Colossians 1:1-14

Luke 10:25-37

You know that I’m picky about words, which makes me a pretty good Presbyterian. I saw this tendency in our General Assembly this week, as commissioners from across the denomination gathered to refine how we are the church. Some may say that we argue about words for the sake of arguing, that we split unnecessary hairs, but our words are a way we find unity. Ideally, we allow valuable differences within our unity, but we work prayerfully to find our way together, because unity matters. Some of this year’s GA actions have mad the news, as usual. There will be time to talk about these actions later, but I’ll try to restrain myself for now. At any rate, I’m very interested in this. You might call it picky.

I’m especially picky about the Bible. I believe that the Holy Spirit shares truth with us when we pick at the Bible’s words and let them pick at us. This picking sometimes goes all the way back to the Greek and Hebrew original languages. Of course, there are good reasons for different translations. For instance, our pew Bibles translate ideas more than offer a word-for-word literalism (all translations do this to some degree). For most texts, that approach is just fine. The words aren’t so different that we can’t get the idea. But today, I’ve asked that the New International Version be read instead (sorry).

I chose this translation because I’m picky on two words that differ (and some others that are the same). I’ll get to “mercy” in verse 37, but first I want to pick on “test” in v. 25. The word “test” matters here because it tells us about the conversation Jesus and this law-expert have with each other. Yes, the opening question is meant to be tricky, to “tease Jesus out” more literally. The expert wants to find what’s in Jesus by asking this question. This is how law experts talk. Jesus plays along, answering that question with another question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Well, what and how do you read the scriptures?” This is a question of interpretation. The expert quotes the two “Great Commandments”: “love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees with this completely, so the expert takes the question farther. This is a very legitimate move. This is how a religious discussion like this works, seeking to clarify and dig deeper into ideas, also known as “splitting hairs.”

So yes, the expert splits hairs when he asks, “who is my neighbor?” He takes a perfectly clear idea and plumbs its depth. This is where most people’s eyes glaze over: “Who’s my neighbor? Who cares? Just do your best and be kind!” But mine light up – what an interesting question! There are many kinds of neighbor, so this is a question of how to prioritize family, town, or whatever. And this word, “neighbor,” matters within the Law. If I’m supposed to love my neighbor, who that is makes a difference!

And that’s when it hit me: I’m this expert in the law! Not the “ask-me” type, just the geeky type: I love these questions. Most of you knew this – and so do I, really – but I have to be reminded sometimes, to be set in my place again. And I was put there gently. Jesus’ story isn’t a smack-down. There’s nothing here against the Law or this expert as such, there’s only depth. There’s only an answer to my question about how to balance competing claims on my love, how to negotiate different kinds of neighbors.

Jesus answers my question with a story that he uses to redefine one word in terms of two others. The key word (the one from my question) is “neighbor.” The other two words tell us what to do with a “neighbor” and how to arrive at the word. The word “neighbor” starts and ends Jesus’ story. Incidentally, the definition of “neighbor” is operative in v. 29. It’s not so much self-justification that makes the law-expert want to know who his neighbor is. We should read, “he wanted to get it right.” We established that love of neighbor is key to eternal life, so how and where to apply it seems crucial.

For instance, think about allocating our scarce attention and energy in our congregation: is it better to invest in youth, poverty relief, college outreach, or what? I don’t like to live within a model of scarcity, because more amazing things happen when we move forward and trust in God’s provision. In that spirit, I certainly affirm that the money always turns up, the important jobs always get enough energy, and the things that need attention demand it from us. However, we try responsibly to plan ahead, to know how our heat bill will affect the outreach budget, to ask ahead of time if there is enough energy for a new project. Planners and thinkers spread their resources in abstract, while the rest of us do that as it comes, and how we do that matters!

So that’s my question. Our question, as we all have some level of law-expert within us. How do we choose which neighbor to love and when? Jesus answers that question, or a question very much like it, with this marvelous, well-known story about the Samaritan who helps a wounded victim along the roadside. There’s much ado about the Samaritan, how the religious outsider gets it right, but it’s not about religion (at least today). It’s about how to be a neighbor.

