“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal Life?” In our gospel readings over the past few weeks we’ve seen Jesus answering this same question in different ways for different people. Because each one of us in unique, we are also unique in the ways we resist God’s call. Some people procrastinate, some people want to get everything tidy and sorted out before they start a new venture, some people are attached to their possessions, some people just don’t want to do anything that seems hard.
Today’s speaker is a lawyer (like Rumpole). He is used to the ways of the law – of precise definition and of separating this from that, right from wrong, black from white. Jesus answers his question with a question;
"Teacher," the lawyer said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "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." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
At the time of Jesus, people had begun to believe in life after death, but it was a fairly recent innovation and not something that was universally accepted. We have come to think of eternal life as meaning a future reward. Live well and love God and in the future you will be happy in heaven. In fact, some people will say they’re not Christians just because they don’t believe in heaven and hell. I doubt that this lawyer was thinking about going to heaven when he asked "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" I think he was looking for the same thing we look for today when we talk about life’s purpose or meaning. Perhaps we could translate his question as “Teacher, what must I do to find meaning in life?”
Jesus turns the question back on him "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "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." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But that wasn’t enough for the lawyer. (Remember that he was trying to catch Jesus out.) He still wanted to argue about the fine print, and so he said "And who is my neighbor?". I wonder what kind of answer he expected… “Your neighbor is someone who lives within 50 yards of you” or “Your neighbor is anyone who lives within your town”? Since the last of the Ten Commandments tells us not to covet anything which belongs to our neighbor, I can only imagine that this question had already been debated by Jewish lawyers for centuries. Who, exactly, is your neighbor?
Jesus answers in a typical way, with a story. Jesus does not spend time on definitions and precise interpretations, because Jesus is not a lawyer. But the answer he gives, with all its many and varied implications, is much more challenging than any legal definition. Instead of reducing ‘neighbor’ to a careful definition, Jesus expands it to include just about anybody. The Jewish people generally despised the Samaritans. But in Jesus’ story, it is the Samaritan who takes action and helps the man who has been robbed and beaten.
And as Jesus concludes his story, he turns back to the lawyer and asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The lawyer said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
So the definition of neighbor is greatly expanded. It’s not just Gary and Mary who live next door, or Jenny and Bob across the street… instead, in Jesus’ story, my neighbor turns out to be someone I don’t even know… someone who I was brought up to despise… If that’s true, is there anyone who is not my neighbor? Is there anyone whom it is not my responsibility to love?
Of course, love is a word that has so many meanings it can seem meaningless. When I say I love chocolate and red wine I mean something quite different than when I say I love my partner which is different again from how I love my dog. Loving my neighbor in the abstract is quite easy – especially those neighbors I don’t know. But when it becomes concrete it’s quite different.
There are people it’s difficult for me to love all the time. People who criticize me. People who don’t keep commitments. People who overtake me on Los Osos Valley Rd when I’m already driving over the speed limit. People who seem manipulative. People in the White House who do things I don’t agree with. In fact, there are plenty of people who seem custom designed to annoy, aggravate and upset me. These are my neighbors. They are given to me in order that I may grow and show the fruits of God’s grace in my life.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to find meaning in my life?
He answered, "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." And Jesus said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
It seems that the lawyer was using his intellect to hold himself back from experiencing true meaning in his life. What’s holding you back?
What gets in the way of your loving 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?
If Jesus were here this morning and you asked him, “What must I do to find meaning in my life?” what would his answer – his answer tailored made for you – what would his answer be?
I recently read an article about the four A.s – ambition, achievement, approval, and acquisition. Is it one of those that’s holding you back? Or is it fear, doubt and depression? What is it that stops you from following Jesus? from fully saying ‘Yes” to God’s call in your life?
The meaningful life is not one of following rules. It is not keeping to a set of laws and asking for forgiveness when you break one. The meaningful life is one which is lived in the fullness of God’s grace. God’s grace is that which gives life – God’s grace is the full gift of the spirit.
Some preachers give the impression that being a Christian is a list of dos and don’ts, thou shalt, and thou shalt nots. The lawyer wanted Jesus to play that game, but he refused.
He refused because that’s not the gospel. The gospel is much simpler yet much more complex. We don’t have to memorize a list of things to do or to avoid. We don’t have to keep a rigorous spiritual discipline. All we have to do is to accept God’s grace – the grace by which (as we heard in the second reading) God ‘has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’
Grace is a free gift – we just have to accept it and then live it. You live it by loving 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.
This is the gospel that we have understood and experienced and this is the gospel that this church of St Benedict’s has been proud to proclaim here in Los Osos these twenty years. It is not the way of rules and regulations but of freedom in the joy of loving and serving the most High God, and seeking and serving Christ in our neighbors. It is a way of life which celebrates everything it is to be human and made in God’s image – our creativity in art, theater, poetry, music and song; our mental abilities in writing, discussion and intellectual enquiry, and our practical abilities in building, decorating, cooking, and caring for each other and our environment.
Whatever it is that’s holding you back from fully experiencing the abundant life that is ours in Christ; whatever it is that is keeping you from giving everything to God, it’s not worth it. Whatever it is that may be keeping us as a community from fully experiencing the power of God… we can surrender it. That is why in a few minutes we will be confessing our sins to God. Not because we have to keep making amends for breaking the rules, but because we hold back, because we get in our own way, because we fail to love God with everything we have, and our neighbors as ourselves.
As Iraneaus said, ‘The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” God is calling us today to be fully who we were created to be. Let us not hold back but throw caution to the winds and respond with a resounding, AMEN.