Scripture: Luke 10:25–42
I am going to ask you to suspend reason with me for a few minutes this morning. Imagine with me a fantastic scenario. One night, a cold night in Kansas in the middle of a global pandemic and a mediocre season of KU basketball, you fall asleep in your own bed. But when you wake up, something is very different. You have somehow become James, son of Alphaeus, one of the Apostles of Jesus. It obviously takes you a little while to figure this out, but you recognize from Sunday school this name that people keep calling you, you can see that you are one of twelve followers of a Teacher that sure acts a lot like Jesus, and can tell that somehow you have been transported into the body of a man in First Century Palestine. Inexplicably, you have become him. Somehow, you can understand the Aramaic that they are speaking. You look like James instead of yourself. And find yourself following in the footsteps of the most important man who ever walked the earth. It’s like Quantum Leap meets the Gospel of Luke! You know that they would never believe you if you told them you were from the future, so you just follow along.
Biblical scholars would envy your position, as they don’t really know much about James. They know it is not the famous James, brother of John, who was on top of the mountain of Transfiguration with Peter and Jesus. Some wonder if it is the James who wrote the book of the Bible with that name, but most scholars doubt it. Others wonder if it was James, the brother of Jesus, though there is no clear indicator of this. All we know is that he was one of the Apostles, but we don’t know anything more about his ministry, his life after Jesus, or what he thought about Jesus’ ministry. And all you know for sure is that you have somehow become him!
You have never been so thankful that you paid attention in Sunday school! From your best guess, you are somewhere near the border of Jewish territory and Samaritan territory. It is hard for you to physically tell the difference, but you know that Jews and Samaritans don’t like each other much. The cold icy stares that they give you make it clear you are not welcome: everyone you ask for hospitality is like a brick wall…no one wants to help. The other Apostles of Jesus return the favor with angry stares of their own. And plenty of muttering under their breath; you hear one say, “I wish Jesus would have let us rain fire down from heaven on their heads. That would have taught them!” You don’t know for sure who is who, but you think it might be wise to avoid that guy.
From the things that Jesus says combined with your knowledge of the Gospels, you start to piece together where you are in the timeline of Jesus’ ministry. You remember from church the phrase that Luke repeats: “he turned his face toward Jerusalem,” preparing for and indeed walking right into the death that he knew was coming. You are travelling from town to town; Jesus keeps talking about his death; and everyone keeps talking about what will happen once they get to Jerusalem. You know what is coming.
You follow the Apostles as Jesus finds a village and begins to teach. Along the edges of crowd as Jesus teaches, you can see a man inch closer. He is clearly a man of authority and notoriety, as he is dressed in fine robes and others step aside in reverence as he comes closer. All of a sudden, he speaks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You can tell that this is the expert in the law who was trying to test Jesus…you can tell by his demeanor and his tone of voice that he is trying stump him instead of actually learn from him. Their exchange at first looks like it might be brief. Jesus responds, showing little interest, “you know the law…what does it say?” This learned law-expert responds, as if he were reading from a textbook, “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.” Jesus’ response is short: “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
But that is when things get tense. “But who is my neighbor?” Again, you can tell by the tone of his voice, that he is trying to catch Jesus with an unanswerable question. You have read about this exchange a thousand times since you were a child, but seeing it unfold, you realize what he is really asking, “who is NOT my neighbor? Where are the allowable limits of love?” Thinking he had Jesus stuck, he smiled just a bit, smug as can be. Jesus, who seemed almost uninterested in the conversation until that point, seems to light up in that moment. He turns to face the man, but directs his attention to the whole crowd. This is a teacher in his element, and the expert on the law has no idea what is coming.
Jesus tells a story. Again, you have heard the story called “The Good Samaritan” a thousand times, but hearing it told for the first time by Jesus gives you cold chills. The priest walked by on the other side. The Levite walked by on the other side. Standing here watching Jesus tell this story, the implication is clear: these two men were exactly like the expert in the law who had tested Jesus. They were authoritative. They were knowledgeable. And they set very clear limits on who would be their neighbor. In that moment, you remember a Scriptural commentator by the name of Amy-Jill Levine who compared this story to the Three Stooges. The pattern of this sort of story was meant to be predictable. “First came Moe…then came Larry…then came…” Of course, Curly. And, indeed, you watch the people around you predict who the third person would be. They guess that it would be a regular, ordinary Joe…a Jew just like them. And as you stand there as James son of Alphaeus, you can see them pointing at the law expert and laughing, know that he was the badguy, but they were going to be the hero! But you remember in that moment the rest of Dr. Levine’s words: she wrote that Jesus’ story would have sounded like “First came Moe…then came Larry…then came Osama bin Laden.” A mortal enemy. Not someone like them, but someone that they muttered under their breath about, and wished they could rain down fire upon. And you can hear the gasp in the crowd, as soon as they hear the word Samaritan. By the end, not only is the law expert nearly speechless, but so is the entire crowd. Jesus’ point is clear: love everyone…no questions asked. There are no limits to neighbor love. The person in front of you—whoever they are—is a child of God.
