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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bad News or Good News? You Choose?

Amos 7:7-17 is a terrifying word of prophetic judgment. A sheepherder from Judah,  he has been sent north by God with the "Bad News" to Israel. He pronounces doom with harsh words of judgment. We would prefer a gentler melody; songs of love and amazing grace.

Prophets don't care what we prefer. They share His message. Every encounter with God is judgement: either salvation or destruction. God offered life/salvation, but Israel broke covenant, rejected love and opened their land to death and exile. They ignored Amos and chose a happier but false gospel. So, bad news, Assyria invaded and destroyed the nation. The Samaritans are the heirs of the exiled tribes of Israel. Samaria and Judah will be at odds for centuries.

Jesus speaks of love, but he does so with a prophetic emphasis. A lawyer asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. We are told it is a test so when Jesus responds with a question He is turning the tables. The lawyer says the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor. Jesus tells him he is right, "so do this and you will live." One last challenge, how exactly does one "do it"?

"Who is my neighbor?" is a serious question in any society. Insider/outsider status was even more important in ancient culture with its emphasis on group membership. "Love" means a strong attachment or loyalty to another expressed through acts which benefit the others. Clan connection--family--are the primary object of love. The neighbor is one of us. Or is he?

Jesus' story would have been familiar to His hearers. Travel was on the violent fringe of society where outlaws were a real threat. The traveler is called an "anthropos" (Greek for human). The priest and Levite are generally thought of as trying to avoid being made unclean by a dead body.  However, a good case is made in the Jewish New Testament that this is not about purity law (the man was going away from the Temple, if they were headed away from the Temple uncleanness was not an issue. In any case the Law provided for a process to become clean and it was quite managable) but obeying the command to care for the needy (or respect for the dead). The hearers would expect a Jewish layman next (the third category of Jews). Unexpectedly, Jesus choose a Samaritan to illustrate love and care. The Samaritan is outside the tripartite (priest, levite, laymen) structure of Judaism. The message has a depth of meaning.

Remember, the Lawyer had asked Jesus "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" The word
"inherit" is frequent in the Jewish Bible to describe God's bestowal of His blessings. An inheritance is not a reward, it is always a grace. What must one do to receive an inheritance? Usually being an heir is relational, to be family (literally or figuratively). Jesus is expanding the scope of family connection. Jesus implies that loving care is for all people, especially the outsider.

The word of God is clear. Jesus says "do this and you shall live." His language is not as harsh as Amos, but it is still a terrifying challenge. What if I cannot see the "other" with the eyes of love? What if I am reluctant to bind up the wounds of others? What if I don't want to spend my hard earned money on someone I hardly know, who, after all, got themselves in trouble. What if I just want to hurry on my way and take care of the 101 things on my "to do list"?

Love God. Love neighbor. It is the Torah. Jesus' prophetic word of judgment is "do this and you will live." Let those who believe listen and obey!

for further reflection:
[Mark 12:18-27 is a drawn out conflict on resurrection where Jesus bests the Sadducees; then in 12:28ff a scribe asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment. It is Jesus who declares the love of God is the first commandment and the second, love of neighbor, is like it. When the scribe responds positively, Jesus declares that the man is not far from the kingdom of God. Matthew 22:23ff follows Mark with the same narrative combination, however, in Matthew's account, the lawyer is a Pharisee and he asks to test Jesus. Once more Jesus delineates a first and second, this time with an addition "this is the great and first commandment." However, in Luke the resurrection debate has been moved to chapter 20, inserted between the question about paying taxes and the Messiah as David's son. The reading today (Luke10:25ff) is sandwiched between the mission of the Seventy and Jesus rejoicing that God has revealed Himself to the "infants" before it and the Martha and Mary visit and teaching on prayer afterwards. In addition, Luke does not have Jesus speaking, but rather the hostile lawyer who combines the commandments as one. It is Jesus who says you have given the right answer. Luke then adds the Parable not found elsewhere.]

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