Dec 20, 2005

Sermon Title: "Real Expertise"

Natalie L. Gessert
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Second Place December 2005 Round

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The writer of Luke knew how important the expert of the law was, and others probably knew of this expert’s importance as well. He was important enough to simply be called by his title: Expert. Like being called simply ‘Doctor’ or ‘Reverend.’ The name alone tells others “this guy has what it takes.”

He woke up early every morning and after a jog, he shaved, and put on a sharp looking suit. As soon as he entered the office his secretaries followed him around trying to keep him up-to-date. Mostly he just liked knowing that he was important enough to be followed around – the info was already in his Outlook folder anyway. His days included poring over books and ledgers, skimming legal journals and drafting appointment papers. Being important was tough work. He had to know the right people, dine them with finesse, and bring in major contributors. This was the real Apprentice. He needed important people, and important people needed him.

So it wasn’t surprising that the expert in the law would like to talk to Jesus, given the chance. Jesus was important. Sure, Jesus was no Caesar, and not even an official; however, there was buzz around him and so of course the expert would like a little face time. What if Jesus became bigger and better? The expert knew how important networking was; better to build bridges early, than not have any bridge at all. For experts, networking is a key talent to develop leads and keep business running. Networking keeps you ahead in the dog-eat-dog world, because you never know when you might need to call in a favor.

Like anyone seasoned at networking, the expert wanted to build some common ground. Jesus certainly had a corner on the market of social curiosity - he had been drawing crowds since he was twelve years old (Lk 2:41-51). Luke tells us many times about Jesus teaching his disciples and responding to public questions of the law – questions of fasting, forgiveness, and Sabbath practices. To grab Jesus’ attention he asked a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This was not just the average Pharisee’s question. He was asking Jesus on the professional plane, man to man, expert to expert. The expert needed to know what Jesus was made of.

Jesus knew exactly what was going on. Jesus asked right back, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The expert in the law of course knew the right answer. What was this? A multiple choice taken from Law 101? Was Jesus questioning his know-how? The expert played along: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” But the expert in the law did not like Jesus’ response. Jesus only said, “you’re right… good job… do this and you will live.”

The expert in the law was aware that his authority was being played with. Obviously Jesus did not realize what an important man he was, how much expertise and respect he touted. Life was not about multiple choice tests with one right answer. It was about gritting your teeth, having a plan B and C, and knowing how to manage the little people. The expert in the law wanted to justify himself. Jesus was important and so Jesus ought to be clear on who the expert was. So in an effort to woo Jesus a second time, he took care to ask a more open-ended question: And who is my neighbor?

Jesus seemed to take the bait. The expert in the law sat back, pleased with himself. He was finally receiving the face time and the answer that he deserved:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to
an inn and took care of him.
35The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”

(Lk 10:30-35)

Jesus ended with a question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

“Oh good, a real conversation starter,” thought the expert. Maybe this will lead to a business lunch? After a carefully orchestrated two minute pause, the expert in the law responded: “The one who had mercy on him.” Of course that was the objective answer. It seemed to be a little unexpected because a Samaritan – an undesirable – had been involved. But no matter. You couldn’t accuse him of doing something wrong for helping out. The expert waited for Jesus to come back with something interesting; something about the Law or the real responsibilities of the Levite or the priest. They were the only important characters really, in the networking scheme of things. But this was a legal discussion with all the twists and turns of a good legal case, and so the expert waited.

Jesus replied: “Go and do likewise.”

A personal hit. A blow below the belt. Who did this Jesus think that he was? First a teacher of the law himself and now bursting into somebody’s personal life like a therapist? When did this conversation leave legal methods? When did it become personal?

What the expert in the law was concerned about was what Jesus didn’t say. Jesus didn’t engage him. He didn’t invite him out for cocktails to discuss it more. But what was even more troubling for the expert, was Jesus’ legal judgment:

Jesus didn’t respond with: “Well, this was obviously a legal question of morality. Moral questions are always difficult to work with and one ought to look to previous litigations to decide on a case-by-base basis.”

He also didn’t say: “Mercy is one thing, but the law is the law. The Levite and priest were doing what was required and the Samaritan was too, given each one’s social situation under Mosaic Law.”

