If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. [Proverbs 25:21 (NLT)]

rabbit foot cloverWhen the ten northern tribes refused to submit to Rehoboam, they revolted and, by 930 BC, there were two political states: Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern one. Both kingdoms suffered from inept, disobedient, and often corrupt leadership but Judah’s king Ahaz (743-728 BC) was one of weakest and most corrupt of all the southern kingdom’s leaders. Because of his apostasy (which included sacrificing some of his sons to Baal), the Lord allowed Judah’s defeat at the hands of Rezin (king of Aram) and Pekah (king of Israel). By the end of the battle, Ahaz lost a son and two of his close advisors and Judah lost 120,000 seasoned warriors. The Arameans took captives to Damascus and Israel’s warriors returned to Samaria with a huge amount of plunder and 200,000 captured women and children they intended to enslave (in spite of its prohibition in Leviticus 25:39-43).

As Israel’s victorious army returned to Samaria with their captives and plunder, they were met by a prophet named Oded. Protesting Israel’s brutal treatment of Judah, Oded told them that it was God who permitted them to wage war and defeat Judah but that Israel went too far in their merciless massacre and their plan to enslave their Judean brethren. After asking, “What about your own sins against the Lord?” the prophet warned that that God’s anger had been turned toward Israel and urged the soldiers to return their prisoners to Judah.

God had allowed Judah’s defeat but, in their rage and frenzy, Israel’s army went too far. Merciless in their slaughter, they’d stepped out of God’s will and Oded told them their rage had disturbed heaven. Perhaps they’d slain men who had surrendered, raped women, burned the crops, or massacred innocent children. We don’t know for sure but we do know that, by the time they reached Samaria, some of their captives were naked and without footwear. Whatever they’d done was beyond what was necessary for a battle victory. This story is often cited by those advocating the Just War Theory—a philosophy that sets forth the conditions required for justly going to war and for the right conduct in a war, one of which is the prohibition of using unnecessary force to attain the objective.

We know nothing about Oded and this is the only mention of him in Scripture and yet, in a rare Old Testament occurrence, people actually listened and took a prophet’s message to heart. Agreeing with Oded, four of Israel’s leaders confronted the returning warriors. Warning them that they couldn’t afford to add to their guilt, they told the soldiers to release their captives. That they willingly gave up the spoils of war tells us they knew their vicious behavior had been reprehensible. Their plunder and prisoners were handed over to the four leaders who then provided them with clothing, sandals, food and drink and applied balm and oil to their wounds. After putting the weak and injured on donkeys, they returned their Judean captives safely to Jericho.

Through the years, both Israel and Judah were guilty of wronging one another but, in this amazing act of mercy, Israel tried to right one terrible wrong. Perhaps it was Oded’s reminder that the captives were their brethren. All descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at one time, they’d been twelve brothers! How had they fallen so low as to think of enslaving members of their own family?

While this story is not well known to 21st century Christians, it probably was familiar to Jesus’ listeners when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan—the Judean who was mercilessly attacked and the Samaritan who dressed his wounds with oil and wine, provided him with clothing, put him on a donkey, took him to an inn, and provided for his food, drink, and care. Was Jesus’ story a not-so-subtle reminder that, in spite of all that had transpired between the two territories, the Samaritans weren’t just their neighbors—they were their brethren? Was this a reminder that it’s never too late to right a wrong?

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. … God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:7,9 (NLT)]

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And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (RSV)]

brown pelicanWhen writing about the Good Samaritan yesterday, I recalled being asked who represents Jesus in the parable. The most obvious answer appears to be the Samaritan. After all, love that unlimited and sacrificial had to have been supernatural. The parallels are somewhat obvious—both men were merciful, compassionate, paid another man’s debt, promised to return, and were despised and rejected by the Jews. In fact, early commentators like Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and Origen found all sorts of allegorical meaning in the story with the injured man representing Adam, the bandits Satan, the loss of clothing as man’s loss of innocence, the wine given the man as Christ’s atoning blood, the inn as the Church, the innkeeper as Paul (or the Pope), and the two coins given to the innkeeper as the Law and the Prophets or the two testaments. While some of Jesus’ parables (like the Sower and the Soils, the Wheat and the Weeds, and the Evil Tenants) clearly are allegories, other are not.

