Last Sunday some of you met my sister Sue, visiting from Houston. In the children’s sermon we talked about brothers and sisters and how all of us are children of God. All of us are brothers and sisters in Christ.
But just because we are children of God—just because we are brothers and sisters in Christ—doesn’t mean we always like each other or get along. The Bible is not naïve. In the very beginning of our faith story, Cain became jealous of his brother Abel. His jealousy turned to anger. It’s a story of how sustained anger can rot a person’s soul. Cain’s anger led to murder. Sometimes sibling relationships are among the hardest to work out.
The message of today’s gospel reading is love. The man who sought to test Jesus knew this. You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself, he said in response to Jesus’ question.
Jesus keeps his message of love simple so that all of us may understand. He was being faithful to what had been taught since ancient times, as we hear in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
The kingdom of God is near to us. The gospel of love is near to us. Like that religious expert who tested Jesus, we know it. Somewhere in our heart we know the truth. But like that religious expert, we are inclined to make that simple gospel of love complicated. Like the man who sought to test Jesus, we seek to justify ourselves. If God’s word is near to us, it’s also true that our brothers and sisters are near to us, and we’re not always ready to swallow Jesus’ unconditional command to love one another. Sometimes those nearest to us are the most difficult to love.
And so he tells a story about two brothers. It’s not the story of Cain and Abel. It’s not the story of the Prodigal Son, although there are some similarities. It’s the story of a Samaritan man and a Jewish man. We assume he’s Jewish because he’s on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, and, because Jesus is telling the story to a Jewish man.
Jews and Samaritans were brothers, much like Palestinians and Israelis today. They were related by bloodlines and history, but because of certain historical events they became mortal enemies. One message of this story is clear. If the kingdom of God has come near, one sign of that kingdom is that God’s children practice mercy and compassion even toward their mortal enemies.
In last week’s second reading we heard these words from the apostle Paul to the Galatians: Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. On the face of it this verse seems like God’s telling us to take care of our own—those whom we are comfortable with and naturally attracted to. But this is not about taking care of people who are like us, since Jesus taught that even evil-doers take care of their own. What makes Christians different is when we have compassion and care for the enemy under our own roof, whether it’s our home or our congregation.
Why is this important? Why is it important to work at caring for those under our own roof whom we see as our enemies or opponents? Well, if we can’t care for enemies under our own roof, then what are the chances that we will be effective in being Christ’s representatives to a world that knows or cares nothing about God? That’s the work we were created for. But our Christian vocation—in the workplace, the school, the community—it all begins here. Who we are in relation to our brothers and sisters here affects and shapes us for our work in the world. This family of faith is a laboratory, a practice field for our work beyond these walls.
The word of God is simple, so that all may understand. It doesn’t take scholars or religious experts to sort out. No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. To love God and to love brothers and sisters is easy to understand—and, often hard to practice!
So like the religious man we seek to justify ourselves, to hang on to our anger and resentment, to allow our differences to be the final word. But Christian faith begins with the family of faith, and includes the practice of mercy and compassion between and among enemies under the same roof.
We practice this toward one another because Christ first did so for us. You see, this is the deeper meaning of the story of the Good Samaritan. In this story we are the person in the ditch. God is the Samaritan—our enemy—who nevertheless has treated us and continues to treat us with mercy and compassion.
So we finish where we began: that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. But we are not naïve. We know that being brothers and sisters under the same roof can be one of life’s great challenges. So let us, when we are tempted to justify ourselves, to instead practice what makes us truly
Christian: confession, the forgiveness of sins, compassion, mercy and love. AMEN