Just Being Neighborly

Just Being Neighborly

mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior,
Jesus Christ. Amen.

not the Ten Commandments, but in several ways, it sounds pretty close.
It’s not a catechism in the usual sense, either, but it’s certainly
very instructive about the commands of God. It’s very emphatic
about His authority to give us His instruction and His commands, too.

you look at each of the sections of today’s Old Testament lesson from
the book of Leviticus, you’ll note that they all conclude with,
“I am the Lord.”
The first one even says, “I
am the Lord your God.”

is: “I am Yahweh your Adonai, you
who are offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I am the great I AM, the only truly living, truly existing God.
Here is what I expect of those whom I have saved; those to whom I give
great blessings.”
It’s quite a listing of actions righteous
and unrighteous, giving us a clear indication of how—in part—we
can show love to the neighbor and bring glory to God. There are
mandates against greed, stealing, lying, misuse of the Lord’s name,
and causing physical harm to others. This lesson is just a small
segment of a very lengthy section in Leviticus where God gives many
elaborate and detailed descriptions of what is required of those who
would be His people.

well here also that there’s a certain tone to these commandments—a
tone that we find mirrored in the pattern Luther gave us in the Ten
Commandments section of the Small Catechism.

is there that many of us first learned the Bible’s teaching that to
truly and fully love God and our neighbor requires more than simply
avoiding things that alienate and cause harm. Fulfilling the Law
of God also requires active engagement in things that demonstrate
our love but cause us no harm.

Israelites were told: Leave a portion of the blessings God has
given you in your earthly harvest for those who need it. Don’t
strip your fields or vineyards bare. Don’t go back to pick up
the few seed pods or grapes you might’ve missed or dropped along the
way. Leave them behind for others to gather—something for those
who don’t have their own fields from which to harvest.

I realize not many of us make our livings directly from agriculture
anymore. Few of us hire servants to work for wages paid at the
end of each day, either. Therefore, it would be very easy for
the sinful nature within us to rationalize away such commands—to act
as if they don’t apply to us in our day and age, and to ignore them.
Yet that would also be sinful. Even apart from the harvest and
the servants’ wages, there are still plenty of other things listed
here in Leviticus in which we might fulfill or break the Law:
Opportunities for dishonesty or truthfulness; favoritism or even-handedness;
oppression or freedom; injustice or fairness; slander or encouragement;
grudges or reconciliation; resentment or tolerance, vengeance or forgiveness,
hatred or love.

through this text once again, we see a great many “shalls” and “shall
nots,” don’t we? More than twenty of them, in fact.
We might conclude that God is merely hammering home His Law over and
over, heaping the fear of punishment and the threat of death and everlasting
separation upon the heads of the Israelites and upon us.

only be partly right, however. Yes, God certainly takes His Law
seriously, and so should we. Yes, those who break it stand accused
and convicted, with no hope of arguing our way out of the eternal condemnation
our sin deserves.

there’s a very important Gospel point to be drawn from how God structures
this portion of Leviticus for us. Time and time again, He reminds
us: “I am the Lord.” Does He do that because
He is concerned that we will forget who He is? That we will forget
who is giving us the Law with all of its precise, detailed requirements
or its broader implications?

may be a part of it, but that’s not the main purpose of these continual

more significant and important about God saying, “I am the Lord”
over and over and over again is to remind us, His people, that He is
our God, along with all that His being our God entails. He is
the one who has provided rescue, safety, comfort, healing, and sustenance
to us whenever we have trusted in Him, and—more significant still—often
even when we haven’t feared, loved, and trusted in Him above all things.

are to be continually aware that He is our God and we are His people,
and therefore we are guided to do these many specified things (and more)
out of a love for our neighbor which grows from the love God has shown
to us. All these requirements are moral and just, certainly.

we do not to do them just to be fair to one another or from a hope of
receiving reciprocity, but from an understanding that there is no balance
whatsoever in our relationship with God. Therefore, we ought not
to do them with any hope of gaining some sort of advantage or credit
toward our relationship with the Lord or our neighbor, either.

we recognize that being God’s people and having Him as our Lord means
to look at all of these statutes and commands and to be led to realize
that we have no hope of keeping any of them, let alone all of them.
We look to Him as our God, and for each time He says, “I am
the Lord,”
we might say a thousand times, “Yes, You are
truly the Lord, and we are not. Lord, have mercy!”

what mercy He has had on you, indeed. Even when you put Him to
the test, seeking to avoid the punishment for your sins and to find
your own path to eternal life, He does not condemn you. Even when
you seek to justify yourself and to desperately avoid confronting the
reality that you have not loved your neighbor as yourself—much less
loved God as you ought—He remains patient with you.

