Sermon - Brad Brookins
Matthew 22. 34-40
How to be a neighbor
“Justice is what love looks like in public” Cornel West
Matthew 22. 34-40
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
How to be a Neighbor—a short play in 3 acts. Based on stories told by Jesus, written down by Luke, and edited by me.
Act I. From Luke 10.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead…” and easily visible to anyone traveling down the 15 mile long hill from Jerusalem to Jericho.
And by chance, three others did walk by.
A priest—a keeper of the holy traditions in Jerusalem, a Levite—sort of an assistant priest, and a Samaritan—to the purity minded, a kind of spiritual “mud-blood”; one who might live next door, if you were really unlucky, but would never be a neighbor.
Now this story is a set up, of course. One of these three is going to help the poor man in the ditch; but which one? Two out of the three, in popular opinion, could be counted on—the priest and the Levite. These men who touched holy things, would certainly have been touched by compassion as well. They would help.
Jesus tells this story in response to a question from a lawyer—an expert in the Law of Moses. “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer had inquired. Apparently he’s not a very good lawyer, however. He breaks the first rule of lawyering that anyone who has ever watched Law and Order on TV knows—never ask a question if you don’t already have the answer.
He thought he had the answer, because he thought he had the right question. Who is my neighbor? Who doesn’t know that?
But Jesus turns the tables on him.
It turns out it takes special eyes—neighborly eyes, to know a neighbor when you see one.
The Samaritan—the outsider, the different one, is the only one who sees through neighborly eyes. And so he is the one whose neighborly hands bind the wounds and lift the wounded onto his own animal to take him to safety.
Was the half-dead man his neighbor—really? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But that isn’t the question neighborly eyes ask. Neighbors see. And then they do. Only then, sometime later, if they have time, maybe, they ask the “who” question. “Who is my neighbor?”, you see, is not their concern.
They don’t care.
Kind of like God doesn’t care. Love doesn’t care. Kindness doesn’t care. Neighbors see. Neighbors do.
Now let’s be clear about one thing. This is not a case of Jew—bad/Samaritan—good. Jesus’ concern is not, Who are the good people? The question for Jesus is, What does it mean to be a good person? To be a neighbor? To do the right thing?
Any one of those three could have been a neighbor that day. But only one of them had the eyes of a neighbor.
“…love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself”.
In other words, open your eyes. Do justice. Love kindness. Be the neighbor.
Act II. From Luke 16.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores…”
Day after day Lazarus walks, crawls or is carried to lay at the rich man’s gate. Day after day this man of means walks on by, sometimes stepping over poor Lazarus but never seeing him. His eyes are focused—but they see only what they want to see.
The crumbs from the rich man’s well provisioned table would have satisfied Lazarus, perhaps even saved his life; but nothing falls his way. Day follows day. Hunger deepens. The dogs do their best to clean his sores, but it isn’t enough.
“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.”
Which epithet do you want on your tombstone? “Carried away by angels”; or “Dead and buried”?
“The poor man died and was carried away to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.”
And suddenly everything is upside down. Lazarus finds comfort at Abraham’s table and the man of means finds himself in flames.
But the fire has not yet done its work. The rich man still clings to his privilege.
He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his aid. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” Now he sees Lazarus; even knows the poor beggar’s name. Funny what a change in perspective can do for you.
But the man who could not spare a crumb from his table for Lazarus will not now receive a drop of water from Lazarus to cool his tongue. Lazarus has suffered enough and will not be sent again into the flames. “The chasm between us, between your way of living and ours, is too great”, Abraham says. “We can’t get there from here”.
Then, in a rare moment of concern for someone other than himself, the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to the land of the living to warn his five brothers, “so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
But again Abraham refuses. “They have Moses and the prophets” he says. “They should listen to them.”
They have Moses. They know what justice looks like. They know already how to do the right thing. If they won’t listen to Moses they won’t listen even if someone should return from the dead.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart” Moses said (Deuteronomy 6.5). “Love your neighbor as yourself” Moses said (Leviticus 19.18). They had already been told; many times over. Lazarus would have nothing to say that they hadn’t already heard, and ignored.
Now this is, of course, a story. It’s a story. It’s entirely true, but it didn’t happen and never will. I have to say that clearly because every time this story is read there will be someone in the congregation who thinks this is a description of heaven and hell.
God is not in the torture business. Paradise is not a place where the blessed are smugly entertained through all eternity watching the sufferings of the damned like it’s some stupid reality TV show. This story says nothing—nothing at all, about heaven or hell.
It says a great deal, however, about neighborliness; about equity and generosity and the benefit to everyone of sharing wealth; of sharing the abundance of God’s Creation.
The rich man’s fault lay, you see, partly in his riches, but mostly in his vision—or rather his willing lack of vision. He didn’t “listen” to Moses, and so he couldn’t “see” Lazarus. He didn’t hear to the command to love his neighbor, and so he did not know how to be a neighbor.
The benefit of being the neighbor, Jesus says in many places, is not that we avoid the flames of Hades then, but that we experience the joy of community and the pleasure of giving—the pleasure of human friendship here and now.
