Must I love my neighbor?

Traditional Sermon, Pentecost 8

Someone once said: “What goes around comes around.” And there is enough anecdotal and historical evidence that one could make the case that it is true.

Historical case in point is the true story of the poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to eke out a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified young boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. The farmer saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy the farmer had saved.

“I want to repay you,” said the nobleman. “You saved my son’s life.”
“No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied, waving the offer off.
At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel.
“Is that your son?” the nobleman asked.
“Yes,” the farmer replied proudly.
“I’ll make you a deal,” the nobleman offered. “Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll grow to a man you can be proud of.”

And the deal was done. The farmer’s son did make his father and the nobleman proud. He graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world. His name? Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.
But the story is not over. Years later, the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin, of course. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name? Sir Winston Churchill.

It’s a wonderful story, but the questions it raises have to do with the underlying adage of “What goes around comes around.” If that colloquialism is true, is that reason enough to care for others? Think about it for a moment with me. If that is our only motivation, then it is self-driven. We do good turns for others so that we get a good turn in return. We give gifts, which become redeemable tickets for us, to others, so that we get gifts, those redeemed tickets, in return. What is the motivation? Is it just hope of future reward or fear of future retribution?
There is another lesson to be told this day and it is gospel. It begins with a lawyer “testing” Jesus with a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

There was probably no malevolent purpose behind the question. This was simply a rabbinical method of questions and answers that was used to probe the law. But notice that Jesus does not answer the question; he throws the ball back into the court of his questioner by asking two of his own: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

And the lawyer, a teacher of the Torah and one of the wise, 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.”

There were 613 laws, commandments, in Jesus’ time. He and the lawyer both knew them. And what the lawyer did with his answer was combine two of them. For the first part of his answer he went to the Deuteronomic Tradition, to what has been called the Shema — Deuteronomy 6:5. He combined it with a second law from the Holiness Code recorded in Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18). So, his answer was not to come up with yet another law, but to bring together two commandments and present them as one. They are the summary of what all the other 611 laws mean.

It’s the second one of those laws that needs our attention today in light of the questions posed by my opening story: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

There is a lot of confusion these days over this “love” business. Our culture has romanticized love in song and story to the point that what it really means has been obscured.

Let’s start with the old Levitical Law. An old Rabbi once pointed out to me that the New Testament interpretation of that law has somewhat distorted its original meaning. Instead of reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” a better translation would be, “You shall love your neighbor because he or she is like you.” That’s what the original meaning was: “Because he or she is like you.” Now, doesn’t that change our perspective on this commandment to love? Our neighbors are like us. They are in the same boat we are. That is why we should love them. They have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, just as we have. They have stood beside the widow of Nain in a cold, wet cemetery, just as we have. They have been sick and diseased, confused and frightened, bewildered and amazed, just as we have. And just as we needed love and assurance and compassion to get through those times, so do they. They are like us, and we, like them.

“Love your neighbor for she or he is like you.” This interpretation is supported a few verses later in Leviticus: “When an alien (foreigner) resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien … you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

As I tell my confirmation class every year as we study this, the Jews were the first people to practice hospitality to neighbors. And they did so out of their own experience of being strangers in a strange land. “Love that stranger, because you were strangers once yourselves.” “Love your neighbor, because she is like you.”

Now, let me make three short, simple distinctions that will help bring this commandment into sharper focus. First, love, as this commandment describes it, is not a feeling; it is an action. Don’t worry about feelings of love, or emotions. That’s where our culture has messed up our understanding of love. You always have to “feel” something, according to song. This commandment is less concerned with how you feel about your neighbor than about how you treat him or her. Love is an action!

I remind all young couples of that in our pre-marriage counseling sessions. Being “in love” is how the other person makes you feel. And those feelings will come and go throughout a relationship. But love, the actions of caring and support, of patience and kindness, you fill it in, those actions are what will keep your relationship strong and growing. Love is an action toward the other.

Second point of clarification under the title “Must I love that neighbor?” Note very quickly that this commandment doesn’t say anything about having to like the neighbor. I believe I just heard a great sigh of relief. No, I’m serious here. Too many Christians spend too much needless energy trying to like everyone because that’s what they think God wants them to do. And when they can’t do it, they feel guilty.

Nowhere in Scripture does it say we must like everyone. I, for one, will confess quite openly that I find that an impossible task. And once I realize that’s not what God is calling me to do, then I’m free of guilt. Now, I can work on loving this neighbor (remembering that loving is actions toward), now I can work on loving this neighbor who I don’t like because he or she is loud and obnoxious, but who needs my love and perhaps my understanding because he is like me in so many ways. And I don’t have to feel guilty now when he gets on my nerves.

And finally, the point that puts teeth into this commandment: love is not an option for Christians; it is a command. I don’t like that obnoxious neighbor, and I don’t have to like him, but I am commanded to love him. It is not an option, and it will take hard work.
Now, in light of the re-translation of that commandment and our new understandings and insights, how do we read that famous parable of the Good Samaritan? Who is really the central character in the story?

Do you remember what prompted Jesus to tell that story in the first place? The lawyer, after finding out that he knew the law but didn’t always live by it, wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And there followed a story about a man who is stripped, beaten, and left for dead.

Now that we know that we are to treat our neighbor with love because he or she is like us, who is the central character in the story? The man beaten and lying on the side of the road for dead. As Dr. Frederick Borsch, Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University, wrote in his commentary on this story: “We are meant to be him in the story — to taste his fear, to feel his pain and then his terror at being left, perhaps to die. We share his consternation when two of his countrymen — from whom he had every right to expect help — pass him by. Then we are to participate in all his mixed emotions when a stranger stops to help him.”

You see, by identifying with the man wounded and bleeding, we not only learn to define neighbor as one in need, we learn that to define a neighbor, we need to be a neighbor. Because of Jesus’ story, now neighbor is not defined by geographical location, by proximity, by culture or race, by heritage or life- style. Now, neighbor is the one in need and our commonality with them is that we share the burdens and joys of life just as they do.

One more observation about this story in Luke. The lawyer obviously knew the law. He was able to rattle off the commandments quickly and concisely. But Jesus’ response tells us that he didn’t understand them, for he says to him: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” And his answer was not about eternal life, but about life, real life in the here and now. You want really to know what life is about, to live it to the fullest, then love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor because he or she is like you. That’s where real living is to be found — not in the poor excuse for life we make in our selfish concerns, our self-directed desires, our petty grievances with life, our turning inward to satisfy our wants and needs all the time. Life is really lived in service to our neighbor — and that, according to Jesus, could be the person next to you on the pew, or the person you will meet at the store later today.

In concluding his commentary, Dr. Borsch adds these very insightful words: “The deepest human problem is not that we do not know what to do. Our problem is that we cannot find the power to do it.”

To which I will add: but God in Christ has given us that power. In the hearing of God’s word this day, we receive the power to live as God calls us to live. For those who have ears to hear, let us love as God calls us to love. It is a command; it is a challenge; it is a joy; it is a blessing; it is real living.

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Rev. Jeff Pretz

A member of St. Peter’s, Pastor Pretz is the retired pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church.

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