Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Psalm 25:1-7, Luke 10:25-37
This is probably one of the most preached passages around, mainly because it’s pretty easy to write a sermon around. You have a helpless victim, two self-righteous men, and the societal outcast, the Samaritan, starring in this drama. The self-righteous men, like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question that prompted this little story, get their comeuppance and the hated Samaritan gets to be the adored star. Preachers love this story, because they get to act all pious and tell their congregations about how they have to be good to everyone they see, no matter what they feel for them because everyone is our neighbor and deserves our mercy. We get to feel good about being the Samaritan.
In the gay and lesbian community, this parable is preached with absolute glee, because we get to imagine that it’s Pat Robertson or James Dobson down in that ditch and we, the hated Samaritans of our day, get to go out of our way and help them. We get much gratitude out of this in two ways:
One, we get to imagine that Pat Robertson or James Dobson is wounded in a ditch. We may repent of the thought afterward, but I’m willing to bet we’ve all had the thought at one time or another.
And, number 2, we get to imagine that we’re the ones who save their lives. We get to feel smug for a morning, thinking, “Ha! Finally, cosmic justice has dealt a blow to old Pat or James, and they got what they deserved. Just look at them lying in the ditch. In fact, let me just stand here and take in their groaning for a minute. Ahhh. Well, now, the best part, I get to be the hero. I get to look like the bigger person because I get to save that dirty, rotten, son-of-a …,” well, you get my drift.
We love this story, because we get to be the hero. We get to be the one that Jesus is talking about. We get to triumph over our outcast status. We get to rise above the hatred the world has for us. How can we not love that kind of story and want to hear it over and over and over again?
But, there are other actors in this play. There’s the man who is beaten. There is the priest and the layman who pass by on the other side of the road, and there is the innkeeper, who takes final charge of the beaten and houses him. This morning, however, I’d like to focus on a forgotten player in this drama – the lawyer.
Lawyers come in for a lot of abuse in our society. Just like blondes before them, they are the butt of many jokes, like these:
Q: What do you call a lawyer with an I.Q. of 50?
Q: What do you call a lawyer gone bad?
A: “Your honor.”
Q: What do you call 5000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start!
Q: Why do they bury lawyers twelve feet deep?
A: Because deep down, they are really good guys.
And finally, if a lawyer and an IRS agent were both drowning, and you could only save one of them, would you go to lunch or read the paper?
Despite the fact that we love to hate lawyers, we must be grateful to this particular lawyer because he is the one who sets this whole story in motion by asking Jesus what he must do to be part of God’s kingdom. The answer probably wasn’t one he was expecting. By his reaction, it certainly wasn’t one he wanted to hear.
Jesus tells him the keys to the kingdom are found in love. Not just love of God, but love of self and neighbor. Now, it is worth remembering what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of loving self, God and neighbor. Jesus is not talking about the romantic love that you may feel for your partner or spouse. Neither is he talking about the love you might feel for a good friend or your dog or cat. This is not love based on you liking the individual that is the object of your affection. Instead, the Greek word used in this passage is “agape” – this kind of love is not based on whether or not you like the person involved. Instead, “agape” love demands that we extend welcome and an overall feeling of goodwill toward a particular person. So, in agape love, we not only help Pat Robertson or James Dobson from the ditch, but we take no glee in the fact that they are there in the first place. That’s agape love.
Note that this kind of love isn’t just to be extended to God and neighbor, but to ourselves. Even when we are not all that crazy about ourselves – in those moments where we’re beating ourselves up for some personal shortcoming – we are commanded by Jesus to extend goodwill even to ourselves. Indeed, even in those moments where we’re having trouble liking God – when we’re angry with God for some perceived slight on God’s part – we’re commanded by Jesus to extend goodwill even to God. If we cannot extend that feeling of goodwill either to ourselves or to God, then it would be impossible for us to be the Good Samaritan in this story. The Samaritan embodied Jesus’ commandment. His actions proved that he loved not just the neighbor in the ditch, but that he loved himself and God as well.
