Asking the wrong question.

Homily 286 – 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
November 12, 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

The Gospel asks a question – who is my neighbor.

The Law, that is the requirements to be Jewish and part of the Kingdom of God known by the Jews at that time, involved two things – to worship only God, and to love your neighbor.

That was shorthand for the 600 or so ritual laws of the Jewish faith. The entire Rabbinic tradition involved interpreting and guiding the people about these laws.

A thousand years or more had been devoted to interpreting and guiding the Jewish people.

The Lawyer, and remember these are religious lawyers, not criminal ones, asks a basic question – what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And the answer is given.

Apparently the Lawyer was somewhat unsure of himself, because he asked a difficult follow-up question, hoping (as the Scripture tells us) to justify himself. So that the Lawyer could claim compliance with the Law.

And Jesus tells the parable that we all know about the Good Samaritan.

But in telling that parable, the question is turned on it’s head. The question asked was “Who is my neighbor?” but the question answered in the parable is “Who can I be a neighbor for?”

The original question was the wrong question.

And the answer – “the one who showed mercy” – was probably not the one the Lawyer wanted to hear.

Particularly not the “Go and do likewise” commandment.

What Jesus response reveals is that we – I – spend way too much time and effort trying to justify ourselves based on the rules that we believe govern our righteousness.

I get questions all the time – is this a sin, is that a sin – and I’m always happy to answer them to the best of my ability.

But in general, if you believe something to be a sin, it is.

But like this lawyer, it is in many respects the wrong question.

We would do well to think less about sin and more about mercy. Mercy in the sense of generosity. Mercy in the sense of compassion.

And most importantly – mercy in the sense of action.

The most important lesson of the parable is that mercy is not prayer and thoughts. It is action.

And it is something within our capabilities.

By that I think Jesus is telling us if we see a need, it is our obligation to meet that need. That is what the Samaritan did while the two Jews passed by, offering prayers and thoughts.

If we cannot do anything, then prayers and thoughts are fine. And necessary. But if we can do something, we should do something. We must do something.

But keep in mind something.

St. Paul tells us that these works will not gain salvation, so that should not be our motivation. It is nothing that we can gain through our own effort.

The works that we do are not for salvation, they are for our humanity. We do these works because it is part of being human.

Salvation is by God’s Grace alone. But our response to God’s grace, God’s acceptance and forgiveness, must be mercy. Compassion. Generosity.

In this day with instant worldwide communication we hear and see needs around the world. Sometimes the extent of those needs is overwhelming.

And, truthfully, most of us can do absolutely nothing to help in those circumstances.

Be it famine in Africa or hurricanes in the Caribbean or earthquakes in Nepal, we can do nothing. Nothing but prayers and thoughts.

But – there are needs all around us. In our neighborhood. In the Garden District. In West Ames. In Somerset. In Campustown. In Marshalltown and Boone.

Those are the needs we should be focused on. Those are the needs that are presented to us for our help. For us to do something.

For us to provide mercy.

Our challenge is great. We have to as Christians become better at filtering out the noise of the world.

We have to get to know our neighbors, so that we may find their needs. Not many of them are to be found on the side of the road bleeding and battered.

And we need to be careful to not be like the Jews in the parable. They found very good reasons not to get involved.

The priest could not be contaminated by the man’s bloody wounds. The Levite could not risk being found unclean.

And so they passed by. But we cannot – must not – pass by. We must offer mercy, regardless of the “damage” to ourselves.

Nothing we can do can make us clean or unclean. Only God. Which He does.

So that we can offer mercy – without fear.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.