The well-known comedian W.C. Fields was also a well-known atheist who really had no time for talk of God or religion. And yet the story is told about Fields that, shortly before he died, a friend visited him in the hospital and was surprised to find him reading the Bible. According to the story, the friend asked Fields, “What are you doing?” Fields’ reply was: “Looking for loopholes.” Who knows if the story is true? And if it is true, who knows if Fields was serious, or if he was just playing for the laugh. But we understand W.C. Fields’ comment: we all might wish for loopholes in the Bible when we consider how well we’re doing at living the way the Bible tells us we should live.
It’s human nature to look for loopholes. Defense lawyers do it to make things easy on their clients. Accountants do it to ensure their clients pay as little in taxes as possible. People in just about every profession look for ways to do their work with as little cost to themselves as possible. It’s natural for us to seek the easiest path, or the one that is most convenient, or the one the benefits us the most.
And the question of loopholes seems to be what’s on the mind of the lawyer who’s talking to Jesus in today’s lesson from St. Luke’s Gospel. Now when you hear lawyer, don’t necessarily think about someone trying a case before a judge in court. Think instead in terms of a lawyer being a legal expert. And remember that the laws on which this man is an expert are the Jewish religious laws of Jesus’ day. So, the lawyer – i.e. the religious legal expert – wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Some people have read this passage and decided that this man wasn’t sincerely posing a theological question – that he was just trying to trip Jesus up, trying to get Jesus to commit some sort of heresy. And maybe he was. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that the lawyer’s question is sincere. After all, it is one of the primary questions that all human beings struggle with – What happens after I die? And how do I obtain eternal life? That’s the question that the lawyer asks Jesus. And Jesus, teacher that he is, turns the question back to the lawyer: “You’re the expert on the law. What does the law say?” And the lawyer answers well. He quotes from Deuteronomy 6: “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 he quotes Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, “Bingo! Now go do it!” But the lawyer pushes the issue: “But Jesus, who is my neighbor?” Here’s where I think he’s looking for the loophole. I suspect he was hoping that Jesus would say that his neighbors were his Jewish brothers and sisters. You know, people who looked like him and thought like him and acted like him. Because then he could keep the law – technically loving his neighbor – without it really stretching him beyond his comfort zone. That’s the loophole he’s looking for: How do I obey the law just enough to get into heaven, but not enough to cause me any undue stress? That’s the problem with loopholes. They make us think we can obey the letter of the law without honoring the spirit of the law. And while obeying the letter of the law may work with the tax code or the legal system, it just doesn’t cut it with God.
So Jesus closes the loophole. He closes the loophole about the technical question “Who is my neighbor?” by telling a story: the story of the Good Samaritan. Guy gets beat up and left for dead. Two people that you would expect to stop to help don’t. The third that you wouldn’t expect to stop does. And he doesn’t just stop. He doesn’t just offer as little as he can get away with. He spends considerable time and takes great care and offers generously of his own resources – even promising more if more is needed. After telling the story, Jesus throws the question, “Who is my neighbor?” back to the lawyer, who can’t wiggle out of it now: the neighbor is the one who showed mercy. The neighbor is the one who obeyed the spirit of the law of love. And the spirit of the law of love is that we are commanded to love everyone who needs our help, everyone: whether it’s convenient for us or not, whether it makes sense for us or not, whether we know them or not, whether we sympathize with them or not, whether we even like them or not. There is no love loophole. The command to love is absolute.
And that’s – well – a little daunting, no? But that’s when we remember that God’s love for us is also absolute. Just as there are no love loopholes for us, there are no love loopholes for God either. Even though there are probably plenty of times when God looks down at us and thinks, “Do I even know this person? She isn’t acting in the way I taught her. He isn’t behaving like my child;” even though there are times, surely, when God cannot sympathize with our predicament; even though there are times when, it pains me to say it, God doesn’t like us; never does God try to get out of loving us. Jesus didn’t just die for people who look like us. Jesus didn’t just die for people who act like us. Jesus didn’t just die for people who share our values. Jesus died for all. Period. Full stop. And in so doing, he closed the loophole that might have allowed God to pick and choose which children to love and which children to save. God’s love and salvation are absolute. I thank God that there are no love loopholes.