The lawyer knew full well what “agape” love entailed and his follow up question to Jesus shows just how much he didn’t like the answer. Like a true lawyer he wanted to split hairs. He wanted Jesus to tell him the minimal amount of work that might be required. Like a good lawyer, he begins to negotiate with Jesus, asking “Just who is my neighbor?” Surely, there must be a loophole. Surely, there is someone who doesn’t deserve our mercy. Surely, there is someone that we’re not responsible for.
The lawyer’s question reminds me of a plaque Wanda has that sits on our mantle. It reads: “How Bad Can I Be and Still Get to Heaven?” That’s exactly what the lawyer is asking. How much can I get away with? My mother read that sign during one visit – and being completely humor impaired – she pointed at in and said in a serious tone, “You know that’s not what it’s about?”
I had to laugh. My mother never met a joke she couldn’t kill, dissect and suck the humor out of and this one was no different. I told her, “Of, course I know that.” But, Jesus and my mom are apparently cut from the same cloth because this is just what Jesus said to the lawyer as he told him his parable. Finding the loopholes, extending the minimum acceptable amount of grace, is not what it’s all about.
But, we’re all lawyers at heart, aren’t we? We really do want to find that loophole. There has to be someone that doesn’t come under the term neighbor. How can Pat Robertson be my neighbor? How can James Dobson be my neighbor? How can the person that hurt me the most in this world be my neighbor? How can Osama bin Laden be my neighbor? How in the world do we extend a feeling of goodwill to these kinds of people?
It seems impossible, so like the lawyer we want a way out. But, we shouldn’t be too hard on the lawyer, because he’s part of all us. We all have our inner lawyer, looking for the loophole and more often than not we find it. We justify withholding our agape love and our mercy – and usually feel pretty good about ourselves while we’re doing it. We use phrases like, “Well, he got what he deserved,” or, “Well, he brought it on himself,” or, “He should have known better.”
You know that’s the thought of the first two men who passed the beaten man on the road. That road was notorious for robbers and thieves. Anyone would have known that you’d better make haste on that road or be prepared to defend yourself. The guy in the ditch wasn’t prepared, so he got what he deserved. The lawyer probably thought the same thing before he finally understood that showing mercy, embodying that agape love, is really our goal if we are to follow Christ.
We all fall short, including myself. Sometime last year, Wanda and I were driving to church one Sunday morning and an accident happened right in front of us on the highway. One car was trying to change lanes and didn’t see the car next to him. He overcorrected, sending his car careening into the guardrail at a high rate of speed. The other car swerved into the grassy median and stopped. Immediately, Wanda pulled the car over to check on the drivers. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured – but as she pulled over, I heard myself say, “Honey, don’t stop. We’ll be late for church!”
Ah, my inner lawyer emerged. I had an important appointment. Someone else could stop. We didn’t need to help them because I had to get to church. Surely, there’s a loophole for someone leading a worship service. They can’t be late for any reason, even stopping to help someone.
Much to my dismay, Wanda related this story to Jaye who remembered a story I told during communion a couple of years ago about delivery truck that spilled its load on a Sunday morning. Someone stopped to help and wondered aloud to the driver why no one else had stopped. “Oh,” the driver said, “they don’t want to be late for church.”
So, there I was, caught in my own parable about who is and who isn’t a neighbor. My inner lawyer had been exposed – I had failed to extend agape love. I had failed to be a neighbor or to recognize another neighbor.
Because we all fall short – even pastors who should know better – we must extend that agape love to our inner lawyer. We must learn to embody that goodwill toward ourselves by recognizing when we’re seeking that loophole, and then reminding ourselves that there aren’t any – that everyone deserves our agape love and mercy – even if it makes us late to church.
So, when we are faced with the story of the Good Samaritan, we don’t have to always be told that we’re the hero, the good guy who does all the right things. Instead, we can be glad that we’re imperfect like that lawyer, because the good news here is that in the end the lawyer got it. He understood that everyone was a neighbor and that mercy was paramount. There is redemption for our inner lawyer.
I urge you this morning, love your inner lawyer. Be glad that you are a flawed child of God, still learning to walk before you can run. By learning to love our inner lawyer, we take that all important first step toward becoming that Good Samaritan and embodying agape love for God and neighbor as Jesus commands.
I leave you with one more lawyer joke:
Q: What do you call a lawyer who always looks for a loophole?
A: A beloved Child of God.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.