The expert in the law was put in a legal bind. He couldn’t make a decision based on the status of that man laying there in the road. He believed that social niceness and decisions about who to help and who not to comes from social rules and upward mobility. He was thinking in the same way as the priest and the Levite: surely there is some way to justify not helping out! The Levite could not touch a man potentially dead. He could lose his job and status if he did. The Priest could not be late for his Jerusalem meeting at the temple before the afternoon session. The expert in the law had no legal recourse and was thrown into a battery of ‘what if’ scenarios. What if I had an appointment to make… what if I had my best clothes on… what if someone saw me…?

But this man lying in the road did not even have a name. There is no comment written about which direction he was going; No identifying marks to be found. And that is the point.

The expert in the law skews what he had most likely read from Scripture out of the Deuteronomy text:

8 You will again obey the LORD and follow all his commands I am giving you today. 9 Then the LORD your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, 10 if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Dt 30:8-10)

The expert in the law knew that he had been taught in the great legal tradition of his father and generations past. The expert had made it his career to know the law and follow after it with vigor. He knew creative ways to interpret the texts and their applications. If anyone had any question about the ways and means of living, he was the man to ask. The expert in the law would have known not only the actual words of the law, but also the tradition in which the law was practiced, past legal circumstances, and outcomes. He had read the Deuteronomy text which had promised prosperity:

IF you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of Law… 15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

(Dt 30:10, 15-16)

He was the product of a strict upbringing with a liberal arts education. The expert in the law knew how to use his knowledge and prowess to win friends and influence people. He was important and had the promises of prosperity behind him.

And who else do you know that lived according to this same lifestyle? Who else followed the law with zeal, knew how to influence, network, and was called on to make life-and-death decisions? Saul who became Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God (Col 1:1). Paul boldly told his story to the church at Galatia, explaining:

13For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

(Gal 1:13-14)

Paul knew what was going on in the legal world and like a true peddler of his trade, made himself widely known. He had his degree, networked efficiently and had climbed the ladder all the way up to having authority over matters of life and death, such as giving approval in the stoning of Stephen and mobilizing a task force against Christianity (Acts 8).

But despite his beginnings, there was something more for Paul and his future. God had something else in mind. If we skip everything between Paul’s run-in with Stephen
and land at his letter to the Colossians, we hear Paul speaking differently to his community.

3We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints… 9For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.

(Col 1:3-4, 9)

What happened to Paul, that he had willingly given up his promising career path? What happened to Paul, that he was giving thanks for the Colossians not out of some networking strategy or social nicety, but out of genuine love and concern? Paul’s new title earned him no points. Being an ‘apostle’ in the name of Christianity is more of a social point-reducer, considering that Christianity had been “out” from the start. But instead something in Paul had died. It died on his way to Damascus when the risen Jesus came roaring into Paul’s life as more than an irritating social problem. Jesus came calling Paul from his old life into a new one. As the scales fell from Paul’s eyes (Acts 9:17-19), Paul received something far different than titles such as “Return to the Simple Things,” or “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.”

Paul received faith. Paul received faith that directed him into a new life, where kindness and acts of beauty and praying and giving himself was done through him by God Himself – and God is not random in His will. Paul’s right hand indeed did not know what his left hand was doing, but God certainly did. Paul’s previous legal career had been re-chartered by God, making way for something new.

You see the expert in the law, Paul, and you and I, without Christ, naturally skew what is heard from the Deuteronomy text. You read that God will make us prosper if you perform, act, think, and feel the “right way.” Life in that legal form turns into a self-help project. Or worse yet, a treasure hunt with God’s favor as the prize. So you seek out those things that might make you more desirable to God and life becomes a tragic play of fear and loathing. You are afraid that a business deal might not close, that you didn’t have a good enough conversation with the company president and the big promotion is looking dim. You are afraid that your clothes don’t have the right labels, and your resume doesn’t have enough stars, or your grades were not high enough. And the fear whispers:

I don’t know enough about fine wines – what if I order the wrong one at the business lunch?

Oh no! Everyone else wore black and I wore grey! Maybe I didn’t get the memo!

I hope no one knows about the anti-depressants I take – I would just die if anyone knew.

