Preached at Oakwood United Methodist Church on January 17, 2016
A newer sermon on this text is here.
Here’s the set up to today’s gospel reading, from the earlier verses of Luke 10. Keep this in the back of your mind as we move forward into the reading. What has just happened was the sending of the 72, two by two, into the villages and towns where Jesus plans to go next. These disciples are the advance team, and their mission is successful.
The 72 have just returned, and Jesus has prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit – that’s an interesting detail we won’t explore today – and has blessed these disciples. Everyone’s feeling pretty good about what has just happened. If this were a television show, the commercial break would come right about here.
Luke sets off today’s famous story with one of his signature introductions: “And behold.” Luke acknowledges what has just happened, and connects it to this story with “and.” But there’s that “behold” to show us that we are about to hear something new.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”27 And he answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.”28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” – Luke 10:25-37 (ESV)
The lawyer who steps up to question Jesus only asks two questions. The first is a test, and if the lawyer were a Presbyterian, as I used to be, that question would sound more like “What is the chief purpose of humankind?” But Jesus doesn’t respond with “to love God and enjoy him forever.” The lawyer’s question isn’t as simple as our modern translations make it seem. “Teacher, I will inherit life eternal having done or fulfilled or acquired … what, exactly?” might be a more literal translation of this question.
As he so often does, Jesus identifies a teachable moment, and answers the question with –you guessed it – another question. Actually, two – and this is important. Jesus wants to know “What is in the law? You’re a lawyer, you know the scriptures; you already have your answer. You tell me what it says.”
But then Jesus immediately follows this question with a much more personal one – “How do you read it?” At once we realize that Jesus does not see the Law as a dead and stagnant set of words that mean the same thing to everyone. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and how we read it determines how we will respond to God’s message.
The lawyer doesn’t hesitate, but begins by quoting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
Here’s a little grammar lesson for you. We think of this as a command, but the verb is not an imperative. It’s more of an indication that something will surely happen in the future. You are going to love the Lord your God, because the Lord is the only God there is.
The lawyer adds part of a verse from Leviticus (19:18b), and this blending of two verses gives us what we now call “the Great Commandment.”
Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it. Go do it. But just as Jesus turns back to his friends, who are still celebrating their successful mission trip, the lawyer adds a new question, and this isn’t a test, it’s an attempt to justify himself. This guy who was challenging Jesus a moment ago suddenly feels the need to get his approval, so he asks, “Yes, but … who is my neighbor?”
I can imagine the others getting quiet as Jesus looks at the lawyer. They have a hunch they know what Jesus is going to do. I imagine Jesus pausing a moment, considering the best way to teach this lawyer about the high cost of discipleship. He decides to take on this expert in the law, and everyone else settles in to listen. They know that a story is coming.
Jesus sets the scene. It’s the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. About a year ago, my husband and I were on that road. We stopped at a Bedouin camp to get a good view of what is commonly called The Valley of the Shadow of Death.
When we were there last January, it was the rainy season, so there was a bit of green showing here and there, but when we looked out across the Valley toward Jerusalem, it was hard to imagine anyone walking through this wilderness.
That’s Jerusalem off in the distance, on the very rim of the horizon.
And when we turned and looked down the valley in the other direction, we could almost make out Jericho.
In between is treacherous wilderness, and the distance was too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. This made travelers vulnerable to the robbers and nomads who spent their lives scrabbling out an existence in this wasteland.
The place where our bus stopped was actually a Bedouin camp. At first, we thought it had been abandoned, but the tour guide assured us that it was not.
The guide also warned us to take valuables with us when we got off the bus, and keep them close. We were also encouraged to not buy anything or try to bargain with these Bedouins. And whatever we did, when the children asked us for candy, even if we had some, we should refuse. It might be a ruse to get us to open our bags or pockets – something you should never do in front of a Bedouin child. You also should not let them catch you taking their pictures.
Sure enough, as soon as the bus stopped, here they came.
I was careful to wait until the children weren’t looking to take a snapshot.
