Sunday, April 23, 2017

Distant Neighbors

It was a warm and sunny day in the village. Warmer still indoors, with so many living bodies crammed together in one place. No one was surprised when he stood up and walked to the front. The parchment crinkled in his rough palms as he slowly, deliberately unwound it to a place of his choosing. Everyone watched with bated breath. The attendant stood at his side. The man found his place and began intoning the Hebrew words of the prophet who lived so long ago: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,” he read – and then paused. The attendant translated into Aramaic for the ease of the crowd. “Because the LORD has anointed me,” he chanted on, again pausing for a translation.

To bring good news to the poor,” he continued, and the crowd gathered in the synagogue smiled as they listened to the translator. The reader skipped over a line, as was his prerogative, and continued, two lines this time: “To proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of the eyes to those who are blind” (Isaiah 61:1). As the attendant rendered the words into common Aramaic, the reader's fingers deftly shifted the scroll, jumping back to an earlier line from the text he wished to interject: “To let the oppressed go free,” a line from the prophet's meditation on the fast acceptable to God, which included other gems like sharing bread with the hungry and opening one's house to the homeless (Isaiah 58:6-7).

But no time to read those – the reader returned to his original place and read half the next sentence: “To proclaim the year of the LORD's favor” (Isaiah 61:2). Many in the synagogue knew the gist of the passage; they had heard it read before. And they were eager for the rest. The next line would be about “the day of vengeance of our God,” of course. There'd be some talk about building up ancient ruins, repairing ruined cities – that part sold well here (Isaiah 61:4). So, too, did hints of other nations being forced into servitude to do their work for them (Isaiah 61:5), and especially the line where “you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast” (Isaiah 61:6). 

The elders of the synagogue were excited for that line. See, their fathers and their grandfathers had traveled up to these desolate hinterlands for one main reason: to reclaim the long-polluted “Galilee of the Gentiles” and make it, well, “Galilee of the Jews.” The land had too long been clogged with the descendants of foreign settlers, with all their odd practices. And the competition was still ongoing – the pagan city of Tiberias had been founded just ten years ago by that corrupt king Herod Antipas.

But the elders were disappointed. This man, returning to them after several months away, didn't keep reading. In mid-sentence, while the translator did his work, he speedily rolled the scroll back up and handed it to the surprised attendant (Luke 4:16-20). And then the man, Jesus, sat down. Everyone stared at him – some merely curious what this young man had to say; some suspicious of any hometown boy who thought he could rise above the rest; some already gritting their teeth at the way he'd stopped short, as if to say God wouldn't exalt them over foreigners. But for all their various reasons, all eyes were fixed on him. What would he say?

He opened his mouth, and out came plain Aramaic, for all to hear: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Oh, the audacity! This Jesus, the traveling preacher, was taking this section of Isaiah and making it his personal mission statement. He was the Messiah, the one anointed by God's Spirit to bring restoration and victory to Israel – but his idea of victory said nothing about avenging them against the foreign settlers, and it said nothing about plundering the nations for their glory. He was the Messiah who would open blind eyes to see, who would bless the pious poor with good news, who would announce freedom to the persecuted – and, he'd added, who would embody the true God-approved fast by liberating the oppressed. And this explained all the rumors of exorcisms and healings – he'd done a few in Nazareth just yesterday (cf. Mark 6:5) – which could mean only dark magic or the work of God.

The people in their seats began whispering, exclaiming. Our English Bibles say they “all spoke well of him,” but that's not what Luke writes. It just says that they all testified about him – doesn't say whether they thought it was good or bad – and that they were astonished, and perhaps aggravated, at this grace-filled message he announced. And they began asking, “Isn't this the son of Joseph,” a mere carpenter (Luke 4:22)? “Haven't we heard all the gossip about how he was born less than nine months after his folks got hitched? Don't we know his four brothers? Aren't his sisters still living here in the village, married to guys sitting in the room this very morning” (cf. Mark 6:3)? “Where does this fellow get off, announcing himself the Messiah, setting the agenda for us, turning his back on the whole reason this village is here!”

