Theology Sermon #13—Ps 119:41-48; Lev 19:1-4;17-18; Rom 13:8-10; Lk 10:25-37
Ted Grimsrud—February 10, 2008—Shalom Mennonite Congregation
Word association: ethics
Today I am completing the series of sermons on basic theology that I began about a year and a half ago. Amazing how time flies when you are having fun!
The question the lawyer asks Jesus is our question, too. What must we do to inherit eternal life? What must we do to live? How do we live? How do we serve life?
I define “theology” as self-awareness about our basic values—understanding what matters most to us and articulating those priorities to others. If we also understand “theology” as “the study of God” (which is what the word literally means), we might say that when we do theology we are identifying our true god. Our hierarchy of values, the values that matter most to us, what we choose and do and value, these are what reveal our actual god. Where does the rubber meet the road in our actual lives?
Christian theology, I believe, is theology as if Jesus matters. When our hierarchy of values, our priorities, are like Jesus’ priorities, we will be worshiping the God Jesus claims is the true God.
So, one aspect of “doing theology” is working at self-awareness. What do we value the most? What does shape what we do? To what do we devote our best energies and resources?
Our American money proclaims “in God we trust.” And, of course, we do—but what “god”? We all have gods; we all trust in something; we all have something (a “god”) at the top of our hierarchy of values. But what is the god in which our nation trusts? Well, just look at where our resources go.
In his book, Great Plains, Ian Frazier gives a fascinating look at the western interior of North America. He highlights the extraction of untold natural wealth, generally with devastating consequences on the environment. He closes the book with a great, and deeply distressing irony. The bounty that has been taken from the ground in the Great Plains, worth billions of dollars, has been replaced with billions of dollars worth of buried nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Quite a trade-off, irreplaceable natural beauty and life-systems replaced with systems whose only purpose is to destroy life. What does this exchange say about our nation’s hierarchy of values?
It is now well known that our country devotes more money to military spending than do all the other countries in the world combined—amazing, given that we have no powerful enemies anywhere right now. In what god do we trust? Follow the money.
What does it say about a city’s “god” when you see countless signs proclaiming, “we are open for business”? Where are the true houses of worship? How about the big box corporate mega-stores? In this week after the Super Bowl we also might reflect on the god Nike, that is the god of victory. As the soul singer William Bell complained, “everybody loves a winner, but when you lose, you lose alone.”
So, part of doing theology is self-awareness. The other part, for Christians, is trying to align our hierarchy of values with Jesus’ values. As we better understand what our actual gods are, as we bring these gods to the surface, we then will be able to revise, to adjust, to correct. By being more self-aware we will be able to transform our theology into the actual theology we want, that we believe will help us serve life.
This self-awareness should also include a recognition that these various rival gods (redemptive violence, consumerism, the “free market”), these various rivals for ultimate trust are not passive. The analogy is not one of looking in a card catalogue in a library and having the comfortable space to decide without pressure which book we want to look at. Rather, the analogy is more the old county fair with the various barkers in the midway all vying for our attention, making promises, seeking more than anything to separate us from our money but to make us think we are happy about them doing so.
As Paul writes in Romans, these various principalities and powers actively seek to separate us from God. And they are pretty powerful in their allure. However, the Bible also tells us that the main power these idols have is deception. Once we see them for who they are, rivals to God, not God’s servants as they claim, then their hold over us might be broken. Then we may be freed to model our theology (and our lives) after Jesus’ theology and life.
So, let’s look at Jesus’ life and teaching. What do we find when we actually do our theology as if Jesus matters? Our passage from Luke’s gospel gives us about as much direction in just a few sentences as any place in the Bible.
Jesus faces a test when he is confronted by this lawyer, a recognized expert in Torah, the Law, the core of Israel’s life and faith. The lawyer asks Jesus the question: What must we do to inherit eternal life? Don’t let the word “eternal” distract you here. “Eternal life” for New Testament people was not focused on life in a different world, escaping from this world to go to “heaven.” The lawyer is not asking how can my soul end up living forever.
Eternal here has to do with quality. How do we live life as it is meant to be lived? How do we live in harmony with God and with God’s intention for human beings? How do we fulfill our purpose? As human beings, as living creatures, we are all oriented to life—life’s longing for itself. How do we best do this? This is the question.
Jesus makes like Socrates here. The lawyer asks, “what must I do to inherit life?” Jesus turns it back on him. What do you think? The lawyer is ready. He summarizes Torah in a nutshell. Love God with one’s whole being and, as part of that love, love one’s neighbor. Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it right. Do this and live.
This answer the lawyer gives and Jesus affirms actually is a pretty rich and complicated statement.
The issue here is life itself. The meaning of life, our place in life. The question about eternal life looms about as big and basic as any theological question a person could ask.
Jesus shows great respect for this lawyer. The lawyer turns directly to the law, to Torah, to the commands—the message God gave God’s people about how to live together as God’s people. Torah speaks to life, not just to legalistic rules and regulations about behavior. Torah is not mainly about an external toeing the line. Torah is about our very relationship with God. Torah is about the quality of life, our purposes and destiny. The writer of Psalm 119, from whom we heard a bit earlier, captures this sense of Torah: “I revere your commandments.”
