by Ben Nolen
JESUS, YOU, AND THE NEIGHBORS YOU DON’T HAVE
The Seven Sages were summoned to offer their wisdom to generations yet to come: Mathematicians and mystics; statesman, men of renown, poets. Seven Sages from the Peloponnese; Ionia; Thessaly; Thrace; and Crete. Seven Sages from Mytilene and Miletus, Corinth and Athens. The Sages summoned to register their wise words and lay the foundation of all philosophy in the City of Man.
Seven Sages sifting thoughts, verses, pictures, rhythm, time: Left brain, right brain, rewind, repeat, abstract, concrete, general, particular, eternal, temporal, day-to-day, metaphysical. Seven Sages in Apollo’s courtyard, words to immortalize, gold letters to enshrine. Seven Sages; two words:
Nosce Te Ipsum
The message of Jesus contains at least one fundamental assumption: We are lost. To be lost is to know enough to know that you are not where you are supposed to be, you are not home – and you have no idea how to get there. You are helpless to get home.
Deep down, man knows he is adrift. And he fears. He is enslaved by his fears (Heb. 2:14-15). His fears drive him: his decisions, his words, his relationships, everything. The modus operandi of lost, fear-driven man is two-fold: First, he strikes at God; second, he strikes at God’s image.
Man’s state makes perfect sense. We lash out because we are lost. We sin against other people because we don’t know ourselves. We know enough to know that we are not who we were made to be. We are wrecked – Adam fumbles for fig-leaves, Oedipus looms. We are prone to be jerks (Lord, I feel it) because we are not yet home.
In this Gospel, we see Jesus do very typical “Jesus” things: He responds to questions with questions; he tells stories; when the lawyer gets it right (twice!), Jesus is terse – “Go and do.”
This Gospel speaks to us in order that we might know ourselves. For us at Redeemer, this Gospel speaks to us being what we call “fair.” (Fair – Treating others rightly from RCA’s Morning Recitation)
What is it to “treat others rightly?” It means treating other people as those who bear the image of God. It means giving others their due as image bearers. To bear the image of God means you represent God in the world.
The New England Patriots jersey that Titans fans are stomping to shreds is not merely a jersey. It is a representation of something larger. The jersey points beyond itself such that if you strike the jersey, you strike that which it represents. This is why the actions of the Titans fans make sense. (Sure, we may not agree with their actions, but they make sense.)
Man represents nothing less than God Himself in His world.
In this Gospel we are presented with many people. Luke wants us to know ourselves by identifying with one of the characters. Ultimately, we have three characters: the beaten man, the lawyer, and Jesus.
So, who are you? Allow me to lean on St. Ambrose of Milan for insight into this passage.
First, all of us are the beaten man, left “half-dead” on the side of the road, lost and helpless. Notice the man goes “down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Jerusalem is the City of God and Jericho is the Vegas of the day…everyone knew it. The man falls from God’s city to sin city and his fall results in blows. This is always how rebellion against God’s will works – it makes great promises and leaves you alone and hurting. His condition is “half-dead” – alive enough to know his plight, conscious enough to feel his pain.
The Levite and priest make cameos. They pass by the beaten man, and in doing so, St. Ambrose says, they demonstrate that no man is justified by the law. Instead, man has to be shown the compassion of a stranger on his own journey, a foreigner who is not like us has to come to us while we are yet helpless, bear up our pain and death, and give us his life. We are all the beaten man.
Second, Luke shows us the choice that Christ gives us: We can be the lawyer or we can be Jesus. We must know ourselves. And we must choose to treat others rightly.
Notice how Jesus is Jesus. The lawyer’s question comes from a dark place (he “stood up to put him to the test” and desired “to justify himself”). He is a fear-driven man, striking at God: “And who is my neighbor?” Yes – Who is worthy of my love? Who is deserving of my good graces? Jesus takes this question and turns it on its head. He answers with a question of his own. (Our God is a God who questions us.) “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”
Who is my neighbor?
To whom are you being a neighbor?
We could be the lawyer, a fear-driven man. He doesn’t truly want to love his neighbor. As one of my friends says, the lawyer is after compliance and not obedience. He has the right answers. He goes to the right school, has a “Christian worldview,” has all the external and intellectual trappings of righteousness. Yet, his heart is adrift, unanchored in the God who loves mankind. And it is to his heart, our hearts that Jesus always brings his medicine. The lawyer cannot even say “Samaritan” – striking at God’s image – because the Samaritan was not the ‘right kind of person.’ The Samaritan did not meet the lawyers “codes” of acceptance; the Samaritan was different, lesser and the lawyer wants to make sure that he is justified in treating him as such. We still have these codes today; they are as old as Babel.
When I think of the lawyer, I immediately think of Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew and old Uncle Andrew. Uncle Andrew believed himself to be superior to what he called “ordinary, ignorant people.” Digory, a young boy, is aghast at Uncle Andrew’s (lawyer-like) attitude towards others. He calls him “rotten.” To which Uncle Andrew replies,
Rotten?…But of course you must understand that rules of that sort (human decency), however excellent they may be for little boys – and servants – and women – and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules…
We can all be the lawyer, be Uncle Andrew and say, “Who is worthy of my love? Where is my neighbor to be found? Jesus’ commands apply differently to me.”
Lastly, we could be Jesus. “But we cannot be Jesus!” you say. “Jesus is…well, Jesus, and we are not.” I have good news for you. You have been saved to be Jesus’ presence on the earth. He has given you his Holy Spirit. Who is holy? God alone. So what happens when God gives you His Holy Spirit? Exactly.
Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He shows us compassion and mercy; sacrifices himself for us (notice the verbs – “went to him…bound up his wounds…pouring on oil and wine…set him…brought him…”); brings us to the inn of his Church so that we can heal; and according to St. Ambrose, gives us Holy Scripture, Old and New Testaments as medicine (“two denarii” = two testaments). Oh, and he promises to come back again!
To whom are you being a neighbor? To whom are you being a Christian – a little Christ (for this is who you are)? May we know ourselves and treat one another rightly because of the great love with which our savior, the Good Neighbor, has loved us and through which he drives out all of our fears. Amen.