By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Barbara Brown Taylor tells of the time when she was a seminary student that she spent four straight hours in the library with a ten-pound book written by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. All I can say is that she was a more dedicated student than I, or she had a greater appreciation of Barth than I did. Or, perhaps, she was just following the professor’s orders. If so, she was definitely a more dedicated student than I was. After all, you can get in eighteen holes of golf in four hours. Nevertheless, she kept reading and rereading Barth’s chapter on the dual natures of Christ… “or something pithy like that,” she says.
But, she just couldn’t get it. So she kept biting her fingernails and drinking more black coffee until finally – on about the fifth time through – she got it; she really got it. Her hours of intensive study had finally paid off. The only thing left to do, she says, was to go outside the library, walk onto the campus quadrangle, and scream. After her screaming fit, no doubt brought about by a convoluted sense of joy at having figured out the mind of Barth, not to mention too much caffeine, she remembers being surprised that the quadrangle had not changed because of her newfound understanding. The trees were right where they had always been, the red brick buildings looked exactly like they had before. And she was disappointed. The world around her had not benefitted from her newfound knowledge.1
I would think it is the same… oh, let’s say, with medical students. Imagine the joy at learning just exactly where that vital artery is in the human body, or how and why a particular gland secretes its fluid… where an organ is located and how it functions.
Or in law school, a budding attorney finally fits her mind around some arcane legal understanding. After long study, it suddenly begins to make sense.
“I’ve got it!” you think to yourself. “I’ve finally got it!” You learn all these things and then, when the heady dust of your newfound knowledge begins to settle, you look around. Nothing has changed because of your fresh understanding. People are still dying from illnesses or suing one another.
And it’s true in church. Every Sunday morning when I stand in this pulpit and deliver a sermon, I am giving up what I have labored over all week. I speak to you the words that for the past several days have been forming in my heart and mind, words that I suspect may have come to mean more to me than they ever will to you or anybody else. I share with you my best and latest understanding of the sacred scriptures, I yield up my final homiletical effort of the week… and then we all traipse outside where people who obviously have not gone to church are walking their dogs or are jogging by or riding their bicycles toward whatever might be their destination. If they give any notice of our presence at all, it is more curiosity than interest. In other words, like Taylor’s seminary quadrangle, the trees are right where they were an hour before, and the buildings look exactly the same.
Any sermon, every sermon – even the very best sermon – is still just a combination of words and nothing more. And the world outside these four walls doesn’t give a hoot or a holler about any of them.
Why? Maybe it’s because the world has come to understand that it’s not words that get things done. Unless words are turned into action, they are meaningless. And you know what? That’s the way Jesus looked at it too.
By the time we get to this encounter between Jesus and the inquiring lawyer, Jesus has preached his Sermon on the Plain (which is Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount). He has told his disciples what he is up to and made his case for the kingdom of heaven being in their midst. Somewhere along the way, Jesus has decided there’s been enough talk, it’s time to do. So, in Luke’s words, he has “set his face” toward Jerusalem and is determined to embody by his actions what he has talked about with his words.
Like that medical student who has discovered the artery or the gland or the organ, such knowledge doesn’t do any good unless it results in the proper surgical technique or correct prescription. Or the student of law who finally figures out the legal requirements for that particular situation… unless it can be argued before a judge in order to gain a positive ruling for her client, it doesn’t accomplish a thing. There comes that time when words no longer get the job done. There’s nothing more to understand, there’ s nothing more to say. It’s time to do.
Jesus has come to that point in his life and ministry. He has set his face toward Jerusalem, and it is as they make their way to the Holy City that the lawyer stops Jesus and asks him the question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And like David Letterman, Jesus gives him the top ten things to do in order to get into the good graces of God.
No, that’s not what he does. In fact, he doesn’t answer him at all. Instead, he asks the lawyer a question. By the way, there’s no evidence that Jesus ever went to seminary, but that was a favorite technique of all the rabbis. Never give a direct answer to any question. Instead, ask another question. Lead the student around and through the questions so he will eventually come up with some answers of his own.
Counselors and therapists do this too. That’s why they respond to their clients by saying, “Uh huh. I see. And how do you feel about that?”
Socrates, the famous teacher, liked to do this as well. “For Socrates, the journey of thought was more fun than arriving at a clear destination.” The great teacher thought of himself as an intellectual midwife who doesn’t give birth to a baby, but rather assists another woman in giving birth.2
Jesus does the same thing here. He wants the lawyer to give birth to his own answer. But Jesus knows the lawyer thinks he already has all the answer he will ever need, and wants him to see that he doesn’t. His mindset is too limited, and unless his idea of God’s mercy can be expanded, the lawyer will not come to understand what it means to inherit the life of God.
“What is written in the law?” Jesus the rabbi asks him. “What do you read there?
“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.”