And, from the start, Torah is about love. We too easily separate law and love—and with tragic consequences. We end up with loveless law and lawless love. Law becomes about power and retribution and has no soul. Love becomes about feelings and self-gratification and has no social embodiment. But Torah, in its truest meaning, speaks to hearts. Torah speaks a word of love. We see the centrality of love from the very beginning when the commandments are first given to Moses in Exodus 20. The first word in the commandments is “I am the Lord your God who delivered you from slavery and into freedom out of my mercy and love for you.” The commands follow in response to God’s love.
Leviticus 19 and Romans 13, the other two passages we heard from, both also emphasis the centrality of love in portraying the law. The law brings life because it is grounded in and leads to love. But we can’t command love, right? Certainly not in an external, coercive sense. Maybe we shouldn’t command anything in an external, coercive sense.
I have heard just lately about recent events in the life of this little boy, about a year and half old (a little boy I have a lot of interest in). I have heard some of what he’s been learning. His mama is introducing him to the concept of “please.” Well, the little boy seems to understand—you say “please” when you are asking for something. However, he seems to understand something else, too. The “please” best comes from the heart, not from an external command. He’ll say “please,” alright—but only when it’s his own idea, not when someone tells him to….I agree with him!
Our following commands works best when we want to, not when we feel forced. The commands in Torah are a response—we follow Torah because we have God’s love, not in order to earn God’s love. What could make the non-legalistic intentions of Torah more clear than how the lawyer (with Jesus’ approval) summarizes the entire Law and Prophets: love God; love neighbor. Love must come from the heart. We only know how to love because we have been loved. As Bruce Cockburn sings, “when you love love, love loves you too.”
Jesus and the lawyer are on the same page. Torah equals love which equals life. But then the lawyer presses on. He tests Jesus further. “And who is my neighbor?” Notice that the lawyer recognizes the direct link between love of God and love of neighbor. The lawyer recognizes that the clearest test of our love for God is our love for our neighbor.
We don’t know how the lawyer himself would have answered this question. We don’t know who the lawyer thought his neighbor was. Possibly, if the lawyer is like we are much of the time and if his culture was anything like ours, he would think of neighbor as limited to those inside his own circle of friends. The neighbor would be one like ourselves—life and love are to be given to me and mine, alone.
When the lawyer asks who the neighbor is, Jesus makes another pedagogical move. Rather than a direct answer, he tells a story. And what a story! The story is short, but it pulls in the listener and then turns the listener upside down.
Jesus’ listeners could imagine the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho—steep, winding, dangerous, a drop of 3,300 feet in 23 miles. They could imagine being mugged and left for dead—and they would shudder. Then they would shudder again as they imagined the priest and Levite passing them by—those damn hypocrites! They should be helping! I’m about to die here.
But then comes the guy who does help—and he’s a cursed Samaritan! It’s like I am back in Oregon, a University of Oregon grad with a sticker on my car to show it. I’m driving over the Coast and my car breaks down. After hours of dozens of cars speeding by heedless to my troubles someone finally stops. And it’s an orange and black Hummer, driven by someone from Oregon State. A Beaver, for crying out loud!
Years ago, I heard a radio preacher talking about his car breaking down on the way to the airport. He had a hard time getting someone to stop, too, until finally a hippie van pulls over and helps him out. However, the lesson the preacher drew from this experience wasn’t about having his notion of neighbor shaken up, it was, well, you never know when you might get a chance to evangelize.
The Samaritans were the Jews’ sworn enemies. And, in Jesus’ story, the Samaritan is the hero! It would have been a bit more palatable if the beaten man were a Samaritan and the hero a regular Jew like the lawyer. But Jesus genuinely turned things upside-down to make his point.
And the lawyer realizes this. To his credit, he gets Jesus’ point. The one who shows mercy is the neighbor. He is the one who shows what it takes to inherit eternal life, even if he is a Samaritan. Showing mercy—that is what God wants. That is what God is like.
So, in the end, theology is about ethics, about how we live not so much about our ideas or dogmas. Jesus takes the most theological question imaginable (“how do I inherit eternal life?”) and answers it with a concrete directive. Love God; that is, love your neighbor; that is, act with transformative mercy toward anyone in need, most especially your enemies.
Jesus is utterly comprehensive in his definition of neighbor.
So, we could say “go and do likewise” and cultivate faith communities that bring together Jews and Samaritans, people in need and people with excess, people with faith and people who doubt, people who are old and people who are young. Learn about love face to face in your common life, model, nurture, worship, exhort. Provide a critical mass of those committed to genuine neighbor love that can sustain such love in a world hostile to worship of the true God.
We could say “go and do likewise” and create broader communities, alternatives to agribusiness and the corporate, profit-driven distribution of vital human resources. Challenge business as usual, creating economies that put human well-being ahead to share-holder dividends and CEO bonuses.
We could say “go and do likewise” and find ways to speak truth to power, to reform governmental structures toward genuine democracy, to seek to beat swords of imperialist domination into plowshares that genuinely serve human well-being.
We probably should affirm all of these ways of responding to the words Jesus left the lawyer with. “Go and do likewise.” Serve life on all levels—at least collectively, as we encourage one another to express our various gifts in response to the God that Jesus made visible among us. Amen.