“In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints…Just as [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among you from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.”
These are the words with which Saint Paul[i] begins the letter to the Christians in Colossae. Across two thousand years of time and a world of space, they could just as easily have been written about you, the saints of Christ Church Cathedral in the city of Houston. Since the day I arrived among you in February 2013, I have been amazed by your love. In a world too often starved of love—a world that stingily seems to believe love is a zero-sum resource—you love extravagantly. Why is that? How is that? I’ll come back to that question.
Today we also read the best-known parable in the Gospels. We call it “The Good Samaritan,” and it is so well-known that in 1998 it even featured prominently in the series finale of the sitcom Seinfeld. Like all familiar stories, the Good Samaritan can be a gauzy comfort, but for that same reason we can also miss its impact.
The passage begins with a lawyer—a schooled and trained expert on Jewish religious law, a keeper of doctrine, someone who already knows all the answers—asking Jesus a metaphysical question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is, on its surface, an academic debate. Jesus lobs the ball back to the lawyer, asking, “What is written in the law [you know so well]? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds accurately, “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 love your neighbor as yourself.” And so, Jesus compliments and commends the lawyer for speaking truthfully and well.
This could have been the end of it. But instead, that’s when we, the reader, see what this exchange is really all about. It is on the surface an academic debate, but that’s not what’s actually going on. There are people around, watching, and this theologically and legally trained lawyer wants to put the scraggly, backwoods, rough-and-tumble Nazarene in his place. The lawyer wants to best Jesus, to belittle him, and somehow, in an exchange of just three sentences, Jesus has instead affirmed the lawyer. Rather than receiving that affirmation as a gift, we can imagine the heat rising on the back of the lawyer’s neck, his cheeks getting red, his eyes beginning to water and blaze. The lawyer cannot receive this gift from Jesus, whom the lawyer sees as so much beneath him. He rebels against it.
And so we see that this conversation was never about metaphysics. The lawyer isn’t interested in eternal life, for himself or anyone else. That’s a smokescreen, a red herring. This conversation is really about, as Luke himself tells us in verse 29, the lawyer “justifying himself.” The lawyer needs, internally for himself and externally to the crowd, to confirm who he is and to expose who he believes Jesus to be. He’s interested in winning the point, in shoring up his self-image, in preserving the thin veneer of his constructed persona so he doesn’t actually have to confront deeper and serious questions about who he is in the world. He wants to justify himself. And he views Jesus and Jesus’ message as a threat to him, to his sense of self, and to his place in the world. Can you imagine that? Seeing the Gospel of Jesus as a threat?
Feeling exposed, the lawyer presses the point. He pushes back, “And who is my neighbor?” And then Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Our common interpretation of the story is that our neighbor is anyone in need. That is true, but that’s actually not what the story is about or what it tells us. Because, read carefully, in this story the lawyer who questions Jesus—and we, the readers—is supposed to see himself as the man beaten up and left in the ditch. Catch that: We are not to see ourselves as the passers-by who fail to help, nor as the Samaritan who finally stops. In the construction of the story, we are the one beaten up, manhandled, injured, and left for dead.
And the man in the ditch is willing to receive aid from—indeed, have his very life saved by—the Samaritan, who in his culture is the enemy, the threat, the dirty, the disdained. This is the key to the parable: The man in the ditch opens himself to grace from wherever it may come. When he does, the least expected, least fathomable person becomes his neighbor.
Jesus turns the lawyer’s question on its head. Who is my neighbor? Our neighbor is anyone from whom we are willing to receive help. And if we are unwilling to receive help—if we are unwilling first to be vulnerable—we, in turn, cannot be a neighbor. This is the lesson of The Good Samaritan, and it’s a much harder lesson to learn and embrace than simply offering aid.
How do we walk through the world? Do we, like the lawyer, reenforce the veneer we’ve created (one that others can almost assuredly see through anyway)? Do we close ourselves off as if we have no need and cling to a sense of self that is dependent upon defining the other as base, less than, the object of our disdain or disregard? Such a persona can neither have nor be a neighbor.
Or do we, like the man thrown in the ditch, open ourselves to grace from wherever it may come? Can we be vulnerable to learning from, growing with, receiving love from the people we least expect, whoever they may be?
This brings me back to where I began. For almost ten years, I’ve been amazed by your ability to love, to be a neighbor. You feed the hungry, house the homeless, embrace all of God’s children in the fullness of their being, care about justice and peace. When I arrived almost a decade ago, I saw that immediately. It took me longer to understand how you do it. You are able to be neighborly—to extend love—because you also know how to receive it. You are a most remarkable congregation, one of vulnerability and a willingness to be met and ministered to by one another. You receive grace as what it is: a gift, and from any quarter. There is never a stranger among you, because you welcome the stranger as neighbor and friend. You do not see the Gospel as a threat to your sense of self, but as Good News that can and will change you, heal you, make you whole.
It has been a sanctifying gift to walk with such a people for this decade. You have been neighbors to me, and I am grateful. In a few weeks I will go home, to Arkansas and to another remarkable parish that asks and answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with vulnerability and grace. But when I go, I will take with me the love you have given. We will always be neighbors. And like Saint Paul, in my prayers for you I will always thank God for the love that you have for all the saints. You truly comprehended the grace of God.
[i] It is much-debated whether Colossians is a genuine Pauline letter. It may have been written by a disciple of Paul and attributed to him.