Sometimes a parable is just a parable and The Good Samaritan meets the traditional definition of a parable: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Rather than preaching about Himself, Jesus was giving a straightforward answer to the question of who is our neighbor and He did it in an easily remembered story that makes its point in a striking way. While the parallels between the Good Samaritan’s compassionate acts and Jesus’ sacrificial love for us are remarkable, we should be cautious of complicating the parable or adding extra meaning where there is none. After all, unlike many of his parables, Jesus didn’t seem to think this one required additional explanation. He simply said, “Go and do likewise!”

If, however, we went looking for a Jesus figure in this parable, perhaps we should consider the Samaritan as an ordinary person and the injured man as Jesus. He was beaten, stripped, abandoned, and left to die, as was our Lord and, like Jesus, after being ignored by the pious Jews, He was accepted by the outcast Gentiles. In this light, perhaps, in a roundabout way, Jesus did answer the lawyer’s question about attaining eternal life. Eternal life isn’t defined by good works—although we can try, none of us can love as lavishly and perfectly as did the Samaritan. But, just as the Samaritan responded to the injured Jew, we can respond to Jesus. And, when we do, we will be given divine empowerment to love God and others.

Reverend Amy Reumann tells of a sermon her grandfather preached to his small congregation; at a mere ten words, it might be the shortest sermon known! After reading Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as his sermon’s text, her grandfather said, “We all know what this means. Just go do it.” With those ten words, the sermon was over and the pastor sat down. Perhaps we try to complicate this simple parable because we know exactly what it means and we don’t want to do it! Preferring not to get involved, interrupted, or inconvenienced, we don’t want the obligation of addressing the pain, poverty, hunger, hurt, injustice, oppression, loss, affliction, and abuse found in this broken world. Although we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone, let us always remember the Apostle James’ words that faith without works is dead!

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [James 2:14-17 (RSV)]

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And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [Luke 10:25 (RSV)]

zebra longwing butterflyOperating on a salvation by works mentality, the lawyer/expert in Mosaic law asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asked what the law said, the man cited Deuteronomy 6:5, about total devotion to God, and Leviticus 19:18, about loving his neighbor as himself. When Jesus told him, “Do this, and you will live,” the man realized that perfect obedience to loving everyone wasn’t possible. Hoping to limit the commandment to something more attainable, he searched for a loophole and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps he was thinking of the words found in the book of Sirach (a collection of moral counsel and maxims well known in Jesus’ time), “If you do a kindness, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds. … Give to the godly man, but do not help the sinner.” [12:1,4] These words reflected the prevailing view of the time that kindheartedness and aid were mainly for family, friends, or a righteous deserving person, but certainly not to one’s enemies.

To help define “neighbor,” Jesus told the parable about the Good Samaritan. While travelling the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a Jew was attacked by bandits, stripped of his clothes, beaten, and left half-dead beside the road. First a priest and then a Levite pass by. Although they both clearly see the wounded man, each man ignores him. They may have been in a rush or afraid that they might be set upon by bandits if they lingered. Not sure whether the man was dead or alive, perhaps they feared that, by touching a corpse, they’d become ceremonially unclean and unable to fulfill their Temple duties. The priest, however, wasn’t going “up” to serve in the Temple; he was going “down” the road to Jericho. Even if the Levite was on his way to the Temple, the oral tradition overrode the prohibition of defilement in the case of an abandoned corpse and commanded that any corpse be given a proper burial. Maybe the priest and Levite remembered the words in Sirach—they didn’t know the man, couldn’t expect a proper thank you and, for all they knew, the man was a sinner and deserved the beating. In any case, they clearly forgot the commandment about loving their neighbor as themselves!

While Jesus’ audience may have been scandalized by the behavior of the priest and Levite, Jesus often was tough on the religious leaders in His parables. I suspect His listeners expected a Jewish lay person to be the hero of the story, in which case they could go home and feel good about themselves. Rather than a fellow Jew, however, the hero of the story was a hated Samaritan, which must have shocked and perplexed Jesus’ audience. Even though Jews and Samaritans detested one another, where the devout Jews had ignored the law, a Samaritan fulfilled it! When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor, unable to say, “The Samaritan,” he answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise!” Few believed in doing good to one’s enemies until Jesus taught us that there are no religious, ethnic, economic, racial, political, or cultural lines in God’s Kingdom.