Jesus heard what they were whispering. From the teacher's chair in the front, he preempted it – he knew they would make fun of him, try to cut him down to size, or else milk him for all the miracles they could: “What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well” (Luke 4:23). In other words, they were thinking, “If this joker really were the Messiah, if we could believe in a Messiah from Nazareth, well, then as the town that raised him, we deserve to enjoy the blessings he brings first! We're loyal Jews, we're natural-born members of the covenant, we've been close to him his whole life, and that ought to mean something.”

But Jesus doesn't see it that way. He knows that ministry is a whole different animal – that it's no surprise for a prophet's hometown not to accept him, when he comes interrupting the status quo among those who feel they've got a special claim on him (Luke 4:24). He looks at their mentality and “marvels at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6). He says it doesn't amount to faith. In fact, all he sees when he looks at them is pride. Their whole mentality is about exclusivity and how special they are, how proud they are to be Jews and not Gentiles, how proud they are to be from Nazareth and not Capernaum. All they want to do is jockey for privilege, angle for status, try to come out on top, try to demand priority treatment. And Jesus will have none of it. The crowd is focused on what they think they deserve to get; but Jesus is saddened by all the things they refuse to give.

So Jesus dares to challenge their calls for priority treatment. He begins telling stories from the lives of the last two miracle-based prophets who ministered in their area centuries and centuries earlier, Elijah and Elisha. And he recalls the drought that struck the land during Elijah's ministry. Elijah was from Tishbe – not really so far away from Nazareth. He prophesied the drought to King Ahab; he went east of the Jordan River to drink from a little brook and eat whatever ravens happened to drop off for him. But even the brook eventually dried up. And there were plenty throughout the land of Israel who were suffering (1 Kings 17:1-7). And shouldn't the prophet of Israel come to help the people of Israel first?

But that's not what happens, as Jesus reminds the synagogue: “Elijah was sent to none of them” (Luke 4:25-26). Instead, God commanded him to travel outside of Israelite territory and move to the pagan Phoenician town of Sarepta, a port-town subject to nearby Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon). Ahab's wife Jezebel had been a Phoenician princess from Sidon, and her pagan influence was a big part of the problem Israel had at the time. But that's where Elijah was sent – to a poor widow living under the rule of Jezebel's daddy Ithobaal. And yet this poor widow, living in a place her neighbors saw as beyond the God of Israel's reach, risked all she had in faith that the God of Israel would sustain her; and so she shared what little she had with Elijah. When her son died, Elijah's prayers revived him (1 Kings 17:8-24). It was proof that the LORD isn't just God of Israel, but God of the Gentiles, too, and mighty to save in all their lands (cf. Romans 3:29).

And the crowd, hearing this reminder, gritted their teeth. But Jesus wasn't done driving home his point. Elisha, he reminded them, was Elijah's successor, a rich boy from the Jordan River Valley who, empowered by God's Spirit, did twice the miracles Elijah did. And in his time, Israel was not disease-free. There were plenty of lepers there, just as there were in Jesus' day – people with all manner of skin conditions. And Elisha could have been commanded by God to go heal all of them. But he wasn't. It's recorded that he healed one leper – but it wasn't an Israelite. It was, in fact, an enemy general from Syria, a servant of the Aramean king who reigned from Damascus. Naaman was his name, and on one of his attacks against Israel, he had kidnapped a young girl from some Israelite family (2 Kings 5:2). It was she who tipped him off to the possibility of healing in Israel (2 Kings 5:3-5).

Yet Elisha wouldn't even meet him or shower him in the customary honors; he communicated perfunctorily by a messenger. But at the servants' urging, Naaman found faith enough to overlook the offense of the preacher – he washed in the Jordan and was healed (2 Kings 5:9-14). No leper of Israel found healing in Elisha's day, but God healed a foreigner, an enemy, and gained a convert (Luke 4:27). God's love couldn't be limited to Israel, nor did his blessings even come first to every Israelite; nor, Jesus implies, would his ministry prioritize Nazareth or even the Jewish people. They would have to drop their expectations of priority treatment and get used to living side-by-side with Gentiles, foreigners, especially those who might, like Naaman, come in an hour of need.

