No Bad Guys (Luke 10:25-37)
Sunday, July 28, 2013
I told my oldest son who is 11 about World War II and he wanted to know, “Who are the bad guys?”
Yesterday we watched one of the X-Men movies, X-Men 2. Magneto, the enemy of the X-Men, is at times fighting alongside them. Magneto has moment where he is a complex character and my confused son kept asking, “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?”
My son has grown up on Star Wars and super hero movies. He can identify the heroes and the villains. Discussing World War II, it is pretty easy. Who are the bad guys? The Nazis.
In other cases, though, it is not so clear. Who are the bad guys? Communists? Today, do we say the Chinese communists the bad guys? We sure buy a lot of products made by the bad guys. Our government owes a lot of money to the bad guys. Are the Iranians the bad guys? Read a history of the last 50 years of our nation’s dealings with Iran. Not long ago, we counted on them to be our nation’s Muslim friends in the Middle East. Concepts like Good guys and Bad guys, enemies and allies, don’t fit well.
And with World War II, what happens when we look below the surface? The worst villain, Hitler, was the leader of Germany. My greatest World War II hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a man of Germany. Who are the bad guys?
After World War II, the Cold War served as the impetus for most conflicts in the second half of the 20th century. Who were the bad guys, the Soviets? Today we call them Russians. Today’s students would be confused if asked to find the Soviet Union on a map.
But before 1989, the Soviet Union was the enemy. When American General Colin Powell commanded a unit in Germany that stood as a buffer against the advance of Russian Communism, he kept one photo on his desk. General Powell kept the photo of the commander of the Soviet forces. He wanted to be sure he knew who the bad guys were.
Back then we pointed nuclear missiles at Russia. Today we adopt their children as our own.
Who are the bad guys?
On the extremely popular TV show Lost, the bad guys were simply called “the others.” By the final episode, one of the Others was in love with one of the good guys, and the leader of the Others was on the road to redemption.
Are there any real “bad guys?” yes and no. Followers of Jesus see people as he did. Did Jesus regard anyone as “other,” as “the bad guy?” He puts requirements on we who would be his disciples. This includes the command to love our neighbors. Alright. Who are those we would call ‘neighbor?’
Two weeks ago, we followed Jesus and his disciples in their turn from a circuit ministry around Northern Israel to a ministry that moved intentionally South, intentionally toward Jerusalem, intentionally toward a confrontation with the power structures of the day and a confrontation with evil itself. Jesus would face all the enemies of humanity – Satan, sin, and death. Paradoxically his fight came about as he surrendered to evil, endured the pain of betrayal, trial, and cross, and went to his death.
But, we aren’t there yet. Some of his most important lessons come along the way. He sent out 70 disciples and they returned singing of their joyous victories which they knew came because of the power Jesus gave them. They healed the sick. They cast out demons. Yet Jesus says, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Luke 10:21b-c).
What things of the kingdom of God are more obvious to infants than the great intellects of the day, Jesus day and our own? When the 70 went out, one such thing was God dependence. A disciple of Jesus lives in complete dependence on the Holy Spirit actively, daily guiding and empowering his or her life.
In today’s reading we come across another incident that shows what is required of the disciple of Jesus. It happens along the way.
A lawyer comes. His intent is to “test” Jesus. Is he a follower who believes Jesus will strike down his opponents by passing the test with ease? Is he an opponent who hopes to shame Jesus with a question that cannot be answered?
“Teacher,” he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The topic is controversial. The Old Testament, which was the only scripture they had, does not contain one consistent teaching about eternal life. Many then and now don’t believe there is such a thing. Just as many do. To answer the question is to take a side. To take a side is to be opposite the other side. This crafty lawyer thought he was turning up the heat.
But Jesus forced the theology into real life. Theology is extremely important. We need to speak a word (logos or ‘ology’) about God (theos). A word about God – theology. Theology becomes real when the word spoken about God informs and directs us in real life.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the law?” Jesus answers. In the debate between religious leaders of the day – scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees – all agreed that the Law of Moses was the authority. The debates came in how the law was interpreted and applied. The same is true today. Everyone who participates passionately in Christian debates claims their perspective is the Biblical perspective. All sides say that.