This charming little guy had a backpack full of trinkets he was trying to sell us. Everything was “one dollar.” When we declined, he held out his hand and asked “Candy? Gum?” From salesman to beggar in the blink of an eye.
As I tried to imagine someone walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, it wasn’t difficult for me to think that maybe these Bedouin children were somehow connected to the robbers in Jesus’ story. Clearly, they were not a real threat to us. We were in no danger of being stripped and left to die on the side of the road. But if this was the road Jesus and his listeners were imagining as he told the story, I could see why you wouldn’t have wanted to travel it alone.
Whenever Jesus tells a parable, he invites us into the story. There is almost always one character or another with whom we identify. Quite often, there’s a twist somewhere in the story that surprises us. It tells us we’ve been identifying with the wrong character all along, if we really want to be followers of Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan is no exception.
The first two people who accidentally happen by are a priest and a Levite. They both hurry over to the other side of the road. They probably wanted to avoid contamination – touching this man, who looked like he might be dead, would make them ritually unclean.
But if you were the man lying in the ditch, who better to come along than someone whose life is dedicated to God? At the very least, you would expect no further harm to come to you. Yet, neither of these men stop to help.
It is the third traveler who is moved to compassion. Finally, someone who can do something! He gets down off his camel or donkey, cleans the man’s wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up and puts the man on the camel – or donkey. But there’s a catch. This kind person, whose care has saved a life, is – a Samaritan. The very last person on earth you would want taking care of you. The Enemy.
We tend to want to identify with the hero in the story. The disciples and the lawyer who heard Jesus tell this parable might have had a hard time figuring out who the hero was. You’d think it would be the priest or the Levite, and it might be easy to justify their failure to help by remembering they were just trying to stay clean. We’d all like to identify with the person who does the right thing, but he turns out to be a Samaritan – just about the worst possible ethnic group any of the disciples could imagine.
The difference between the Samaritan and the first two holy men who happened along that road between Jerusalem and Jericho wasn’t a matter of eyesight. All three of them saw the man lying in the ditch. The difference is what they did when they saw him. The first two made a beeline for the opposite side of the road. Only the Samaritan saw the man and had compassion.
And Jesus says, “Go be like the Samaritan.” Go be like the person you snub. Go be like the person you think you’re too good to be around.
A few days after we returned from the Holy Land, one of those people we snub, a person we think we’re too good to be around, died in my driveway. My husband found him lying in front of our garage door without a shirt, ankles crossed, eyes staring at the sky. We spent the day wondering about this man. What circumstances had put him in our driveway on one of the coldest nights of the year, without a shirt?
Across the street, we could see children playing on the school playground while, behind our house, the police worked to discover what had happened to this man. We didn’t know his name then. We learned it later, and the newspaper identified him as homeless. The stark contrast between children playing across the street and a man dying unattended in my driveway gave me a new sense of urgency to do something about the homeless people who move unseen here in New Ulm, particularly those who are most vulnerable, the children. Which of those children playing, I wondered, might end up like this man someday, if we don’t do something? If we don’t see and have compassion, as the Samaritan did?
We know that homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. We also know that children born to single mothers are among the most likely to suffer from poverty. When these families become homeless, they have very few resources available to help them turn their lives around and get back on their feet.
That’s why the Ministerial Association has been working to establish NUMAS Haus for homeless single mother families. We want to do more than just give them a place to sleep for a few nights. We want to help them turn their lives around. You can learn more about the programs and services we plan to offer at the NUMAS Haus website.
I am grateful to serve in a congregation that is willing to partner with other churches to fulfill this God-sized vision. As the project moves forward and dreams become reality, I urge you to think about who your next neighbor might be. Who needs our compassion? Who hungers to know the love of God and the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? And who among us is ready to be like the Samaritan, willing to identify with the outcast for the sake of serving Jesus? As we pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, will we see and cross over to the other side of the road, or will we see and be consumed by gut-wrenching compassion for any and all whose need lies before us?
When Jesus finished his story, he asked the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
He says the same to each of us. You go, and do likewise. Amen.