The people in the synagogue that warm, sunny day didn't much care to hear that. They believed very strongly that Jews should come first, and that Nazareth should come doubly first. They believed that their neighbors, the people they were obligated to, were the people who were most like them, people from their own village, from their own native-born community. They believed firmly that the place of foreigners was as subjects, to be used for their own advantage, or at the very least, to stay 'out there' to get out of Galilee and go back home to wherever their parents and grandparents were from. And they resented Jesus' suggestion that people like them, or even the fellow Jews of hoity-toity Capernaum, would get to cut in line – as if 'waiting in line' is how the world works!

It wouldn't surprise me at all if, that day, the whispered motto in the synagogue was, “Israelites first! Nazareth first!” And Jesus tells these stories, and people are getting furious. Surely a Phoenician widow, a member of Jezebel's country, isn't their neighbor! Surely Naaman, a ritually contagious Syrian with suspicious political loyalties, isn't their neighbor! And how dare Jesus talk about prophets treating them as if they are neighbors! We can't do a thing like that. Not only is it an offensive idea to hear in Nazareth, but if we start doing things like that, how can we possibly be safe? There's got to be a line, and that's got to be on the wrong side of it.

That, I think, was the prevailing sentiment in Nazareth that day. But it wouldn't be the last time someone came to Jesus with that sort of objection. Later in his ministry, as he was out teaching the crowds, a local law expert stood up and started testing Jesus, asking about how to have eternal life. Since he asked what he was supposed to do, Jesus quizzed him about the Law, and he answered with the Great Commandment, just as he must have heard Jesus teach it before (Luke 10:25-27). Jesus told him to make it his life, this whole business about loving God and loving your neighbors (Luke 10:28). But the lawyer wanted to know the limit, the borders of the commandment: Who wasn't he commanded to love? Where does 'neighbor' stop and 'stranger' begin (Luke 10:29)? And so Jesus told him a story (Luke 10:30-35).

And you all know the story. There's a man walking on the windy road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho – he must be a Jew, and you're supposed to identify with him at first in the story. But one hazard along that road was that it was a favorite hide-out for thieves. One of those little gangs of thieves accosts the man, and because he tries to resist, they beat him bloody and rip his clothes off, stealing them, too. And so he's unconscious by the side of the road, denuded of anything that might identify what kind of person he is, and in real trouble. 

Along comes a priest, returning home to Jericho after a day on duty at the temple. And as he walks along the path and sees the man, he's confronted with a dilemma. It isn't clear if this man is still alive. If he isn't, well, a priest is forbidden to defile himself by touching a dead body unless it's a close relative. If he became ritually impure in defiance of the law and then went back to temple work the next morning, and anybody found out, he'd be in real danger of being lynched by the other priests. 

On the other hand, maybe the man is alive. If he's a fellow Jew, then the priest is required to help. But is he? Without clothes, face down in the dirt, who can tell? Is the priest required to help if the man isn't Jewish? Does he still then count as a neighbor? The priest, in his quiet reflections, has to answer that very question. And besides all that, who's to say it isn't a trap? Who's to say this apparent victim isn't a source of danger? Flummoxed by the quandary, the priest rationalizes the man's needs away, treats him not as a fellow image-bearer of God but as a potential threat, and walks past on the other side.

Along, then, comes a Levite, also having performed a day of service at the temple. He probably saw, from a distance, the priest walk by the man – and who is the Levite to second-guess a priest? Especially a priest he'd have to face in Jericho later that evening. So the Levite follows the loveless example set for him: he passes by on the other side. And it's at that point, in a typical Jewish story, that you'd expect to meet a third character coming along, a regular Jewish layman, to round out the standard trio. But Jesus plans a twist for the story.