Although Jesus clearly defined “neighbor” as everyone—friend and foe alike—let’s not forget the original question was what the lawyer needed to do to inherit eternal life—something left unanswered in the parable. There is nothing we can do to work our way to heaven because we can’t obey the law as perfectly as God demands it be obeyed. None of us are capable of living as selflessly as did Jesus or even the fictitious Good Samaritan. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to live a life of compassion with no boundaries. We can’t do it perfectly and we can’t meet every need but, by the grace of God and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be His instruments of compassion. That is how we love our neighbor.

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. [Romans 9:30-32 (RSV)]

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When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God. [Leviticus 19:9-10 (NLT)]

field scabious - beeIn a series of negative commands regarding the harvest found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we find an ancient form of social justice/economic equity. A landowner was not to return for an overlooked bundle of grain left in the field, olives trees were not to be beaten more than once, grapes vines were not to be repicked after the first fruit was gathered, the edges of the fields were not to be harvested, and any produce dropped by the harvesters or fruit that had fallen or separated from the branch was not to be taken. As the remainders of the harvest, these gleanings were left for the poor.

Immediately following the law about not fully harvesting the crops of the land in Leviticus 19:9-10, we find two more laws: “Do not steal. Do not deceive or cheat one another.” The rabbis interpreted the laws’ juxtaposition to mean that not leaving the gleanings actually was stealing from the poor. Moreover, the poor should not cheat others by taking any more than was necessary.

Although the difference is slight, the landowner didn’t give these gleanings to the poor; he left them. God didn’t ask him to give the gleanings because the harvest wasn’t his to give; the harvest, like everything else, belonged to God! These laws reminded the Israelites that God is the source of their blessings!

We get a picture how this system worked in the Book of Ruth. When widowed and poor Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem, Ruth went out to gather grain in the field owned by Boaz. As she walked behind the reapers and gathered whatever was left behind, she was taking what the law said was rightfully hers. When Boaz instructed his workers to pull out some stalks from their bundles and leave them for her, he went over and above the law with an act of charity for the young widow.

1,400 years later, Jesus told the Parable of the Rich Fool—the rich man whose land produced so much that he couldn’t store all of his crops. Deciding to keep the excess for himself, he planned on tearing down his barns to build bigger ones, but he died that very night. The parable pointed out the fleeting nature of wealth and the man’s foolishness in providing for himself when he should have been making provision for his soul. Jesus’ audience, however, would have known the ancient agricultural laws and gotten even more from the story.

Unlike a tithe, God never specified how much of a field should be left uncut; it was a matter between the landowner and the Lord. A man’s generosity could be seen by the amount of field left for the gleaners. Jesus’ listeners probably suspected the man’s extreme wealth was because the uncut edges of his fields were measly (or non-existent), fallen fruit was picked up, or his olives and grapes were double harvested. Jesus’ audience would have thought the greedy landowner more than a fool; they would have thought him a thief who’d kept provisions for the poor to himself!

In a fallen world, there always will be people in need so what do these ancient laws mean to 21st century Christians? In his commentary on the laws of gleaning, 16th century Rabbi Moses Alshikh wrote the following as if it were God speaking: “You shouldn’t think that you are giving to the poor person from your own property, or that I have despised him by not giving bread to him as I have given to you. For he is also my child, just as you are, but his portion is in your produce.” Rather than the edges of our fields, our checkbooks indicate our priorities and, just as it was with the Israelites, that is a matter between us and God. As John Wesley said, the question is, “Not how much of my money will I give to God but how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?”

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, “Come in and eat with me”? No, he says, “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.” And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, “We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (NLT)]

swamp lilyWhen one of his congregation suddenly stopped coming to church, a pastor friend asked him about his absence. The man angrily explained that he’d stopped attending because the pastor hadn’t suitably (and publicly) recognized his large donation to the church’s building fund. My friend assured the miffed man that, had the money been given to the pastor for his personal use, he would have thanked him profusely. But, he added, the money hadn’t been given to him; it was given to God! While the church truly appreciated it (and had acknowledged it in his contribution statement), the issue of both the donation and any recognition or thanks really was between the donor and God. A similar experience was shared by a friend who is in charge of the care ministry for her church. One of her volunteers quit because she felt the church had failed to sufficiently appreciate and publicize her service.