What’s most interesting to me (this year) is the creative table-turning, the way Jesus changes the question from “who is my neighbor” to “who was a neighbor?” He reminds us what the word “neighbor” means – not that we don’t know, just that we need reminding. I was reminded this week who my neighbors are, as the fireworks seemed louder this year (not that Ian cared). We don’t choose our neighbors, but they didn’t choose us either. And that’s just it: we’re their neighbors too.

Jesus tells this whole story about one word, because he’s something of a law-expert too. Who is my neighbor? What is a “neighbor”? Let’s try an experiment. Look around and see who is your seat-neighbor today. Note that if someone is your neighbor to the right, you’re theirs on the left (and vice versa). Jesus changes the logic, not the facts. You’re my neighbor just because I’m yours. Being a neighbor is like a tango – it takes two. The law-expert had it right, that neighborliness is the path of eternal life, but Jesus deepened what the word neighbor means.

Then he asked the expert to name this new depth of meaning, and he got that right too. He knew from deep in the scriptural tradition that mercy is the standard of neighborliness. “Mercy” is the other word I was picky about. “Mercy” is stronger and heavier than being “kind” as the Good News Translation has it. I want to dig into this idea a little. Jesus and the expert knew that mercy was an attribute of God for humans to imitate. “Mercy” means radical loyalty to your neighbors. “Mercy” is a Greek word. The Hebrew (used in the Old Testament and possibly by Jesus and this expert) means more like “loyalty,” the kind you have for your neighbors and family. God is merciful because God honors the covenant to give us new life. We have the same obligation to our neighbor.

But Jesus turns the logic around. It’s not just that you should be merciful to your neighbors. You’re a neighbor by virtue of being merciful. Who’s my neighbor? Anyone to whom God’s covenant binds me – and we’re all bound in God’s covenant. What’s more, you don’t have to wait for someone else to become your neighbor. God just makes the covenant, and we try to acknowledge it. Whose neighbor am I? Anyone toward whom I can be merciful, anyone who needs my love and support.

That’s all good to say, but the punch line of Jesus’ story is, “go and do likewise.” We’ve plumbed the depth of this radical covenant, now go and do it. The expert is back where he started: there are many neighbors, but limited resources and energy, so how do I love them all as myself? Two things about that, before we get deeper. First, Luke doesn’t tell us that the expert fails at this. Radical love is not a stumbling block for him. Second, Jesus doesn’t seem to demand that we do succeed at it. God is mercifully loyal to the covenant of new life with or without our getting it right. That is, God loves us as God loves herself. God is nothing but the radical love Jesus showed when he gave his life in compassion for us.

“Compassion.” That’s the final word. The NIV calls it “pity,” which is a word with a cool history itself, but “compassion” is better. Eugene Peterson said it best in The Message: “his heart went out to him” (cited by Paul Nuechterlein). That’s what compassion is, when someone else’s need yanks your heart from you chest (even if it’s more subtle than that). This is exactly what the Greek and the Hebrew mean. “Pity” understates the way compassion gets you in your gut. The Samaritan feels the wounded man’s pain and distress as deeply as if it were his own – that’s compassion. From that compassion, he couldn’t avoid acting. If you feel your neighbor’s pain like you feel your own, you’re going to respond from a love like you have for yourself.

That’s ultimately what Jesus tells the law-experts, including and especially me. When someone pulls on your heart, be their neighbor. This goes against the human impulses to worry about safety or social boundaries. It goes against my impulse toward logic and rationale. But Jesus’ logic leads exactly there. It all comes back to compassion, the heart-feeling that drives our mercy. Compassion starts close to us but always draws us just farther than we were before, until we see that we’re neighbors to all people. Compassion makes us like God, because following and exercising compassion is part of following God in merciful faithfulness.

From God we call it grace, but really it’s loyalty to the existing covenant that binds us to God as if we shared one heart with the Divine. God feels us that deeply. God shares our pain and need because we get our life from the reality of God’s own self. We share God’s reality with those whose pain we can feel, and God invites us to be their neighbors. We already know what neighborliness is like, and God invites us to live into it. So go be like God.