Instead of a Jewish layman, he introduces a seemingly more nefarious figure: a Samaritan. The half-breed people living between Galilee and Judea, or so Jews of that time would have thought of them. And a Samaritan was not exactly a positive stock figure for a Jewish story in those days. Actually, people resented Samaritans, hated Samaritans, even feared Samaritans.

And it wasn't entirely without reason. The Samaritans came into being as a people after the Assyrians carted upper-class Israelites away from the Northern Kingdom, populating the land with foreign settlers, who married with local peasant families. Their religious practices diverged heavily from the teachings of the prophets. In the era when Jews returned from Babylonian Captivity, Nehemiah was fanatically opposed by Sanballat, the Samaritan governor. Later on, when the Promised Land fell under foreign Greek rule, and Jews were being persecuted for their faith, the Samaritans disowned them, denied having any connection with them. After things calmed down, there was a nasty argument between Jews and Samaritans over which was the true temple site, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim in Samaria. It wasn't always just a war of words, either – from that very time period, there are stories of Samaritans attacking Jewish colonies, places like Nazareth.

And when Jesus was a child, maybe he heard the story of the horrifying thing the Samaritans did: they traveled to Jerusalem and, one night during a festival, crept onto temple grounds and tossed corpses onto temple property to defile it. If that weren't enough, Galileans now had to put up with being ruled by Herod Antipas, who was half-Samaritan on his mother's side. And while nobody at the time knew it, the Samaritans would eventually revolt against Pontius Pilate (his response would be the pretext for removing him from office), and in time would lynch a band of Galilean pilgrims traveling through their turf. Perhaps, even in these days, there was a suspicion that it was just the sort of thing a Samaritan might do. Samaritans were hated. Samaritans were feared. Let Samaritans move into the neighborhood, and there's no telling what trouble might lurk around the corner. The phrase “Good Samaritan” is, to the ears of first-century Jews, a contradiction in terms.

So what does Jesus do? Of course he casts a Samaritan in the starring role. As he tells the story, along comes a Samaritan, who seems to be pretty well-to-do. What he's doing deep in Judea, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, I haven't a clue. Seems like a place a Samaritan probably wouldn't want to be. But there he is, and he sees the man. And his first thought isn't, “What if I catch something from him?” His first thought isn't, “What if this is an evil plot to trap and kill me?” His first thought isn't, “Do I really owe this guy any help?” And you could understand if he asked those questions, because the Samaritan's in a scary place, and if this man were conscious, he might well spit in the Samaritan's face. But the Samaritan doesn't bother to think about any of that. He just looks on the injured man and has a heart full of compassion – the 'dangerous' helping the 'dangerous.'

So the Samaritan goes to him. Finds that he's still alive. Binds cloth around the wounds, and pours oil and wine on them – standard medical practice in the day, but it's a drain on the Samaritan's resources. And then he takes the unconscious man and puts him up on his own donkey, choosing to walk the rest of the way. And Jesus says the Samaritan takes him to an inn. 

The nearest inn wasn't by the side of the road. It was in Jericho. And can you imagine what the Jericho townspeople would think when they see a Samaritan toting a beaten-bloody Jew into their town? They might well assume he's responsible for it! And can you imagine what they might do as an act of popular outrage? The Samaritan can imagine all too well – he knows there's a chance the denizens of Jericho might lynch first, ask questions later. But he goes to town, braving the crowd; he walks to the inn; he stays to tend to the man overnight; and before he leaves, he pays the innkeeper and promises to cover any additional expenses to prevent the man from going into debt-slavery for an unpaid bill later on.

Did the Samaritan make it out of town alive? Jesus doesn't say. What he does ask is who turned out to be the most neighborly, the truest neighbor, to the injured man in his time of desperate need. The lawyer can't bring himself to say the word 'Samaritan'; he just says, “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:36-37). And Jesus holds him up – the astoundingly merciful Samaritan, the hated and mistrusted foreigner – as the real model for imitation. Suddenly, Jesus hurls the self-righteous lawyer – hurls us – into the foreigner's shoes. And after we've seen through the foreign Samaritan's eyes, limits on the word 'neighbor' lose their possibility forever.

