Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Love Your Neighbor

Colossians 1:1-14 and Luke 10:25-37

 I’ve never seen anything authoritative that says it, so I can’t say this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure that of all the parables Jesus told, this is the best known one.  If it’s not this one, then it’s probably the Prodigal Son.  They are so well known that people who really have no exposure to the Christian message basically know what you’re talking about when you say, “The prodigal son returns,” or “He was being a good Samaritan.”  

And I think that’s a pretty good thing if all that some people know about Jesus’ teachings are the Parables of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan.  You put those two stories together, and I would say that you have at least half the message of the gospel wrapped up in them.  The Prodigal Son Parable teaches us how God loves us and wants to forgive us of our sins.  And the Parable of the Good Samariatan teaches us how God wants us to treat each other.  

The story begins with one of the Scribes, the experts in the Old Testament, asking Jesus, and apparently asking sincerely, what he must do to receive eternal life.  This was a very typical question in first century Jewish religious debate.  We understand that eternal life comes from faith in Jesus, but they thought primarily in terms of obedience to the Law.  There were some passages in the Old Testament that promised life for those who obeyed.  In context, they probably meant “life in the Promised Land,” or possibly “long life.”  But by the first century, most Jewish people understood them to refer to “eternal life, life after death.”  

Jesus returns the question to him, “How do you read?” which was again a very typical thing to do in Jewish debates.  He answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18:  You must love the Lord your God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.  This was also a typical Jewish response to the question.  Many rabbis, including Jesus himself, taught that these two together were the heart and soul of the Old Testament Law.  

But many rabbis, in their relentless pursuit of precision, then asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  And most of them answered that a “neighbor” was only a fellow Jew.  The thought of loving Gentiles, the heathens, was foreign to most Jews.  Some rabbis even argued it was against the law for a Jewish doctor to help a Gentile woman give birth.  Why?  It was just bringing another heathen child into the world.  

Jesus challenged this notion with a story: 

A man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The road that connected the two cities was about 20 miles long, and in those 20 miles, it dropped almost 4000 feet in elevation, and it passed through the most desolate and lawless place in the land of Canaan:  the wilderness of Judea, also called Jeshimmon.  It was a dangerous road, well known for highway robbers.  This man fell victim to them.  They beat him, stripped him of all he had, and left him for dead.  

A priest went by, traveling in the same direction.  According to the laws of ritual purity, he was forbidden to work in the Temple if he touched a dead body, and the rabbis argued he shouldn’t even allow his shadow to fall on one.  That’s why he passed on the other side of the road.  Of course, the man isn’t dead.  And the command to practice mercy was supposedly more important that ritual purity.  And what’s more, he was leaving Jersualem.  His time of Temple service was over.  He was going home.  None of that mattered.  It was, in his mind, too dangerous, too costly, or too time-consuming to help the man.  

A Levite went by, and he basically did the same thing.  Since it didn’t matter if his shadow fell on the man, he went over and looked at him.  I guess to check if he was still alive.  But it was still too much trouble, so he also passed by.  

Of all people, it was a Samaritan who rendered aid, a member of a people with whom the Jews did not have a good relationship.  He treated his wounds with oil and wine.  He put him on his own donkey, and he walked.  He took him to an inn in Jericho and tended to him.  And he paid for his time of recovery there.  

When Jesus asked, “Who loved the man?” the Scribe couldn’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.”  Such was their hatred of the Samaritan people.  On one occasion, the religious leaders insulted Jesus by calling him a Samaritan, meaning a heretic and a Law-breaker.  But Jesus lifted him up as the example of love, saying “Go and do likewise.”  

If we’re going to love people, then we need to know what love is.  And our definition of love must be based on what God reveals it to be, not what our culture thinks it is.  Our culture defines love as a feeling, usually, a feeling of attraction.  Love is wrapped up in sexuality in our culture.  And it’s also often tied together with tolerance, which is the chief virtue of our society.  Is our definition of love rooted in Jesus or in our culture?  

A while ago, I was doing devotions with a group of youth, and I was talking about love.  I explained that in the Greek language of the New Testament, there were four different words for love.  One means family loyalty, one means friendship, one means sexual attraction, and the fourth word, AGAPE, is the one that describes God’s love for us that we are supposed to show to others.  At the end of my devotions, one of the youth asked, “If Christians are supposed to be all about love, then why are they so upset about same-sex marriage.”  And it was one of those “weren’t you listening to anything I said moments.”  She was still only thinking in society’s terms of love:  sexual attraction.

After the Supreme Court decided that every state has to allow same-sex marriage, there were a lot of people who celebrated with the slogan “Love wins.”  And it bothered me when Christians said that, because we of all people should embrace a concept of love that has nothing to do with attraction or sexuality.  “Love wins” makes sense from our culture’s perspective of love being sexual and tolerance being our chief virtue, but not from our perspective as Christians.  

True love, AGAPE love, is defined by actions, not feelings.  It’s defined by self-sacrifice, not attraction.  AGAPE is not sexual in nature at all.  It is self-sacrifice for the good of others.  And if you ask me, our culture’s definition of love really makes no sense at all.  What should you do if someone is engaged in behavior that is self-destructive, like drug abuse?  Well, if love means tolerance and acceptance, then you should just affirm their behavior.  “I love you and I accept what you do.”  Not a very good way to love someone from our perspective as followers of Christ.

Love is the supreme Christian virtue, and we are to show love to all people. 

Jesus said that the world will know we are his followers if we follow his example and love others.  And we don’t have a choice about whom we are going to love.  When someone is in trouble or in need of help, we love them by helping them.  We don’t just feel love for them.  We act.  We do something.

We should love people even if they are in trouble by their own actions.  The man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho was pretty foolish to be traveling that road alone.  But Jesus didn’t excuse the attitude of “You got yourself into trouble; you can get yourself out.”  And that can be difficult for us.  When someone gets themselves in a bind, it’s very tempting to say, “It’s their own dumb fault.”  Their own fault or not, we

are still to love them through our actions.  God sent Jesus to save us, even though we sinned by our own dumb fault.

Love is costly.  It is sacrificial to love.  It will cost us our time, our effort, and our money.  But love takes precedence over all else in living out the Christian faith.  Ignoring someone in trouble because you are on your way to do something else for God is not right.  

But this kind of love is one of the few things that still speaks to the world today.  The Christian message is not welcome in many places in America today.  Our truth is not welcome.  But our love is still welcome.  And it can be one of the best vehicles for sharing what we believe about Jesus.  

I’ve been re-reading a book by Philip Yancey called, “Vanishing Grace.”  He makes the argument in the book that our society is no longer receptive to the Christian message if we try to talk about what we believe.  But if people see how we live, if they see our love, then they may become curious as to why we do the things we do.  And that might open them up to what we believe.  So rather than starting with what we believe, we need to start with how we live.  

One final thought from Colossians that we heard earlier.  In verse 6, Paul talks about how the gospel changes lives.  The gospel is not primarily for our information but our transformation.  Having knowledge doesn’t do us any good unless it changes how we live.  Paul was writing that message to a church struggling with a heresy called Gnosticism.  In Gnosticism, knowledge was the most important thing. Knowing the truth was all that counted, and how you lived did not matter at all.  But that’s not the gospel.  The gospel is meant to transform our living.  And the most important way it changes our living is to transform us from self-centered to self-sacrificial, from thinking only of self to thinking more of others.  Because those things are the example Jesus gave us.  Jesus is our model for love.  Look at Jesus to know what love is, not at what the world offers as a cheap substitute.

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