Fears dictate how humans interpret the law. The law can be twisted and questioned and provoked to get the outcome that makes you feel better. But the law, when given the authority to dictate how you define and react to your neighbor gives you nothing long lasting or satisfying. It kills, in an agonizing and slow death involving stress, distrust, depression, fear, backstabbing, and manipulation. These are the rags of beggars who are poor in spirit, begging for importance and wealth. The law breaks your back while you suffer yourself to climb the heights of prestige, knowing that the rules tell you that certain people are better than others, upward mobility is important, think harder, do better, work harder… and on, and on.

And there is more. When these questions haunt you, you begin to seek out ways to either justify your mistakes or pay vengeance to those who exposed you. The Psalmist knows about revenge too:

22 May the table set before them become a snare;
may it become retribution and
a] a trap.

23 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.

24 Pour out your wrath on them;
let your fierce anger overtake them.

25 May their place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in their tents.

27 Charge them with crime upon crime;
do not let them share in your salvation.

28 May they be blotted out of the book of life
and not be listed with the righteous.

When you listen closely to the entire text (Psalm 69:14-37), you will hear not only statements of revenge, but a sad story of how the Psalmist was scorned, disgraced, and shamed; terribly hurt by those around him, physically and emotionally. The Psalmist felt out of control and so he appealed to the only One who could possibly put the control back into his hands. His list of retribution shows his frustration and hurt, ending in his own power play with God. He ticks off another list, trying to remind God that He had promised to hear him and to do something about it. The Psalmist even tells God that he will “praise God’s name in song and glorify him with Thanksgiving” – that is, if God will grant him his wish of payback.

But Jesus came to put a stop to that for you. Jesus has come to tell you that this fear and trembling has gone on long enough. Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to hand out a triple Gospel message; a message that brings you into the story of each character.

Jesus told the expert in the law “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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ …do this and you will live.” The message of life is found in faith in Jesus Christ alone. Looking to the Samaritan, Jesus told the expert in the law, “Go and do likewise.” This is a message of grace to a strict-law abider like the expert – and like you. Jesus is not commanding another thing to add to your to-do list. “Go and do likewise” may sound like just another commandment, one to manipulate and seek out hidden meanings therein. But Jesus doesn’t play games with your heart. He is not trying to win you over to close a deal or test your ability to work under pressure. Instead Jesus guides your eyes to the nameless, classless man on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. You are given the same freedom that the Good Samaritan acted on when helping the bruised and bloodied man on the side of the road. Unlike the Levite or the priest who were worried about what God or others thought about touching such a man, like the Samaritan you are given the freedom to know that your help does not come from networking or bullying, buying and selling your way into God’s heart. Jesus Christ has freed you from viewing others or God as an object to be won. Jesus Christ has given you unconditional mercy.

God also has come in Jesus Christ to tell you that even while you were the one beaten and bloodied, cast off to the side and forgotten, He has sent someone to bandage your wounds and care for your well-being. God knows that in this world you are trespassed against even as you have trespassed against others. God is well aware that you failed many times and felt the crushing judgment of others upon you. And after all of that, there is good news for you. God cares. God has sent His only Son Jesus Christ to carry you through your pain and hurt. He has sent friends and family to you, sometimes even strangers as the Samaritan, to bandage and care. Even in the times that you did not know how to ask for help, or could not ask, God cares enough to do something about it. It might not be the expected way, it might not be conventional, but God comes and will continue coming to you as your days continue. You are His child and through Jesus Christ, God has given you unconditional love.

Jesus gives you a charter of freedom. He took on your fear and trembling and anxiety and failed attempts onto Himself on the cross, where He Himself was bruised and bloodied and cast on the side of the road. You no longer have to suffer the consequences of God’s judgment for your failure. Jesus says to come to Him because in Him there is rest. He has already networked out your place in the world. He has given you favor in the eyes of God so that you will certainly have eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven with Him forever. You are free to work, play, and love right alongside your companions on this earth. God’s judgment has passed over you and you are free.

This makes you a new kind of expert: an expert in the Gospel. You have all you need in abundance – so much that it overflows out of you. Go and give this Word of abundance to your neighbor. Take joy in your freedom by giving this same gift you have received to others! Bandage the wounds of your friends, love your family with zeal, and feed the poor! The Word of God is real expertise in the business of freedom and loving and living. You are now an expert in the Gospel. Go in peace, serve the Lord. Real peace.