There is no more opportune time, you see, than right now to be the neighbor; to enter the places where hearts are shut and hands are clenched and there be the open hearted, generous presence of God.
Act III. From Luke 19.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich.
Zacchaeus meets Jesus. He comes face to face with the in-person generosity and kindness of God. He meets, in person, the human embodiment of grace.
And the world changes. At least his world changes.
Zacchaeus, still the rich tax collector, becomes the neighbor. No one, least all Zacchaeus, was expecting this day to bring that miracle.
He comes face to face with generosity, and he becomes generous. He comes face to face with kindness, and he becomes the neighbor.
He becomes neighbor to the people he has lived among for years and has, no doubt, been cheating for nearly as long. How can this be, the neighborhood wonders? Can it be?
It’s a costly transformation. Zacchaeus doesn’t become the neighbor for free. “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor (he says); and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” He must have kept thorough records to make that promise. He was, no doubt, a man of business.
Here, in Act III, we see one of the odd ironies of neighborliness—particularly for someone whose shut up heart and clenched hands are opened by the generosity of grace. Financially, Zacchaeus is poorer by half—and then some. But, in the things that matter—forgiveness, community, friendship, he is immeasurably richer.
The things he could never have bought, but has always longed for, are suddenly available in abundance. Not all at once, of course. His new neighbors would take some convincing. But he gets there.
Jesus calls what happens to Zacchaeus “salvation”. “Today salvation has come to this house”, he says. The word he uses means health and wholeness. To be “saved” is to be made whole; and in this story salvation comes “today”.
That is the generosity of grace. The sweet by and by, you see, is the sweet here and now.
All those years Zacchaeus missed this. He was, as Jesus said, already a child of Abraham. He just didn’t know that; didn’t know who he was until this day.
How could he know? Until Jesus, The Neighbor, called him out of his tree—until he came face to face with the generosity and kindness of God, he couldn’t know. Until he became the neighbor, he was blind to his own true self.
So here’s the thing. Here’s where this little 3 act play finds it’s conclusion.
The story we’ve been telling today begins not with the Samaritan or Lazarus or Zacchaeus or us. The story begins with the neighborliness of God; with the generosity of grace. The generosity of grace that opens our hearts and hands to be the neighbor—to our community, our country, our world, our planet home. All of whom, now more than ever, need us to treat them in a neighborly fashion.
So maybe I got the banner wrong. Maybe we don’t need to Be the Church for the neighbor. Maybe we need to Be the Neighbor in order to be the church. Amen.
Text and Questions
Matthew 22. 34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
1. Can you love God without loving your neighbor? Can you love your neighbor without loving God? (For extra credit, look up 1 John 4:20)
2. Are love of God and love of neighbor the same thing? Why or why not?
3. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” “Law” here refers to all Moses taught. “Prophets” refers to everything taught by people like Isaiah and Jeremiah. What does it mean for the whole Hebrew Bible to “hang” on these two commandments?
4. What is the significance for Christians that the two greatest commandments are direct quotes from the Old Testament and not original to Jesus?
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘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.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
5. Here are two questions from this story: “Who is my neighbor?” (v. 29) and
“Who was a neighbor…?” (v. 36) Notice the difference in perspective and point of
view between the two. What is that difference and why is this important?
6. Another question from the story: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The
Greek phrase translated “eternal life is “Zoen ai-O-nion” —literally: the “life
of the ages” or “the life of the age to come”. You may recall prior discussions we’ve
had about the “age to come”. What is the lawyer asking here?
7. When the lawyer quotes the two great commandments Jesus replies: “You have
given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” What do you think Jesus meant
by that last phrase? “Live” where, when, how and why?
Luke 16. 19-31
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
THIS IS A STORY! THIS IS A STORY! THIS IS A STORY! THIS IS A STORY!
8. What is Luke 16. 19-31? Why is it important to recognize this?
9. Stretch your imagination here. Why was the rich man rich? Why was Lazarus
poor? find at least 4 answers to each or those questions.
10. All through the Old Testament God is presented as being profoundly concerned for
poor people. All through the gospels Jesus embodies that concern in his interactions
with and for poor people. Why does God care so much about poor people? What does
God’s concern say about God, about us, about the Creation?
11. (V. 26) “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed”. Was the chasm between the
rich man and Lazarus wider or narrower after death than before?
12. Had the rich man wanted to bridge that chasm in life, how might he have done it? How
might Lazarus have bridged that gap?
13. If Lazarus had gone back to the rich man’s 5 brothers, what might he have told them
and what might they have replied? Would you change your life if someone returned from
the dead and told you to?
Luke 19. 1-10
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
14. What do you think motivated a short, rich man to sacrifice his dignity and climb a tree to
15. Jesus doesn’t wait for Zacchaeus to invite him. Why? (Consider v. 10)
16. Stay with the story here—What motivates a short, rich and hated man to say, “half of my
possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor”? (V. 8)
17. (V. 9) When (during what part of “today”) does salvation come to the house of Zacchaeus
What does “salvation” mean in this story?
18. Play with this question: How does the neighborhood begin to change when Zacchaeus
becomes a neighbor?