7.11.10 sermon notes
Mom’s surgery @ Good Samaritan hospital when I was in Junior High . . .
My entire growing-up life, Samaritan seemed like a synonym for nice person; a healer; a good-deed-doer. They were solid, lovely folks who got hospitals and non-profits named after them. And since this particular parable is one of the most popular and commonly-told inside and outside of the church, many of us simply think of it as a tale of compassion, generosity, and etiquette for travelers. Perhaps this is just a story to make us feel bad about walking past a homeless person or not putting more money in that red Salvation Army bucket at Christmas. But I don’t think so.
To be clear, helping others is important. And I don’t think Jesus would say otherwise. But I think Jesus is saying much MORE than that when he tells this parable. Notice, the story is in answer to a question from a lawyer (more accurately probably, one of the scribes, an expert in the interpretation of the Mosaic Law). The question is not, what are my obligations as a first responder at the scene of an accident? The question is “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus’ response (in the form of this parable) is more unsettling than we often acknowledge. Let’s look a bit closer at this story:
A man (presumably a Jew based on the larger narrative context) is going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Anyone hearing this story in this region during the first century would know immediately that this was a dangerous road. The Jericho road has twists and turns, and thieves were common. So no one would be surprised to hear that this poor man was jumped and beaten and robbed. And sadly, there might not have been too much shock to hear that a priest and a Levite saw him and passed by on the other side. After all, for centuries people have offered excuses for these two upstanding men. MLK in his last sermon offers some of the ways we try to explain the actions of these two.
He said: “Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” . . . That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. . . . In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” Ultimately, that is the difference between the actions of the priest and Levite and then the Samaritan. The first two were motivated by fear, and the third was motivated by love.
So the Samaritan comes along and goes above and beyond to offer help. Now again, we are so conditioned to expect good things from our “Good Samaritan”, we KNOW that he will do the right thing and act out of love. But for the lawyer, for the community hearing these Gospel accounts, there was nothing good about a Samaritan. The Samaritans were the enemies, the others. One scholar suggests an imaginative exercise to help us modern-readers experience the scandal of this parable: “We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, and then ask, ‘Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge that he or she offered help?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan” (A-J Levine). In this day and age of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, we could perhaps imagine the Samaritan as a member of Al-Qaeda helping us, after a local pastor and a clerk of Session passed right by us while we lay dying in the road.
This is why the good news of Jesus Christ is often called a scandalous gospel! The love of God is bigger than our prejudices and our established religious boundaries. God’s love pours out with such abundance that even a nasty old Samaritan is capable of sharing it with others. This is good news, but it is not easy news to swallow. Notice that the lawyer, even after this moving story, couldn’t bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” When Jesus asked him who was a neighbor to the injured man, the lawyer could only say “The one who showed him mercy.” This was a most unexpected and unwelcome hero for this audience to consider. This story was offensive to those who heard it, and we should not let that scandal be lost on us, simply because we have different prejudices from those of Jesus’ contemporaries. And we would do well to remember that most days, we resemble the priest and the Levite in this story more than the good Samaritan, letting fear rather than love rule our hearts and minds..
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church wrapped up its work yesterday morning. As I mentioned last Sunday, there were many significant issues on their agenda, and now, our presbyteries will work over the next 2 years to discuss and vote on the actions coming from this assembly. Most of the assembly was available by live streaming on the web, so I watched as much as I could throughout the week. As I watched the commissioners speak for and against some of the more controversial issues, I was struck by the language of fear that some used. “I am afraid people will leave the church.” “I am afraid we are moving too quickly on this.” “I am afraid of upsetting the way things have always been.” Fear can paralyze us. Sometimes, I fear that we are letting fear keep us from being the church. Sometimes the gospel IS uncomfortable and scary, but we should not let that hold us back from living it out faithfully with our brothers and sisters in Christ. . . . .
The parable of the Good Samaritan not only offers us a challenging definition of who our neighbors really are, it also offers us a challenging commission. Remember, the lawyer’s original question was about eternal life: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And if Jesus’ parable offers any insight into that question, I would say that eternal life is entirely linked to our journeys of faith right now, not in some distant heavenly future. As one scholar reminds us, “In this parable, the Samaritan does not pass by. He draws close, ‘moved by compassion,’ moved by the spirit of God poured into his heart to cross over to where the man lies [and help him] . . . This Samaritan has already received eternal life. He is living it then and there” (Wallace, Feasting).
Eternal life is not a reward for good deeds. Rather, kindness, love, compassion, justice flow from us when we live abundantly into the full vision God has for us. That is eternal life.
Eternal life is a life lived with the love of God so filling us that we can’t help but let it spill out to others, even in the face of danger. It is about letting love conquer our fears. “It is about walking dangerous roads and the transforming power of God that moves us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now” (Wallace, Feasting).
And like so much of the good news of Jesus Christ, this text does not invite us to sit and ponder and believe. Jesus tells the lawyer, tells his hearers, tells you and me, to GO and DO! The good news of Jesus Christ stretches us beyond our comfort zones, out of fear and into dangerous lives of discipleship. Lives where our neighbor is someone we are supposed to despise. Where love and healing are more powerful than distrust and division. Where fear no longer holds power over us, and we live boldly and faithfully and abundantly into God’s vision for us. May it be so for you; may it be so for this church, and may it be so for our denomination, as we seek to serve Christ with joy, knowing that our God journeys with us. Amen.