Americans who have not lived in another country for any length of time, do not realize that, in spite its faults, the United States is a nation that obeys laws. The ultimate example is the Civil Rights Law of 1964 that altered profoundly the way we treat each other. Where even the churches had failed in fulfilling the commandment of love when it related to our darker skinned neighbors, the law of the land finally triumphed and segregation came to an end.
When non-smokers, convinced finally of the damage smoking did to the lungs, persuaded the public of its harm, the law took over and now we can eat in restaurants free from its smell, we can fly from one state to another without worrying about inhaling other people's smoke; in offices, in public places, in airports, we are free of this menace, because the law is obeyed. But there are airports and public spaces in many parts of the world where the No Smoking signs are totally ignored. It is then that we feel grateful for the enforcement and obedience to this law in our country.
Driving is another aspect of obedience to laws. In many other lands speed limits either don't exist or are not enforced, where lane demarcations are not observed. We have all experienced sheer terror when driving or riding on the highways of other nations. It is also true that with few exceptions, in American towns, citizens can rely on the police to come to their aid.
These are a few examples of the good aspect of established laws that make us feel grateful that they exist. But there are also bitter feelings about it -- people of color often feel that the law is not on their side, and we all know that a greater percentage of African Americans and Hispanics populate our jails and prisons. These days especially, when the Federal Government has begun to enforce the death penalty in a public way that disturbs many Christians and people of other faiths, our feelings toward the law can become ambivalent.
But for the Jew there was no ambivalence. The Law was good, it was sweet, it was a delight. The Jew lived for the observance of the Law. For them, it came from God, not from human beings, and God's commands could not be subject to argument. They demanded all the heart, all the soul, all the might. The inspired writer of Deuteronomy reports that God told his people that this word, the Word of the Law, was very near to them -- in their mouths and in their hearts. For centuries the struggle to observe the Law kept the people of Israel and Judah focused on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The prophets in their midst, reaching the highest understanding of God, recognized that obedience was the best sacrifice one could offer to God. Still, the struggle to observe the minutiae of the Law continued. The outward observance of the Law was always easier and certainly more obvious to those who watched others in order to judge them. And the people who paid attention to appearances were content to think of themselves as righteous.
But here comes Jesus, an acknowledged teacher and healer, a rabbi who talks of God and God's kingdom as no one else has done, and he confounds them; if someone sick comes to him on the Sabbath, he does not hesitate to heal that person. If a woman who is an outcast, a Canaanite, asks him to heal her child, he listens to the prayer of the foreigner and heals her child. He does not keep himself aloof from tax collectors, even though he is equally at home with proper, respectable people. He doesn't seem to care too much for the outward niceties of the Law. He tells them clearly that the Sabbath (the law) was made for the people, not the people for the Sabbath (the law). Many are highly offended, and scared: What will happen if that which we know as right collapses? How can we know the righteous from the unrighteous if we cannot judge obedience to the Law from outward appearances?
They don't want the security of the familiar to disappear. They will have to think for themselves, and that is a tall order for many people.
Others are very attracted to this young prophet who, instead of bringing gloom and doom, is filling Galilee and its surroundings with his loving presence. They want to know his secret. They want to have what he has -- a peace that comes only from close, daily communion with God. They want to enter, to inherit the kingdom of heaven. So they come to Jesus to ask him. We have several such instances in the Gospels. This one, in Luke, brings forth one of the most beautiful stories ever told, that of the Good Samaritan.
In Luke's story, it is a lawyer who asks Jesus, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus who respects the scriptures of his people refers the inquirer to what he, being a lawyer must know -- the Mosaic Law. The lawyer answers correctly with what the Jews called the Shema, from "Hear oh Israel," and the magnificent words about loving God with our whole heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus tells him that his answer is correct. "Do this and you will live." But the man finds a stumbling block in the last part "and your neighbor as yourself." And asks the question, "Who is my neighbor?"
In the story that Jesus tells to illustrate his answer, the wounded man is bypassed by two of the most respectable, religious representatives of the community, a priest and a lay assistant. They pretend they don't see the dying man. It is easier to pretend not to see, much less bother. They are both so busy; their hands are clean, their clothes proper, they must not be soiled with blood and mud. It is easier this way; we don't need to have our time taken up by unexpected distractions -- better not to dirty our hands and clothes -- we are respectable people. (Let us pause a minute and remember all the victims we have bypassed in our lifetime: Remember their faces, name them in your mind, grieve in your heart.) But the Samaritan, the known outcast, is not bothered by outward niceties. He stops and offers help -- the kind of help that takes responsibility, that is not here today and gone tomorrow. He takes the victim to the inn, he treats the wounds with his own hands, he stays with him through the night, he pays the bill, and he comes back to check on him. No questions are asked, except the one asked by Jesus, "Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor?" The answer is, "The one who showed him mercy." "Go and do likewise," is the simple command of Jesus. Do likewise, show mercy.
The bearing of fruit was the Jewish idea of doing good, of showing mercy. In this season of Pentecost, we have been reading St. Paul's exhortations and pleadings with the Galatians to leave the enslavement of the minutiae of the Law behind and to feel the freedom that comes from God's grace through Jesus Christ. It is impossible for us to observe the Law on our own, he tells the Galatians. But Jesus has freed us from enslavement to outward rules and regulations. We now walk in the light of freedom.
With the power and grace of God through Jesus Christ we can indeed go out and do likewise, show mercy to our neighbors, bear fruit.
In the Epistle to the Colossians, the emphasis shifts to the bearing of fruit.
". . . so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God."
It is a good thing to remember, to take with us as we leave church today -- the vision of the Good Samaritan, the words of our Lord, "God and do likewise," the exhortation to the Colossians: Bear fruit in every good work. But at the same, grow in the knowledge of God. Amen.