To avoid such complaints, perhaps, along with official greeters, we need official “thankers” in our churches. Of course, if the church had members whose official job was to thank everyone for their service, who would they get to thank the thankers? I can see the makings of a Dr. Seuss book in which the last little Thankaroo, whose job is to thank you and you, after asking who’d thank him, gets in a snit and declares he’s through! Who will thank the last Thankaroo?

It’s only human to want to feel appreciated and acknowledged but, if we’re looking for recognition and honor from people, we’re bound to become disappointed and disillusioned. Let’s remember that we don’t serve mankind; we serve God. Our service does not put Him in our debt because we are saved by grace not works.

Jesus addressed this very issue in His parable about the master and the servant. At first His words seem somewhat harsh, but He wasn’t demeaning the work of a servant; He was emphasizing the correct servant attitude. Servants of Jesus are believers who willingly live under His authority. A good servant knows it’s an honor to serve, willingly does one task after another, and doesn’t expect thanks, praise, or recognition for doing his duty. His obedience to his master is not commendable; it is expected!

We serve God out of love, not out of expectation of public recognition or reward. We certainly should not feel self-righteous about anything we’ve done in His name because all we’ve done is what is expected of us!

As God’s servants, we serve inconspicuously, willingly, and joyfully. Humbly admitting we’ve done no more than is our duty, we don’t serve to get thanks but rather to give thanks to God for the blessings of this world. Not expecting to be singled out for praise by our fellow man, we are thankful to serve. Hearing the Lord say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant!” will be far better than any other recognition given to us in the here and now!

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. [Matthew 6:1-4 (NLT)

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What can we bring to the Lord? Should we bring him burnt offerings? … No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:6a,8 (NLT)]

In the Holy Place of the Tabernacle, there was a table on which the showbread was placed. Consisting of twelve loaves of unleavened bread stacked in two columns, it remained on the table for a week. When new loaves replaced it, the showbread was removed and eaten by the priests in the sanctuary. Because it was holy, no one other than a priest could eat it. Nevertheless, when David and his hungry men arrived in the town of Nob where the Tabernacle was located, Ahimelech the priest gave them the previous week’s showbread once he was assured the men were ceremonially clean. Having no other food for the famished men, the priest understood that feeding them was more essential than compliance with the ceremonial law. He knew the laws of compassion, mercy and love took precedence over ritual.

A thousand years later, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath when the hungry men picked some heads of grain and ate them. The Pharisees charged them with breaking the law, but not because they were picking grain in someone else’s field. It was perfectly permissible to do what they’d done any other day of the week but they’d done it on the Sabbath! Although harvesting grain was one of the thirty-nine categories of forbidden work on this day of rest, it’s not as if they were reaping sheaves of grain! Actually, the hungry men were doing no more work than someone feeding himself at a table. Moreover, Jewish tradition prohibited fasting on the Sabbath.

That subtle difference, however, was lost on the Pharisees who couldn’t see beyond the technicalities of the law. After Jesus reminded them of the story of David and the sacred loaves, He pointed out that they clearly didn’t understand God’s words in Micah about preferring mercy to sacrifices and that compassion was as important as the Law. Declaring Himself Lord over the Sabbath, Jesus then claimed authority over how the Sabbath was to be observed. To the Pharisees, however, His words were heresy.

Soon after, the Pharisees continued to exhibit their lack of mercy when they condemned Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. Jesus exposed their inconsistency by asking if they could save an animal on the Sabbath and then pointing out that a man was more valuable than a sheep. The laws of the Sabbath were never meant to release people from the need for mercy, whether to feed the hungry or relieve the misery of the afflicted.

Jesus regularly came into conflict with the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath but His issue wasn’t with the Sabbath; it was with the Pharisees. God didn’t create the Sabbath before making man! After creating humanity, God knew people would need a rest from the burden of work so He created the Sabbath for them. “The Sabbath,” Jesus explained, “was made to meet the needs of the people, and not the people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”

While this sacred day of rest and worship should have been viewed as a gift from God, by Jesus’ day, it had been complicated with an extensive list of restrictions (along with a variety of devious ways to skirt them). The Pharisees, however, had built their lives around rules and regulations and when Jesus questioned their authority, they called a meeting to plot His death. They didn’t understand that our God is a God of love not ritual, a God of people not regulations, a God who asks us to do is what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.

And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” [Mark 12:33 (NLT)]

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