our modern day equivalent might be a member of Al Qaeda, or a person who humiliated you at work, or the woman who had an affair with your husband, or the mother of the child who beat up your little one in the schoolyard and laughed when you complained. The one person whom you would never want to take help from, accept a favor from, have to say thank you to.
Now imagine that person coming over to you, as you lay there in that ditch, beaten up, unable to gather the strength to sit up…imagine that person coming to lend you a hand.
You’re a Jew and this dirty unclean Samaritan whom you have always been taught to despise comes over and pulls you up out of the ditch. His very touch is anathema, yet you have no choice but to accept his help. And he doesn’t just pull you out of the ditch, even though you are his sworn enemy, he cares for you, carries you to an inn where you can recover, uses his own money to pay for it, because your wallet is long gone.
Can you accept the gift of help from someone whom you cannot imagine being your friend? Can you imagine that person’s humanity and compassion?
That’s the outrageous message that Jesus offers in this parable. It’s not just helping out someone who is hurt. It’s about a relationship with someone who is so not a part of your world that it turns the old rules upside down. It’s about the law taking a back seat to the Gospel of love and respect and caring and compassion.
Jesus is saying this: no longer is the law the gospel. The Gospel is the law. The simplicity of the Gospel mandate trumps the hundreds of little rules that had tied people up in knots trying to keep in compliance, the little rules that distracted us from who and what God is and what God expects from us.
The simple rules.
Love God, love your neighbor, whomever he or she may be. The one who looks different from you. The one who sounds different than you. The one who believes differently than you. At the heart of it, we are all children of God, made in his image. It’s time we made the Gospel our law and treat all God’s children that way.
Imagine yourself in the ditch. Imagine the person you least expect to reach out her hand to you. Will you grasp that hand? Will you hug her in gratitude? Will you see Christ in her eyes, and will she see him in yours? Get up out of the ditch, and make the Gospel your law.
 Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), 148-149