The crowd disperses, and Jesus leads you and the other eleven onto the next town. The other Apostles seem to struggle with the words that Jesus has preached. This is too much. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that loving their neighbor would mean loving Samaritans. That same Apostle who was ready to rain down fire on the heads of the Samaritans was particularly angry…Jesus can’t really mean what he seemed to say. Surely hospitality has its limits! Surely love cannot extend that far!
The confusion and the anger continued to simmer along the way, until they came to a home where Jesus announced they would stay the night. Two women were working to prepare the home for such a large crowd of guests, and you realized at once that this was the home of sisters Mary and Martha. Those sermons and Sunday school lessons you listened to over the years sure are coming in handy! As you all began to make yourself at home, some of the Apostles start to talk to Jesus about what had happened during the day. Like the teacher of the law, they try to corner him on what he actually meant. Again, you get cold chills when you start to see one of the two sisters quietly slip into the corner of the room and begin to listen. Mary has chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus, while Martha continues her work! As you watch her, you see her attention as a gift that she gives Jesus by stopping what she is doing and giving him her undivided attention. It strikes you as gracious hospitality, just in a different form than Martha. But Martha, looking in from her work, seems embarrassed…like Mary shouldn’t be there learning with the men…like she doesn’t know her place.
As Jesus continues teaching, you are nervous with anticipation. When is Jesus going to stand up and go into the kitchen, and yell at Martha for working so hard? When is he going to laud Mary and rebuke Martha for doing it all wrong? Again, while you have heard the story a thousand times, you are surprised that Jesus doesn’t really come after Martha, until she comes after him, and complains that her sister is not helping. Like before, Jesus gets a light in his eyes that is the opportunity that all teachers wait for…that teachable moment. He turns to Martha, but again directs his words to all those in the room: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
And there, in that moment, you have an epiphany. It wasn’t until you lived it all in one day that you began to understand what the powerful Teacher Jesus was up to in these two encounters. You realize that both of the law expert and Martha took a wrong turn by trying to justify themselves. When the law expert came to Jesus, Jesus didn’t make a big deal about it, and he actually agreed with his assessment about the greatest commandments. Jesus was ready to move on…UNTIL the lawyer tried to set the limits of hospitality. “Who is NOT my neighbor? Who do I NOT have to love?” Likewise, Jesus didn’t make a big deal about Martha, calling her in from the kitchen and dressing her down. He kept teaching…UNTIL Martha tried to set the limits of hospitality. “Mary isn’t doing hospitality the right way…tell her to do it my way!” In watching Jesus’ interaction with both of these individuals, you can see that he is not angry at first with what they are doing or how they are doing it. What catches his attention is when they come with a need to be justified…with arrogant and closed hearts: “you have to do it my way.” An expert in the Torah who doesn’t understand God’s command to include everyone…and a queen of hospitality who refuses to offer grace…have taken a wrong turn somewhere. And their words become for Jesus teaching moments. At least, for you they are. You think about how many times you wished fire down on your enemies, how many times you tried to justify yourself, how many times you put limits on hospitality and grace and love.
As you stand there, inhabiting the body of a man in First Century Palestine listening to the words of Jesus, your mind goes back to the book on your nightstand in cold 21st Century Kansas, by a woman named Christine Valters-Paintner. Before you fell asleep, you were reading her chapter on humility, and you found it particularly moving. Valters-Paintner writes about what true humility is not. It is not an “aw-shucks” putting down of oneself in order to fish for compliments. That is a little bit of what the law expert did, trying to justify himself before Jesus even though he thought he had all of the answers. And true humility is not low self-worth, believing that you not are worthwhile unless you accomplish a certain number of tasks in the “right” way. True humility is not misguided perfectionism. Again, Valters-Paintner suggests that this is a misguided understanding of humility that through the centuries has caused many Christians, especially women, to believe that they must be subject and submissive to the men in their lives, doing what they demand. And perhaps that is part of the struggle that Martha felt, embarrassed that Mary wasn’t accomplishing her tasks.
But Jesus showed them another way. You remember reading Valters-Paintner’s suggestion that once you set aside these misguided examples of humility, you can find a true Christ-like humbleness. A true clarity of understanding of self, as God would see us. An honest evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. Our gifts, as well as our “limitations and our woundedness.” She points out that the word humility is tied to the word “humus,” or earth. Humility represents a groundedness, a rootedness.
As you lie on the ground that night, trying to fall asleep, Valters-Paintner’s words come back to you, and you see their wisdom echoed in the words of Jesus. In fact, as your mind is spinning, and you feel the hard earth beneath you, it comes in a rush of revelation that this is what Jesus seems to be teaching his Apostles on this one momentous day in the life of his ministry. Or, at the very least, this is what Jesus has taught you today. Humility. Grace. Love…of God and of neighbor. Love everyone…no questions asked.
You fall asleep that night, as James son of Alphaeus. You don’t know if this was all a dream or a vision, or if this was really happening. Your head is spinning. You have learned so much…in just one day with Jesus! What will tomorrow bring? Where will you even wake up? Back home in Kansas, or on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus? Either way, you know you will live your life differently. For you have learned again what it means to be a humble follower of Jesus.