Rev. Kit Billings
May 22, 2005
Charity: The Practice of Neighborliness n. 8
The first step in charity, therefore, is to look to the Lord and to avoid evils because they are sins. All the good that we do to the neighbor for the neighbor’s sake, or for the sake of good and truth, thus for the reason that it is according to the Word (or for the sake of religion and thus for the sake of God, which is therefore from a spiritual love or affection), is called a good of charity, or a good work. It is good not as it is traceable to the person but insofar as it is from the Lord through the person. The Lord does good to all chiefly through others, but yet in such a manner that we think it is of our doing. The Lord therefore frequently moves the wicked to do good to others—but it is from an affection of the love of self and the world. This good, indeed, is of the Lord, or from the Lord; but the one doing the charitable act is not rewarded for it. But if someone does good not from a merely natural, but from a spiritual love or affection, that person is rewarded. The reward is the heavenly pleasure in such love and affection, which continues with that person to eternity. And this is in proportion as the person does not act from self-alone, that is, in proportion as he believes that all good is from the Lord and does not place merit in it.
Yesterday there were thousands of college graduates sitting in long rows of chairs or in bleachers wearing black caps and gowns. These good students have successfully completed hundreds of hours careful study and learning toward an end to be well trained in some art or profession. The major goal for going to college is to become skilled for doing a job of some kind, so that we can be successful in life, earn a living, “make it” on our own. Indeed, it is important for every young adult to figure out what we would like to do forty or more hours a week that can benefit humanity as well as ourselves. In the Old Testament, prosperity is something that is honored.
But is a “successful” life to be measured chiefly by how much we earn and by how far up the ladder of success we climb? Or to ask this another way, after we each have died and then are brought by the Divine Light into that special place and experience of examining our life here on earth, what is it that God will care mostly about? Where will the Lord’s emphasis be when we have what is called in Near Death Experience circles our life-review, which is actually just a synonym for our own personal “judgment day”?
The answer to these questions comes within Christ’s responses to that intelligent lawyer who had done well to study the Hebrew Scriptures. For indeed, a truly successful life needs to be that which will lead one into eternal life in God and in God’s kingdom, the paradise we call Heaven. And so, as we begin our reflection together this morning about what really matters in life, let us give thanks to that nameless man who thousands of years ago had the courage to go up and ask Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And the Lord asks this man to first try to answer his own question himself, which the man does, perfectly in fact, to the “T” you might say. The only way for anyone to have a truly good and successful life, in God’s eyes that is, is to learn what it means for us personally to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Universal, grand love is the simple (yet challenging) answer to life. And the order and intensity of our loves is vital—the Lord’s Word is very clear with us that the Divine (who is Love and Good itself) is meant to be loved most of all, and then out of that love comes my universal love for all people. And then this lawyer fellow (who, by the way, does cast a good light on some percentage of lawyers out there!) asks a profoundly astute question, given the fact that Jews back typically were taught by their Rabbis that non-Jews and especially Samaritans were heathens and not worthy of care and concern. Although it is also true that the Book of Exodus teaches kindness toward one’s foreign brethren; Ruth teaches that God’s kindness can certainly thrive in the non-Jewish heart; and the Book of Jonah reveals God’s everlasting kindness and mercy extend toward all peoples, no matter their ethnic and religious origins. And so, this lawyers question was a genuine one, perhaps motivated out of very real confusion in his own mind and heart. And so he asks and presses Jesus and says, “But who is my neighbor?”
Indeed, who is your neighbor who deserves your love and compassion?
The Lord answered that man not in a straight out theological discourse, but in His usual way, with a profound parable. Let us take a careful look at it together.
First of all it is helpful to know that the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road. It’s nickname for a very long time used to be, “The Red Road,” or “The Blood Road.” For it was extremely common for lone travelers on that road to meet their deaths or near-death at the hands of bandits. Jerusalem is 2300 feet above sea level; Jericho is 1300 feet below sea level. And the road between them was only just under 20 miles long! So in less than 20 miles a person walking on foot would descend some 3600 feet! Let us hear how one scholar describes this terrain: “It was a road of narrow, rocky defiles, and of sudden turnings which made it the happy hunting-ground of brigands. In the 19th century it was still necessary to pay safety money to the local Sheiks before one could travel on it. As late as the early 1930's, H. V. Morton tells us that he was warned to get home before dark, if he intended to use the road, because a certain Abu Jildah was adept at holding up cars and robbing travelers and tourists, and escaping to the hills before the police could arrive.” Thus, when Jesus told this story, he was telling about the kind of thing that was constantly happening on the Jerusalem to Jericho road.