If that is all Jesus did, tell the lawyer to read his Bible, then Jesus’ words were not special. But, that was just his beginning. The lawyer responded, clearly showing knowledge of what Jesus had previously taught. I don’t if the lawyer’s answer is what he truly believed or if he was trying to give the “right answer” to Jesus. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s what the lawyer said. Jesus commended the man and told him if he does this, he will have eternal life.
Ooops! Now the hot water is near boiling, but the lawyer finds that he and not Jesus is the one in the pot. He knows Jesus is speaking truth and not theoretical, but real life truth. He wants to shine publically in this debate, but things have gotten deeper. He wants eternal life. Love your neighbor? Jesus, who is my neighbor?
The lawyer asked two malicious questions. The first was cheap attempt to win a debate. What must I do to inherit eternal life? The second question is worse. Who is my neighbor? This implies that there are those who not my neighbor, those who are ‘others,’ enemies. This questioner assumes there are bad guys and he assumes he is under no obligation to love them. He is a Jew living in the land God promised him and all his fellow countrymen. That land is in the proximity of unclean Gentiles, is occupied by the offensive Romans, and is next to the detested Samaritans. None of them – Greeks, Romans, or Samaritans – could be a Jew’s neighbor.
I want to have eternal life. Jesus is right. God expects me to love my neighbor. Who is my neighbor and how do I love him so that I can make sure I am covered? Parables are literally stories cast along the way. As Jesus walks along the way to his destiny at the cross, he tells a story that shows who and how. It is a story about the bad guys.
A man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and as often happens, he was attacked and stripped by robbers. Bloodied, he was left for dead. He probably appeared dead. A priest came by. He was probably headed to the Jerusalem temple. His duties there required him to strictly observe all laws of cleanliness. Not only could he not touch a dead body. He could go near it. He saw the swelling, bloody mass of a man, and he could not help if he wanted to. Such an action would disqualify him from his holy work in worship. He passed by the beaten man as he should have.
Then comes a Levite who also has temple responsibilities. Go right back to that Law of Moses Jesus so easily referenced. All the cleanliness laws that applied to the priest applied to the Levite. These holy men passed the victim on the far side of the road because the Law required it. But something else is required of Jesus’ disciples.
The next one to come in Jesus’ story is the bad guy. Cue the ominous music. It’s a Samaritan. A half-breed. He, with no sense of holiness, will go right up to the bloodied man and pick him clean. Whatever the robbers missed will fill the Samaritan’s pockets because Samaritans are mangy, alley dogs who unscrupulously scrounge the discarded waste.
No. He helps. He tenderly applies medicines to the man. He walks while the victim rides his donkey. He diverts his course to take the victim to an inn. He digs into his own purse to pay the innkeeper. He pledges to return and see this story through until the man is back on his feet. From all we’ve seen, we can trust that this dog is a noble man who will make good on his promises. The bad guy turns out to possess the qualities Jesus is looking for in his disciples.
Then he turns to the lawyer. Who is my neighbor? The lawyer had asked that question. Jesus now asks, “Who was a neighbor?” The lawyer knows and you and I know. The neighbor is moved by compassion. The neighbor shows mercy. The neighbor extends himself and sacrifices in order to love through actions. Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
Discipleship requires that we love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what followers of Jesus do. What began as a theological debate about how eternal life is attained ended with a clear understanding of what neighbor love is. In neighbor love there are no bad guys.
Jesus shared this story as he made his way to Jerusalem. There, on the cross, he would settle all theological debates. We are all sinners – good guys and bad guys. We all fall short of God’s holiness. In his death on the cross, we have life.
The lawyer was left with the reality that he would need to spend the rest of his life discovering and perfecting neighbor love. We do not practice neighbor love in order that we might have eternal life. We live in the resurrection age. We know that after the cross came the empty tomb. We know that by putting our faith in Jesus, we have eternal life with God.
We go out of our way, sacrifice ourselves, and dedicate our lives to love of neighbor because that’s what Jesus did. Our motivation is discipleship. Jesus loves the neighbor, so anyone who wants to be with Jesus must also love the neighbor.
When we walk in the way of Jesus, no one is ‘other’. There is no work at a distant temple that matter more than walking with Jesus, living as he did and would if he were here bodily. His Holy Spirit is here. When we walk in His Spirit, we see no one as “bad guy;” all are neighbors to be loved. Why? Because that is what Jesus does and if we are his followers, then that is what we do.