A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 3, 2023 at Holy Communion
“The lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said, ‘And who is my neighbour?’” (Luke 10:29). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
“Quiet quitting” is making waves in the business world right now. There are places on the internet where you can find videos of young professionals teaching their peers how to quietly ignore their bosses, how to disregard all the ways that employers will ask you to “go above and beyond” and do work that you’re not specifically paid for, or how to get away with making large demands such as, for example, the right to work remotely from European resort towns.
One commentator pointed out that, although the name may be new, the problem is not. This same attitude used to be called “phoning it in.” Do the bare minimum, just enough so that it’s not worth it for your boss to fire you, and enjoy the benefits of an easy pace.
Perhaps it goes without saying that these people don’t seem to enjoy their jobs. They must spend more time stressed about their bosses than any of their peers who just enjoy their work and give it just a little bit more, not out of obligation but out of cheerfulness.
In our Gospel reading, we meet a young professional—a lawyer—and he thinks that God is his boss. He has entered a work relationship with God because he thinks that he can offer God a service which God will reward with his typical form of payment: eternal life. His question for Jesus is the very natural one for an employee: “What must I do to get paid?”
Jesus responds, “Surely you’ve read the handbook! What does the Law say that you have to do to earn eternal life?” The lawyer answers says that the law is to love God and love one’s neighbour. “That’s right,” says Jesus. “Do this, and you will live.” This is where the lawyer needs something more; he asks, “And who is my neighbour?” You see what’s going on here. The implication is that, if only Jesus would identify who counts as his neighbour, he can go and show love to that person, earn eternal life, congratulate himself for having accomplished his duty to God, get paid, and take it easy.
The lawyer seems pious, even scrupulous, but really he’s phoning it in. His understands the law of God as a contract: God makes reasonable and limited demands, we fulfill them, and God rewards us. Going above and beyond makes no sense.
But Jesus doesn’t give a straightforward answer; he tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Besides the traveller in trouble, his story has three characters. Two of them have the same attitude as the lawyer. A priest and a deacon see the man lying wounded by the roadside, and they wonder to themselves, “Does God oblige me to help in this situation?” They decide, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t know who this man is or how he ended up in trouble. I feel sorry for the guy, but no one can possibly think that it’s my job to take care of him.” So they pass by.
The third character is different. He is a Samaritan, a non-Jew. He is a person who is outside the ritual Law, someone who is not in a contract with God, and has no obligations to God of any kind. But he also has a spirit of generosity which the priest and the deacon do not have. He not only helps the wounded man, but goes so far above and beyond that he has been known down the ages as the “Good” Samaritan, the very pattern of charity and compassion.
Jesus’ question for the lawyer is simple: which of these characters acted like a neighbour? And the answer is equally obvious: it can only be “the one who showed mercy.”
And this answer explodes the lawyer’s idea of what it means to fulfill the law. If the most important part of the law is to love God and one’s neighbour, and loving one’s neighbour means imitating the Samaritan’s totally excessive display of merciful generosity, every notion of meeting God’s minimum requirements goes out the window! God has no minimum requirements.
But what is the alternative? God did give a law, he did command us to love our neighbour; how are we supposed to live up to that demand? The answer is that we have to stop understanding God’s commands as a demand, and start understanding them as a description of the shape of a good heart. God’s concern is not with how effectively we can discharge our duties towards our neighbours, but whether we love them. Love serves the neighbour; self-justification ignores the neighbour as “not our problem.” Love gives life; self-justification kills.
This is, in fact, what we heard last week in our Epistle: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). In our Collect today, we acknowledged that it only comes from God if we are able to offer him “true and praiseworthy service.” The service God demands of us is not service according to the letter, the meeting of minimum demands, but service according to the Spirit, which turning to God to receive a renewed heart which overflows with generosity. We look forward to eternal life not as a reward for our labour but as a “heavenly promise” from the generous God whose Spirit we share. And this “promise” was the theme of our Lesson and Epistle.
If your spiritual life feels like a burden, you might be struggling because you think that God is your boss, and that Christian life is about trying to live up to expectations. This a road of frustration and disappointment. I understand how difficult feeling that burden can be. Christian life has many things in it which can quickly begin to seem like obligations if we are not careful. Weekly church attendance, daily Bible reading, daily prayer, church events, community events, volunteering, committees: it can build up. I have known some people who are involved in church on “boom” and “bust” cycles: getting more and more involved until it becomes too much and then they quit entirely, often even leaving the church and, for all practical purposes, leaving the faith behind. I wouldn’t want to see that happen to anyone.
So what’s the solution? Ultimately, the answer is not to take on less spiritual activity, nor is it to double-down and take on more. What is needed is a shift in the conversation. We need to stop asking ourselves, “Have I done enough? Have I done enough for the church? Have I done enough for my own spiritual enrichment?” Instead, ask questions like these: “Am I giving and receiving life? Am I growing from my spiritual practices? Do they give me joy? How can I show my neighbours and friends that I love them? How can I express my love for God?” Or even more simply, “Do I, in fact, love God, or do I just feel dutiful toward him?”
If the answer to that last question is “Yes,” then you need to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, who will teach you to give and receive with joyfulness. That Spirit will be sent down on the bread and wine we offer, coming among us to renew our minds with love for God.