If we examine each of the characters in this parable that Jesus taught, we may take note of the fact that the traveler who found himself in dire straights was probably a foolish man. For we know that historically no one with sound reason would have traveled that Jerusalem-to-Jericho road by himself. People would typically travel in caravans or convoys to avoid the treachery of thieves. The priest who happened upon the unfortunate fellow lying seemingly dead on the road was following his priestly regulations to avoid becoming defiled for seven days. In Numbers 19:11 they are taught not to touch the body of a dead person, which if done would keep that priest out of his turn to enjoy the priestly duties that made up their use. And so, his sin was to put the claims of ceremonial duty above those of spiritual charity and compassion. This man did not even walk over to the side of the road where the man beaten up and hurt badly was lying. He chose not to take the risk of trying to help someone in need of help. The Temple and its liturgy meant more to him, perhaps, than the pain and suffering of the traveler. Then there was the Levite, who seems to have enough concern to have chosen to walk nearby the dying traveler, but then chose to avoid the scene as if it never happened. Bandits back then were in the habit of using decoys. One of their cronies would act the part of a wounded man, and then when some unsuspecting traveler stopped over him, the others would rush upon him and overpower him. The Levite, therefore, was a man whose motto was, “Safety first.” He would take no risks either to help anyone else in dire need.
And then there was the Samaritan, who, no doubt, to the ears of Jesus’ listeners would have been thought to have been the evil villain who had chosen to return to the scene of his crime, for the Samaritans were simply “scum” to the mind of most Jews back then. That name was used synonymously to describe anyone who was a heretic and one who broke ceremonial law. In Christ’s story, He once again turns orthodox Judaism on its head, and reveals that what God cares less about is the overt doctrine and belief system of any one of us, but instead the quality and character of our hearts. For you see, someone may hold heretical beliefs within some religion, but if the love of God dwells and fortifies his heart, that person is living well toward eternal life in God’s kingdom. Among the various characters presented in the Lord’s parable, the Samaritan alone was the one prepared to help the unfortunate man dying on the side of the road. Indeed, as our church teachings reveals, a compassionate heart is the one that dwells spiritually within the energy and Life of the Divine, in Jesus Christ our Lord. A true understanding of God and His Word brings a person into the vicinity of the Lord and His kingdom, but it is only spiritual love and kindness that makes a person to dwell within the warmth and goodness of our Creator.
And my goodness, look at the degree of help the Samaritan “do-gooder” reveals is truly the Christian level of kindness and compassion. He took time out of his busy day to bandage up the fallen man, having first poured wine to purify his wounds and then oil to soothe them. And then with “Forest Gump like love” he puts the wounded fool upon his own donkey and brought him to an inn to convalesce in privacy. Jesus then teaches His listeners once again that the Love flowing forth into the universe from the Divine Heart that creates it is more than willing to go the extra mile for anyone.
And so, this truly good Samaritan teaches us that when God’s Love is living and growing within us, we will be willing to help anyone who needs it, whether they are a wise or a foolish person. We will be willing to help anyone from any nation, for indeed, anyone from any place on earth is our neighbor who needs our lovingkindness. No doubt the priest and the Levite felt a pang of pity for the wounded man, but they did nothing to help God to save him. For compassion to be real, it must issue forth into deeds.
The Lord, then, in teaching humanity this parable fully revealed is a gentle and wise neighbor to anyone in need, which is the person with a compassionate and merciful heart, who first is devoted to God and loving the Divine first. This form and depth of Christian charity is fully what the Lord’s New Church stands upon. Throughout our teachings one can read of the wonderful perspective that sees that spiritual charity begins with looking toward God first every day and wanting to please the Lord’s will that seeks the good of all people. It is a will to help and be of use in everything we do, and is one that seeks to avoid evils as sins against God. And lastly, it is a mindset that holds jealously to the truth that every good deed we may do, or every true thought we may possess, while seemingly appears to come from our own powers actually is flowing into us from a much deeper or higher Source. Thus, walking a road of inheriting eternal life in God is one where we rise every day wanting to make a simple, deep acknowledgment that my day actually belongs to my God and gives all glory and honor to Him. Genuine Christian goodness is not the kind that is traceable to the person doing the good deed, but rather to the One who inspires such goodness, as a spring gives rise to a fountain of love bubbling up from underneath the earth!
What makes up a truly successful life here on earth? The kind that seeks to understand what the evils of self-love alone and love of worldliness are so that they may be avoided like deadly poisons, as sins against God. It’s the kind that looks to be successful most of all in the many “little things” in life, those many random acts of kindness and looking to pray for those who hurt and mistreat us. It’s the kind that responds purposefully to our Lord and Savior who also says to us who hear His parable about the Good Samaritan, “Go and do likewise.”