Do This, and You Shall Live
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 14, 2019
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 25; Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Luke 10:25-37
Joey Hawkins spoke during our climate book group discussion last Sunday about the importance of storytelling. She knows as a teacher how a good story can help us grasp big ideas and think in new ways and also reach across our differences to a common ground of understanding and purpose.
Today’s gospel passage may be the single most important story that we could ever hear and share. Jesus says in it, “Do this, and you will live.” Elsewhere he says that its teaching about love sums up all the law and all the prophets. In other words, all scriptures, all ethics and morals, all that we need to know about how to live and sustain life on earth is in this one story.
Moses said, “If you obey the commandments of God that I am commanding you, loving God and walking in God’s ways…God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess…. I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
Moses was not talking just to individuals, he was talking to the whole people. Jesus was concerned with all Jerusalem, with his nation and all nations. Moses and Jesus did not compartmentalize life where some aspects need to follow the law of love and others do not, where it applies to some people and not to others, where love of God and neighbor is just for individuals and not for governments, corporations or their leaders.
The laws of love and the Golden Rule apply to all, and the consequences of not obeying them are very clear, written in tortured letters across the earth. The stakes could not be higher. Both Moses and Jesus say it is a matter of life and death. Do this, and you and your descendants will live.
This choice feels more urgent than ever.
Recently a group of teenage girls were having a sleepover. They got talking about what kind of families they envisioned having when they grew up. It turned out that they all had arrived at the same conclusion—each of these bright, gifted girls felt she could never bring a baby into this world with all the suffering that is coming as human civilization approaches the brink of extinction.
Today’s children are bleeding and lying in a ditch, violently attacked and robbed of their future by a way of life that we have allowed to continue far past the time when we knew we were choosing the way of death. Moses is crying out a final warning to us, “Choose life, so that you and your descendants will live.” Jesus promises one last time, “Do this, and you will live.” Choose the sacred way that this story teaches and God will bless you and make you a blessing to countless generations to come.
So let’s look closely at the story to make sure we understand its urgent, life and death message for our generation.
The first thing to note is that it is a story within a story, and both parts are important. The context of the story is last week’s passage where Jesus was launching a movement to establish God’s realm on earth. He sent out 82 trained organizers into the towns he planned to visit and they came back amazed at how powerful a transformation they saw the Spirit working through them already.
Jesus says to them just before today’s story begins, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not live to see it.”
Just then, a lawyer comes who cannot see what they see. He represents what the realm of God seeks to change. The lawyers, scribes, priests and Levites are characterized in the New Testament as having a fundamentalist, legalistic mentality that oppresses and excludes, that says some people are in and some are out, that lets some bleed in a ditch while others are allowed to pass by without obligation to help.
The lawyer has come to test Jesus. He wants to see if Jesus is conforming to the rules. On the basis of this trial the establishment will judge whether Jesus is in or out, whether he should be allowed to continue his teaching or he should be stopped.
Jesus and his movement are establishing the realm of God on earth in the gospel story, but some have eyes to see it and some do not. The fundamentalist mind of the lawyer cannot see outside his culture’s box of narrowly constructed laws. The lawyer is not to blame, he is to be met with compassion and mercy and given all the help Jesus can provide.
To the lawyer the key question is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” You are the expert, Jesus says, what does the law say we need to do? The lawyer quotes the two great love commandments, and Jesus replies, “Do this, and you will live.”
This is a crucial point—the difference between life and death is not between some having wisdom available to them and others not. As Moses says, the word is in all our hearts, including the lawyer’s. The life and death difference is how we interpret and live it out, how we do what wisdom says.
The wisdom programmed into every heart’s core is to love God and love our neighbor as our self, but the key question open to interpretation is what the lawyer asks next: “Who is my neighbor?” To the lawyer, pure, law-abiding Jews were neighbors to be loved whereas Samaritans or Gentiles or impure Jews or Jews like Jesus who saw things differently were not neighbors and were to be excluded from the beloved community.
The lawyer with his fundamentalist level of consciousness cannot see the oneness with all people and all creation that Jesus sees, the oneness that humanity now needs to grasp in order for life on earth to survive. How can Jesus help the lawyer see at a higher level of consciousness, how can he help him transcend the narrow rules and move outside the box?
With a story—one of the most amazing, life-changing stories ever told, a story that never ends because it keeps expanding, putting everyone and everything we encounter on earth into that ditch needing our love and merciful help.
The man in the ditch is a Jew, but an impure Jew because he is naked and bleeding. The lawyer knows that the representatives of the establishment, the priest and Levite, are justified by their ethical codes not to love the man as a neighbor. It was their role to remain pure, plus they were busy, important people.
The lawyer also knows that Samaritans and Jews are enemies—fundamentalist Jews attack Samaritans and fundamentalist Samaritans attack Jews. Not long before Jesus’ time, a group of Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem were killed by a Samaritan mob. A Samaritan village rejected the organizers Jesus sent out not long before today’s story and the disciples asked Jesus if they should call down the fire of heaven to destroy the village. Jesus of course said no, but other Jewish leaders might have said yes.
So Jesus shocks the lawyer and his disciples when a Samaritan is moved with pity in the story. The Samaritan sees and acts outside the fundamentalist box. He goes to whatever lengths necessary to follow the Golden Rule and love this enemy.
Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers—the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus ends by saying, “Go and do likewise.” Do this, and you shall live.
Notice that Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is not interested in defining qualities in people that make them our neighbors. The question Jesus wants to address is, how can we make everyone and everything on earth our neighbor? The answer is through our care, through our mercy, through our compassionate, loving actions. We answer is that we need to evolve human consciousness to Christ’s level beyond definitions of who is in and who is out according to purity codes or rules or race or religion or any other category. The story will not end until everyone and everything is treated with mercy.
Do this, and you and your descendants will live.
And yet Jesus died at the hands of people like the lawyer, the priest and the Levite. He died at the hands of people who could not see that he was creating the realm of God’s love on earth, and who refused to show him mercy when he failed to conform to their laws. He was killed by people at the same developmental level of consciousness that is destroying life on earth today.
But his death was not the end of the story. There is an epilogue that the followers of Christ are still writing. It says that suffering love is redemptive. It leads to resurrection. It has a mysterious power to transform the world as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed in the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. In the epilogue more and more people rise to Christ’s level of consciousness, Samaritans and Jews become friends, the church breaks down old walls so that all may be one. The world is redeemed.
Today the entire human race and future generations and all living species are bleeding in the ditch and in need of immediate, life-saving merciful action. Those who cannot see the oneness that Jesus saw are in the ditch, too, and need the kind of mercy that Jesus extended to the lawyer.
In the meantime, we have the joy of abundant life that comes when we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and love all people and creatures as our very same self. Yes, we will suffer, yes we will spend our time, energy and resources on acts of mercy and be misunderstood and even attacked for it, but that suffering love will be redemptive, it will transform our lives and the world around us in the direction of love, and it will fill us with hope and bring hope back to a dying world.
Let us pray together in silence, allowing the Spirit to show us what role we can play in our own version of this old story…
Postscript: I am including this amazing and moving video because it shows how we can move toward the perspective of the Good Samaritan as a civilization.