the Gospel lesson for this day, we have the familiar story we know as
the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The law scholar who questions
Jesus is seeking both to test God and to justify himself, much as you
and I do every day. We want to wrangle and negotiate. We
want to split hairs and look for clear or fuzzy boundaries, depending
on what suits us. We want to follow the path of least resistance
toward getting what we want—especially toward obtaining the things
of God.

when Jesus is given a somewhat glib answer to the question about what
was necessary to inherit eternal life, He’s perfectly willing to give
His questioner an accurate but deeply challenging response:
“You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

That is: “Yes, the Law does indeed say that those who love
the Lord with the entirety of their heart, soul, strength, and mind—and
their neighbors as themselves—will inherit eternal life. Go
for it, if you think you can.”

scholar of the Law wanted more detail. Note that he doesn’t
bother to express any concern about his ability to love God or whoever
his neighbor might turn out to be perfectly. It seems he’s confident
he can do it, but just wants to clarify the ground rules. So,
he wants Jesus to narrow down the field a little bit by asking,
“And who is my neighbor?”

of my many marvelous professors at the seminary is from Japan, and he
has an interesting way of getting students to focus on the important
points. Whenever a discussion seems to drift away from the central
issue, he will say, “Is wrong question!” We might apply
that wisdom here to the legal scholar who is questioning Jesus.
Instead of wondering about how to divide humanity into defined groups
of neighbors and non-neighbors, he should have been asking Jesus,
“How can we possibly love God with our entire being, and the neighbor
as ourselves? Isn’t there another way to be saved?”

can only hope, for the sake of that lawyer’s eternal well-being, that
eventually he came to understand the impossibility of loving God and
neighbor perfectly. If he left this conversation with Jesus thinking
only that he now clearly knew who his neighbor was, and that this was
the only missing piece of his puzzle of achieving eternal life, how
tragic that was! What a warning to all of us this should be!

sometimes a tendency to look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan and
turn the story into some sort of miniaturized, simplistic allegory of
salvation. That is, that on account of our sin and the damage
done to us by it, we are the beaten, injured, helpless and now-penniless
man who was left to die on the road—first by the robbers, then the
priest, and finally by the Levite. In such an allegory, the Good
Samaritan is viewed as representing Jesus, one who is rejected by the
Jews but who rescues the beaten man, binds up his wounds, takes him
to a place of safety, and ensures his continued care.

viewing the story that way assists you in remembering your beaten, helpless,
and hopeless situation in regards to your sin, and to remind you of
all that Christ has done for you, I’m not saying that’s entirely
a bad thing. However, if we look closer at the story, we’ll
see some flaws in that view.

one thing, the Samaritan—though certainly despised and even persecuted
by the Jews—isn’t the one being shamed, beaten, and nearly killed
in this story. Jesus would’ve stepped in and stood between the
robbers and the traveler and taken the beating and the shame and suffering
and even death upon Himself. Also, the Samaritan only gives a
portion of his wealth to the care of the beaten man; Jesus gave everything
He has—His very life—to preserve your life and mine. And finally,
Jesus tells the lawyer, “Go, and do likewise,” indicating
that he should take the same action as the Samaritan for the benefit
of his neighbor. Clearly, Jesus wouldn’t be instructing this
scholar of the Law to go and attempt to be the Savior of others.

Good Samaritan is certainly a fine example of expressing love to the
neighbor—showing selfless love without any expectation or demand for
reciprocity. In this, we can see a measure of Christ-like behavior,
even life-saving behavior, in the temporal,

only Jesus has the power and has carried out the means to save our lives
from sin and death for eternity—through the incarnation of the Son
of God, His perfect life, His redeeming suffering and death, and His
triumphant resurrection. We must keep these truths at the forefront
of our minds and in the very center of our hearts if we are to remain
faithful to God’s plan for our salvation.

love our neighbor—and the only way we can truly love our neighbor
in the eyes of God—through living out the faith in Christ that the
Lord has given us in our baptism and which He alone sustains with His
Word and His Supper. Any acts of help and mercy toward others
that are done in unbelief, no matter how generous or grand they might
appear to the world, are done in sin and therefore are rejected by God.
Apart from faith in Christ, such works are futile, worthless, meaningless.

the Book of Concord describes it, “Therefore, in all our praising
of works and in the preaching of the Law, let us keep this rule:
the Law is not kept without Christ. As He Himself has said,
‘Apart from Me you can do nothing.’ [John 15:5]”

(Apology V.269)

St. Paul understood this mechanism and stated it best when he wrote
to the Colossians in our Epistle lesson, “We always thank God,
the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we
heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all
the saints.”
(Colossians 4:3-4)

you remain in such faith always, both for the eternal salvation of your
souls, and for the continual doing of acts of love to your neighbors
near and far. Remain secure in Christ Jesus and confident in Him
who has declared to you forever, “I am the Lord your God.”

His Holy Name (+), Amen.