A leg to stand on | A leg to stand on

“A Leg to Stand On.” A sermon given by Roberta Berke on 14th July 2013, Trinity 7, on Luke 10.25.

What if someone said to you, “I’ll join your faith if you can tell me everything I have to do to get into heaven while you’re standing on one leg.” How would you reply? (Please don’t try this right now.) This was the question put to Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who lived just before 10 AD. He didn’t attempt to recite all the 613 Jewish laws, while he stood on one leg. Instead he was concise. “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbour.” Then he added a sting in the tail, “The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”[1] This type of question was frequently asked of rabbis and teachers, so it’s no surprise that Jesus was also asked to summarise the essentials of faith.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is asked by a lawyer, a scholar in religious law, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus throws the question back at him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”[2] The lawyer gives the orthodox reply, “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 neighbour as yourself.”[3] The lawyer quoted from the Shema, the main Jewish confession of faith. Its words are taken from Deuteronomy and from Leviticus. Today in observant Jewish houses, on the right hand side of the doorposts, there is a small metal container holding a tiny scroll with these words. This is a reminder of faith every time anyone enters or leaves the house.

Jesus approves the lawyer’s conventional answer to his own question, which was not really a question, since both of them knew the answer. Jesus was often asked similar questions, such as, “What is the greatest commandment?”[4]. Sometimes the persons asking were sincere, genuine seekers after the truth. Other times the questioners were hostile, trying to trap Jesus into saying something that was blasphemous or seditious. Then the questioner could report Jesus to the authorities for punishment.

The lawyer’s next question is aggressive, and reinforces the hostility of his earlier question. “And who is my neighbour?”[5] The entire passage in Leviticus, a line of which was quoted in the lawyer’s conventional answer, says: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”[6] Note that here “neighbour” refers to “your people”, that is, fellow Jews. So when the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbour?”[7], both he and Jesus knew that the conventional meaning of the word “neighbour” was a fellow Jew. Jesus’ reply was the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans had broken away from mainstream Judaism and established a rival temple with different ways of worship. So despised were the Samaritans, that the lawyer can’t even bring himself to speak the word, “Samaritan”. He can only say, “the one who showed him mercy.”[8] This story, so familiar to us, would have shocked Jesus’ listeners by including non – Jews as neighbours, who are worthy of love. In this parable, Jesus abolished the narrow definition of neighbour as a fellow Jew and opened out its meaning to all humanity.

This lawyer was hostile, asking a trick question, trying to trap Jesus into heresy. But elsewhere in the gospels, genuine seekers after truth ask Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life? “What is the greatest commandment?[9]” And today, people are also asking questions, such as, “what actions lead to a good life?” “How can I gain peace and happiness?” One common reply is, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the so-called Golden Rule, which is found in many cultures. Today, people say, “What goes around, comes around.” They use the word karma in a casual sense. If you do bad things to other people, sooner or later, bad things will happen to you. If you do good things to other people, you will be rewarded, eventually. In this way of thinking, the motive is self-interest.

How is Christianity different from the simple Golden Rule? The reply is in Jesus’ parable of the man attacked by robbers. The priest and Levite who passed by the injured man were not necessarily callous and indifferent. The unconscious man lying by the side of the road was “half dead”. They could not know if he was alive, and so could be helped, unless they touched him, thereby risking ritual pollution. Then they would not have been able to perform their temple duties, and they would have caused a last-minute rush to find substitutes. Their priorities were wrong, but their motives were understandable. The Samaritan not only helped the wounded man, but he did far more than was necessary. He not only bandaged the man’s wounds, he poured oil and wine on them, and put him on his own animal. When he left, he told the innkeeper, “I will pay whatever more you spend.”[10] The Samaritan showed excessive generosity beyond the minimum of common decency. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[11]

The Samaritan’s excessive generosity reflects the excessive generosity of God. God is like the father of the prodigal son. He not only welcomed home his wastrel son, but he also gave a feast to celebrate his lost son’s return. Jesus is always calling on us to do more than the simple self-interest of the golden rule. A rich young man asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”[12] He told the rich young man to sell all he had and follow him. This was too much of a sacrifice for the young man who was too attached to his wealth.

Jesus is always calling us to do more than the minimum. Jesus asks us to go the second mile. Two people who have gone many miles further than the second mile are Drew and Katja. They have not only gone the extra distance, they given a prime year of their young lives to serving us here at St. Mary’s. Drew has compared his past year here to a journey through the wilderness, relying on trust in God. Katja has also spoken of her need to trust God, while working in a foreign city. It’s appropriate that her role in a rugby team is a winger, one who runs fast on the outside, away from the scrum, to reach the goal. Their examples of trust and service are an inspiration to us all, and we will miss them very much.

Can any of us express the essentials of Christian faith while standing on one leg? Reciting the entire Creed would probably cause most of us to wobble and fall over. But the essence of Christianity is not in words but in actions that reflect the excessive generosity of God. Jesus tells us, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”[13] AMEN.


[1] Babylonian Talmud Sabbat 31a quoted in: Brown, R.E., et al. eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (London: Chapman 1997) p622

[2] Luke 10.26

[3] Luke 10.27

[4] Mark 12.28-34; Matthew 22.34-40

[5] Luke 10.29

[6] Leviticus 19.18

[7] Luke 10.29

[8] Luke 10.37

[9] Mark 12.28-34; Matthew 22.34-40

[10] Luke 10.35

[11] Matthew 5.20

[12] Mark 10.17-22

[13] Luke 8.21