Recently a wise friend and spiritual director talked with me about her theology and the essential role that feeling God’s delights plays in forming mature Christians. She pointed out that infants learn their first social cues by noticing that they can cause delight in their parents. When a baby does something cute and we smile and then repeats it and we smile or laugh again, the child learns on several deep levels that she can affect the big people who are essentially her whole world. All future social interactions between children and caregivers stem from this most basic lesson: a child can cause delight. If infants, toddlers and children don’t see delight in the faces of those who care for them, forming bonds becomes incredibly difficult.
In this week’s Deuteronomy passage, God promises to be the delighted parent. God will rejoice over the Israelites as God rejoiced over their parents (30:9). And just as a laugh, coo or funny face comes naturally to a baby and causes delight to parents, God wants delightful obedience to come naturally to the holy community (30:10).
God also insists that obedience to the law is not out of the people’s grasp. The law isn’t in heaven or under the sea but in the mouths and hearts of the community that God has created and brought together (30:11-14). The commandments aren’t too difficult for people!
Of course, everybody falls short and misses the mark from time to time. That doesn’t surprise God. Accordingly, God designed the sacrificial system as part of the law. Even before Christian sanctification, there is this notion that most folks can follow most of God’s law most of the time without too much difficulty. In a couple weeks, we’ll hear Jesus say that even evil people know how to be good when they choose to be (Luke 11:13). I would argue that Martin Luther shared this understanding, which undergirds his first use of the law to curb violence. Humans have power to curb (some/most of) their own violence once instructed in the law. Even before the work of sanctification, a basic obedience to the law is possible and desirable, both for minimizing injustice and for pleasing God.
It’s precisely this context, in which obedience to the law is thought to be both possible and desirable, that shapes Jesus’ conversation with an expert on the law (Luke 10:25-37). The lawyer asked Jesus a question to trap him: What must I do to have eternal life? Jesus, knowing that this person was an expert in the law, turned the question back to him. The lawyer, no slouch, quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart …,” and Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This was a suitable answer for Jesus, who said, “Do this and you will live.”
The lawyer, no slouch, quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart …,” and Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The lawyer was hoping to trap Jesus—instead they ended up agreeing with one another. This would never do, so the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told a parable:
A man left the holy city and went to a cursed town (Joshua 6:26, 1 Kings 16:34). On his way, he was beaten by robbers. Completely as an accident of fate, a priest was going down also, saw the man and avoided him. A Levite came to the place and also avoided the beaten man. Then a Samaritan who was on a journey (he probably had no reason to be going up to or coming down from Jerusalem) came upon the man, treated his wounds and paid for safe lodging. An honest-to-God good Samaritan! No expert in the law could believe in such kindness from the apostates!
Jesus didn’t tell this story in order to tell the lawyer that Samaritans were good or that priests were bad. Instead, he told the story specifically to answer the lawyer’s question: Who is my neighbor (Luke 10:29-30)? To make sure that the lawyer understood his point, Jesus asked, “Who was a neighbor to the man?” The expert in the law couldn’t even bear to say the word “Samaritan.” Instead he choked out: “The one who showed him compassion.” Jesus told the lawyer to go and do likewise—love across ethno-religious boundaries your neighbor, whoever is in your path.
Friends, we don’t know if the lawyer followed Jesus or not. We don’t know if the Spirit changed his heart and life. But we do know that Jesus told him to love his neighbor, even—maybe especially—the neighbors who made him uncomfortable. That is just the basic requirement for being human.
Being a Christian, empowered with the love of Jesus to help bring the kingdom of God to earth, is hard work. We, as humans, are insufficient to that task without the Spirit. But you know what, loving your neighbor, being a decent human being, should be as natural as a baby making sounds or funny faces. And loving our neighbor causes God delight. We have hard work to do in realizing the fullness of the kingdom of God, to be sure. So let’s not get hung up on the basic stuff. Loving your neighbor isn’t that hard.