The Samaritan didn't care that the man was a Jew; he accepted him as a neighbor and risked everything to help him – just like Elijah didn't care that the widow of Zarephath was Phoenician, just like Elisha didn't care that Naaman was Syrian. All three of them helped foreigners when the need presented itself. None of them came up with excuses. They never thought, “Israel first.” They never thought, “Nazareth first.” They never thought, “Me and people like me first.” They just lived out the welcoming love of God, even when it was costly, even when it was frightful – but fear's got nothing on love. And Jesus points to stories like these, examples like these, offenses like these, and says, “You chosen people could learn a lesson in faith and love from foreigners like these. Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Go and do likewise: Count them as your neighbor, regardless of where they come from. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what they look like. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what cultural traditions they practice. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what language they speak. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what religion they've practiced before you met them – because everyone in the world either celebrates the good news with us already or needs to receive the good news that we're put here to tell 'em. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of whether they'd do the same for you. Have mercy. Show love. Go and do likewise.

You might be wondering this morning what the application of this sermon is, this lesson on distant neighbors, on foreign neighbors. And to give you a little bit of background, a couple months ago, two of you came to me and said you'd like to hear what the word of God speaks into today's political and cultural furor over refugees and immigration. And when I turned to the scripture, when I prayed and read and studied, here's what I found. It may not be the message you were hoping to hear. It wasn't what the lawyer hoped to hear. It wasn't what the townsfolk of Nazareth hoped to hear. But I hope you'll receive it better than they did (cf. Luke 4:28-29)!

The truth is, when it comes to refugees, immigrants, and just anyone within our own borders who has a different look, different language, different subculture than us, sometimes we look at them the way most Israelites in the days of Elijah viewed Phoenicians like the widow, the way Israelites in the days of Elisha viewed Syrians like Naaman, the way the settlers of Nazareth viewed the Gentile populations in Galilee, the way most Jews viewed Samaritans. 

And so we get resentful. We insist that we, and people like us whom we accept, should come first. That we need more protection against an unspecified danger that the foreigner among us may hypothetically present. We demand priority treatment, in the name of fairness, security, and convenience the all-American trinity. It's all well and good for the Samaritan to empty his wallet for a foreign stranger, we figure, but we'd rather not sacrifice a half-second to press '1' for English. And so we come to dislike “the year of the LORD's favor.” We bristle at following Jesus in offering liberty to the oppressed. We'd sooner cook up slurs like 'foreign,' 'strange,' 'dangerous,' than use words like 'neighbor' and then live accordingly. Maybe we chosen people could learn a lesson or two about faith and love from Elijah and the Phoenician widow, Elisha and the Syrian general, and a strangely merciful Samaritan far from home.

And that's the message for today. Now, I want to be clear: I'm not telling you how you should have voted in the last election, and I'm not telling you how you should vote in the next one. There are a lot of issues at play, and your decision should be between you, the Spirit of God, and the living witness of his church. But I can tell you that earlier this year, the National Association of Evangelicals – of which our denomination is a part – released a statement that said this: pursuing the goal of security, we must not betray our deepest values, by disregarding the sanctity of human life or by closing our doors to the persecuted who seek protection. The Bible is clear that God blesses nations and individuals who uphold justice and righteousness and defend the vulnerable. The call to love our neighbor always entails a degree of risk, but the risk to our souls, and to our national character, is much greater if we fail to do what we can, and what we know is right, to help those who are in desperate need.

That's what they said, because it's what God said. It's where God's heart is: for neighbors far and near, through us. Love shapes how we should talk about our neighbors, one and all. And as the church, we, unlike the Nazareth synagogue, don't live by pride and fear. We live by the perfect love that casts out fear – and casts out pride, and resentment, and any “us-first” mentality that may still grasp at us (1 John 4:18). Love comes first, not us. And in the words of our country's national anthem: “This be our motto: 'In God is our trust!'” And as we trust him, we're set free for mercy and love. Go and do likewise. Amen.

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