A living language - Mother Beth
“As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
You see the sequence there in our Colossians reading? Paul writes about Receiving Christ – then continuing to live in Christ. Rooted in Christ – then built up in Christ and established in him.
And again, just a few sentences later: “When you were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.”
You see the same sequence coming back? First you’re buried with Christ in Baptism – then you’re filled with his resurrection life as you live by his power after Baptism. First you are dead, spiritually, until God makes you alive in Christ – then you are living in freedom as the record that stood against you is completely erased. In all these cases the second is a result of the first -- it only happens as we take in and process what God has done.
Something like 2100 BC is the date of the events we’re hearing about today in our first reading. Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and today’s reading comes from fairly early on in that book, though of course scholars argue over exact dates. Something like 4000 years ago, at any rate. Given that, you might think that what a text like this records would be something so distant from the things that matter to us now that it would just be a kind of curiosity, that we might find little more to say than “How different people were then! What quaint ideas they had!”
But in fact, in this brief story we find God acting just the way he acts today, and we find Abraham responding in just the way we have the chance to respond today. God has not changed, and human nature has not changed. We are still in the same story now as we were then. After all, the Bible’s not a history textbook or a rule book or a book of ideas about spirituality. It’s a coherent narrative across time, spanning centuries but generously given to us by God so we can better understand both him and our own nature – which we never will, unless we come to fit into that narrative ourselves.
Today’s gospel lesson is one of the most beloved of Jesus’ teachings. I would guess that for us here today, this is not the first time we have heard it. The “Good Samaritan” is a well-known idiom in the English language and most people understand it for its meaning even if they do not understand its reference to this particular passage from Luke.
So for those of us who know this text, how do we listen to it today and how do we gain from it, when its meaning is so well known?
The lawyer in this gospel was also one who knew his scripture well. The passage began by him asking Jesus, “What must I do to achieve eternal life?” As was Jesus’ style, Jesus replied by asking a question of the man, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answered quickly, drawing both on Deuteronomy and Leviticus, “Love the Lord your God with all heart, and all your soul, all your strength and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself”. He knew the correct words to say but then by asking Jesus his next question, “Who is my neighbor?” he demonstrated that he really did not have a complete understanding of the words he had memorized.
So even as well-known as this passage may be for us, we need to hear these stories again and again. As a favorite collect says, we need to hear them, to read, mark and inwardly digest them because their message taken as a whole is what living a Christian life is all about.
My question then this morning is for you to reflect on what being a neighbor means to you. Specifically think about who has been a neighbor to you? What person or persons have taught you how to act as neighbor? Where have you seen a Good Samaritan in your midst? How do you put yourself into this morning’s gospel?
I’ll begin with a brief sketch of some biblical background before diving into the Gospel for today. Across the Bible, the movement of the plot is almost always from activity to rest, from work to sabbath, from journey to destination, from exile to home. In Genesis, God creates the world for six days and then rests on the seventh. Abraham is called away from his ancestral lands to journey as a stranger on his way to the land that God promises to his and his descendants. And a once wayward Israel, taken away captive to Babylon, returns to the Lord in repentance, and in so doing is allowed to return to Jerusalem, to return to home. In Scripture, labor or effort or movement is never the end goal in and of itself. It is always a means to the end, which is ultimately the eternal rest of the vision of God.
And so today, just a little further down into Luke 10 where we get our Gospel lesson this morning, we find this recurring theme again. Martha is distracted by her many tasks and frustrated with her sister Mary, who instead “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”
Martha asks Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me. But the Lord answer her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
From this brief exchange, Christian thinkers from across the centuries have found deep metaphors for the relationship between the active life and the contemplative life, so-called, the life of Martha and the life of Mary, respectively. And just as Jesus suggests, the contemplative life, exemplified by Mary’s posture of relaxed attention, is the better part. Jesus’ teaching here sits upon this foundational theme in the whole of Scripture that I’ve set out so far: we are taught here to move from many things to the one thing, from distraction to undivided contemplation of God, just as God himself moves from work to rest in creation; Abraham, from wandering to promised land; and Israel, from exile back to the Holy City of Jerusalem.