The California writer Joan Didion wrote that maturity happens when you accept yourself, whether you want to or not, and I am almost there. I am much easier, more neighborly, much kinder towards myself, than I used to be, and I think that’s better. When I was younger I wanted very much to have my life under control, well-balanced, together. I desperately want a system that would save me from the terrible business of choosing wrong.
Once I even went to a workshop where all the participants took large sheets of newsprint and pens, crayons and magic markers to write down how they wanted to live, what they wanted to do, in the next few years. One women made a map of what and how and where she was going to be for the following five years - with a place for everything and everything in its place; it even had color coding! I could have worshipped that map! How wonderful it would be to look towards the future with such certainty.
So, when I hear about the lawyer who comes to Jesus for advice, I think I can understand him: he was looking for color coding! The Gospel also says he comes to “test” Jesus, and I think there are a lot of us who have lived our lives as If there were going to be a pop quiz, a surprise exam, or an unscheduled bed check arranged by “the authorities” in order to make sure that everything is in decent shape and approved order. So we all try so hard to keep it all together, to pass the course.
So the lawyer comes to Jesus to asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How do I get prepared? And rather than giving him a straightforward answer, a plan, Jesus asks a question in return: “What is written In the Law? How do you read it?” (The implicit question here is, “What’s most important?”). The lawyer answers, “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.” Jesus answers him, “Right! do this and you will live.” The exam has been passed!
So, “desiring to justify himself,” the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Do you see what’s happening? Color coding coming, easily filed categories: the most important commandment, love; the most important persons, God and neighbor. He’s building the map, and soon he’ll have a whole new system with dietary laws, holidays weekends, hints for etiquette; everything in order.
But Jesus makes trouble for the man when He tells a story about a traveler mugged by robbers and left for dead, ignored first by a Priest, next by a Levite, finally found and cared for by a Samaritan. Because what the lawyer wants are rules and regulations that stay in place, and what Jesus gives him is a story that’s a cross between a puzzle and a moving picture. It won’t stay still; it turns everything around. Nothing (and no one) is ruled out. And all the truisms that “everybody” in the old conceptual neighborhood knows -- Priests and Levites are good and Samaritans are bad -- fall flat because there is a new definition of neighbor which turns everything in life around.
You see, the person Jesus uses to show the quality of Neighbor is the last one you would want in the neighborhood. The lawyer, like most of his geographic neighbors, did not like Samaritans. They were outsiders, considered unclean, with suspect religious preferences and doubtful cultural practices. Our categories might nor be as blatant as his, but try this exercise: “if I were mugged on a city street, the person I would least like to come to my rescue would be....” and put that one in place of the Samaritan. It doesn’t matter who comes to mind, but hold on to the feeling, “I would just rather it not be...” Then think of the Samaritan! It grates our sensibility to think that person might hold the definition for neighbor. can carry the sign, be a directional signal, a call from God, an icon, for something as important as the way to eternal life.
The lawyer gets a lot more than he bargained for; all he was looking for was the master list of who qualifies as a neighbor in order to build the plan on how to win eternal life. He wanted a blueprint, a diagram that would make the world safe: but what he got was how someone might be a neighbor to him. All he wanted was a ruling; what he is getting is a community, much more than he expected about who God is and how God loves and how God’s word is encountered. Jesus tells him a neighbor is simply one who does neighboring things: shows mercy and compassion; anyone who seeks out and acts up and does the daily business of living, breathing and caring as a neighbor. That is a way of meeting the world that has room for anyone, and it is both very big news and very intimate information; it makes the world more complex and maybe much more simple too.
Let me tell a story: some twenty five years ago. I took a year away from my school to work as a youth minister in a small Northern California town.In the middle of that year I took a three hour bus south San Francisco, walk a few blocks, then catch the subway to my seminary in Berkeley to report on how the year was going. All the way down I had been writing in my journal about how good the it was, how I was getting it right, I was getting it together! And as I was waiting in the subway to catch the train to Berkeley, this black guy, African American, came up alongside of me on the platform and I could see that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember: and he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was right next to me.
So I looked towards the track to our right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I thought, “Well, I am going to get mugged or worse, here it comes. And I said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!” And I took a breath and looked up at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years. And I felt sorry, both for him and, surprisingly, for me, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I looked at him and said, “the train for Oakland will be on this platform. And he looked at me for a minute and then said, “Thank you,” and walked away.
And I saw something about me that I hadn’t seen before: how narrow I was, how snobbish, self-serving, insulated by my own concerns from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked. I saw that day that I didn’t see much, about myself and about Gods’ word and Gods’ world at all. It’s been twenty-five years, and I can still see his face. I still wonder who he was.
For Jesus gets sidelined, mugged, murdered on the side of the road while a lot of good and careful people: Priests, Scribes and Pharisees, overlook what is happening for fear that they might fail the exam, and they end up missing the train, they end up missing the point of it all! Just pray we don’t! And Jesus says: “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... Do this and you shall live.” in the name of Christ.