“That’s right. You hit the nail right on the head. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Now, look at the lawyer’s face. What do you see there? I see disappointment. He was looking for some new, fresh insight. Luke tells us he was testing Jesus. That doesn’t necessarily mean he is an adversary. It may just infer that he is checking Jesus out, to see what he is made of, to determine if perhaps the young Nazarene has some knowledge of God that he, a student of scripture, might not possess. And evidently, as far as the lawyer can tell, Jesus doesn’t. Or, the lawyer thinks he already knows it all, and is using Jesus to confirm his feelings, to justify his own sense of having arrived.
“You have given the right answer,” Jesus says to him. And then, he says these pivotal words, “Do this, and you will live.” “Do this…”
Don’t talk about loving God with all one’s heart and soul and strength and mind. In what sounds like a perfect advertisement for Nike athletic shoes, Jesus says, “Just do it.”
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Unfortunately, this is where I am most like the lawyer. He doesn’t want to do, he wants to keep on talking. “And who is my neighbor?”
What he’s really saying is, “Let’s keep this on the intellectual level. Let’s stay in the library or the classroom or the sanctuary. I don’t want to venture out into the sunlight of the real world. As long as we can keep on talking, we can pretend there isn’t a real world out there in need of the God we are talking about. Let’s stay here and talk about this.”
And that, my friends, is the context for what is probably the second most-famous parable Jesus told… the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus still won’t give the lawyer a direct answer, will he? But this time, instead of asking another question in response to the man’s question, Jesus tells a parable. And I don’t have to go into the elements of the story because you know them so well.
Oh, okay. I’ll do it. A man is journeying from Jericho to Jerusalem. He is accosted by thieves who steal his possessions and leave him for dead. Two religious types, a priest and a Levite, see him lying in the ditch but they cross to the other side of the road and keep going. A man comes along, who in Jesus’ story happens to be a Samaritan, takes pity on the man, binds his wounds, takes him to the next village, leaves him with an innkeeper, pays for his medical care, and offers to return to pay for any other expenses the man’s care might require.
But then, you knew all that, didn’t you?
What you might not have considered is the reaction of everyone to Jesus’ story; not only the lawyer but also all those standing around. They’re in shock. Not that the priest and Levitee would refuse to help the man. That doesn’t surprise them at all. There were a number of reasons why they wouldn’t give aid to the man… and couldn’t. They had important religious functions to attend, and what if the man were dead? Touching him would render them unclean. Unclean, they couldn’t help anyone and would have to quarantine themselves for days on end. Their decision not to get involved would be completely understood by all those who listened to Jesus’ story. So that’s not why they are shocked.
What stuns them is that the hero in Jesus’ little parable is a Samaritan. I’m sure if Jesus were telling that story today, he would be a Palestinian. Earlier, we read this text from The Cotton Patch Version by Clarence Jordan. It was written during the height of the racial unrest in our country, and placed Jesus’ point squarely where it belonged. Though it may not have the impact it had forty years ago, we read it to give us a sense of the initial affect. When Jesus told the story, it was a Samaritan giving help to a Jew. In the 60’s it was a black man helping a white man. Today, it might be an Iranian giving aid to an Iraqi, a member of Al-Qai’da helping an American. Oh yes, I know that’s hard to believe, but Jesus’ example, when he first told this story, was that extreme.
The Samaritan represents the most unexpected source of mercy. After all, Luke places this story immediately after the one about Jesus and his disciples being cast out of a Samaritan village. It’s the story where hotheaded James and John, “Sons of Thunder,” want to call down fire from heaven and consume all the people who had not shown hospitality to them. And then Jesus turns right around and makes a Samaritan the hero of his story! That’s why his listeners are shocked! Not only that, but what the Samaritan did was risky and foolish. “If everyone followed his example, we would all soon be half-dead and at the mercy of robbers.”3
So what’s his point? Well, I can’t speak with complete authority, but I think it might just be that God doesn’t care where love comes from, God only cares that love is done. Not talked about, done. Except… boy, I wish Jesus wouldn’t throw so many curves… the very next story is the one about Mary and Martha where Martha gets all upset with her sister because she won’t help in the kitchen. All Mary wants to do is listen to Jesus talk about the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus takes her side! What gives?
Well, let’s try this… There’s a time for talking and there’s a time for doing, especially when it comes to love. Don’t talk about when it needs to be done; just do it. After all, Jesus wasn’t on his way to Jerusalem to conduct a breakout session on how to be a suffering servant. The last words he spoke to the lawyer were, “Go and do likewise.” “Go and do.” And then, that’s exactly what Jesus did. That’s exactly what he did… all the way to Golgotha.
May he find you and me willing to do the same, to go and do likewise. After all, there comes the point when there’s nothing more to say.
Father, give us the courage, when the time comes, to quit talking a life of faith and just do it. May we use Jesus as our example, for it is in his name we ask it, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), pp. 114-115.
2William H. Willimon, “Belief in Action,” (Pulpit Resource: Vol. 32, No. 3, Year C, July – September, 2004) p. 11.
3Samuel Wells, “The Jericho Affair,” (The Christian Century: June 29, 2004), p. 17.
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.