Who is my neighbor – a sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon here.  Or, read on…

Amidst the 613 Laws of the Old Testament there are many places where interpretation is important.  When it comes to the Sabbath, what actually constitutes work?  When it comes to harvest time, how much do I leave at the edge of my field to be gleaned by travelers along the road?  On the Passover, what do I do if my family is so big that one lamb just won’t feed us all?  As is the case in any age where laws are to be interpreted, in the first century there were plenty of “lawyers” or “interpreters and teachers of the law” who made their living helping people understand precisely how they should live in order to follow the Law.  Of course, interpretation being what it is, every lawyer had their own understanding, usually based on where they had studied the law and what political party they were associated with.  It was not uncommon for lawyers and rabbis to debate, at great length, the tiniest facet of the law.

This morning, we find ourselves in just such a place.  A lawyer engages an iterant rabbi in a debate in order to understand who Jesus is, where he studied, and what, if any, new understandings the lawyer can gain from Jesus.  So he asks him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus, probably out of the same sort of curiosity, turns the question right back on the lawyer, “what do you read?”

For the lawyer, at the heart of the Law are two commandments.  The first comes from the Shema, a prayer or mantra said at least twice a day by every faithful Hebrew, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  For the second central tenant of the faith, the lawyer chooses a passage from the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus and section on ritual and moral holiness: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Jesus agrees with the lawyer’s assessment of the Law and tells him, “Do that and you will live.”  At this point, most of us would be content to do our best to love God and love my neighbor as myself.  Then again, most of us don’t make our living arguing about what temperature the water has to be when ritually cleaning a cooking pot.  The lawyer is not content.  So, “wanting to justify himself,” which doesn’t so much mean “wanting to prove himself smarter than he is,” but rather means something more like, “wanting to be perfectly clear and strictly observant,” he asks Jesus what turns out to be a very important question, “OK, then, but who is my neighbor?”

Who is my neighbor?

As many of you probably know by now, the Pankeys are preparing to move.  In just about four weeks, we’ll change our address from 1780 Abbey Loop to 529 Harahan Lane, and while we won’t leave the Foley city limits, the answer to “who is my neighbor” will change.  I got a glimpse into that change this week.  We took the girls to go see the progress on our new house, when one of our new neighbors stopped by to say hello.  I posted about “our new neighbors” on Facebook, and two days later, my current next-door neighbor, Robyn, said to me, “I don’t like you talking about neighbors on Facebook when you don’t mean me.”  Robyn will always be my neighbor, even though soon she won’t live next door to me or be able to knock on the door to borrow an egg.

“So, who is my neighbor?”

Within the religious system of Judaism, this question of neighborhood carries a lot more weight than, “who is close enough to borrow an egg from?”  For the faithful Jew, neighborliness is about faithfulness.  I learned a little bit about this during my time as a seminarian at St. James’ Church in Potomac, Maryland.  During a vestry discussion one night about evangelism and church growth, someone suggested a door-to-door invitation campaign.  St. James’ members would go out, two-by-two, and invite the people who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods to come to Church.  The conversation was quickly halted when it was brought up that that the vast majority of homes in the surrounding area were owned by members of the Beth Shalom Synagogue next door.  Many Synagogue members wanted to be faithful to the Laws concerning the Sabbath and so they bought homes within the Potomac Eruv or ritual neighborhood.[1]

The Beth Shalom website explains it better than I ever could, “Carrying is one of the 39 activities which are prohibited on Shabbat. It is an unusual [rule] in that you are allowed to carry if you are indoors. The solution is an Eruv, which broadens the definition of being ‘indoors’ to being someplace around which there are walls. This allows people living in cities surrounded by walls to carry on Shabbat as if inside their homes. Beth Shalom maintains an Eruv. One may only carry in our Eruv if one checks before Shabbat to ensure that the Eruv is functioning.  What is an eruv? It is sort of a wall around the community; inside the wall, you can carry just as you would within the walls of your home. The ‘wall’ actually could be a wire, a steep hill, or a fence, and in fact the Potomac eruv is partly all these… mostly wire, specifically a power line or phone wire.”[2]

The lawyer would like to know just how large a “love Eruv” he has to maintain.  Are we talking about immediate neighbors?  A few block radius? The whole city of Jerusalem?  Just as the desire to carry books to the Synagogue led to the development of an Eruv, the lawyer looking for “some reasonable limits on the possibly unreasonable demands of the Law he cares so much about obeying.”[3]  Like all of us, he’s looking for some clarification on whom it is OK for him not to love: Gentiles, Romans, Samaritans, LSU Fans, Baptists, Illegal Aliens, Muslims, Democrats, or Republicans.  We just can’t possibly love them all.  We hope and pray that Jesus will give this guy a pass.  That Jesus will say something like, “Well, if you can manage to love your family and friends and maybe throw a coin at the beggar every once in a while, that’s pretty good.  Oh, and make sure you show up to worship regularly at the temple, obey all the laws about carrying stuff on the Sabbath, and give your tithe every year.  Then you’ll be all set – that is, you’ll have the eternal life you’re looking for.  After all, isn’t it all about getting to heaven when you die?  You’ll have earned it.”[4]

Jesus, of course, doesn’t say any of that.  Instead, he turns the question on its head, by not only suggesting that the lawyer was to love even those detestable, half-blooded, heretical Samaritans, but that he should go out of his way to show mercy to every neighbor he comes across. That is to say, Jesus challenges the lawyer, and us, to not just look with pity upon those who are afflicted in heart, soul, strength and mind, but to actually do something for them.  Pray for them, even if “they” are your enemy. Bind their wounds, even if it means getting yourself dirty in the process.  Share with them the Good News of Jesus, even if it makes you nervous to do so.  Show mercy.  Act mercy.  Do mercy.  To everyone.  No exceptions.

Of course, you don’t have to DO anything to inherit eternal life.  It is all a gift of grace.  We know that.  However, if you want to experience eternal life now, if you want a taste of heaven long before you die, then the law is pretty simple: Love God, Love neighbor, Be merciful, and you’ll have life.  Abundantly.  Amen.


[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Eruv,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eruv&oldid=563737447 (accessed July 11, 2013).

[2] Kreitman, Robert “Eruv” http://bethsholom.org/content/eruv (accessed July 11, 2013).

[3] Huey, Kathryn Matthews. “Caring Neighbors” Sermon Seeds http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-14-2013.html (accessed July 11, 2013).

[4] Huey, Kathryn Matthews. “Caring Neighbors” Sermon Seeds http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/july-14-2013.html (accessed July 11, 2013).

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One thought on “Who is my neighbor – a sermon

  1. Pingback: SR: Proper 10 YrC 2013 (and a bit of Camp) | Theologybird Writes

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