A less “good” and more gracious Samaritan?
My sermon for Sunday, July 14, 2013, Church of the Good Shepherd, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Jesus tells a story so familiar that we tune out as soon as it begins. We call it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37), and the title alone lulls us to a conclusion. It’s all about being nice to others, right? After all, there are “Good Samaritan laws” in some places that require us to assist someone in distress, and protect us from lawsuits if our helping goes haywire. There are “Good Sam Club” bumper stickers on recreational vehicles, identifying members of a traveler’s aid group. Here where I live and I’m sure in many of your towns are health care places named for The Good Samaritan.
Doing good deeds for others is present in the story. I don’t want to deny that. So are breaking down our biases and avoiding uptight religious legalism. Those are three common and accurate applications one might preach from this parable.
I want to suggest a fourth and, I think, most important point. This story is less about what we “should do” and more about what we need to receive. It tells us that we are in great need and that God responds with the gift of Jesus.
Before we get into the story, let me show how the Gospel of Luke sets the stage for it.
If we turn back to Chapter 9, we’re brought into a profound focus on Jesus. He is “transfigured” on a mountain top, radiating a divine splendor that reveals him as more than just another important human being. After this, he “sets his face toward Jerusalem” and begins a journey that we now know leads to his death and resurrection to “new and unending life” (Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer A). This road trip isn’t just to impart some ethical insights – it’s a supernatural alteration of our reality.
As Chapter 10 begins, Jesus sends a bunch of his followers ahead to announce him in towns he’ll be visiting along the way (verses 1-12). He doesn’t send them to teach tidy lessons, but to perform powerful signs in his name and to say that with him, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
He follows that up with a warning (verses 13-16) that there will be epically bad news for those who reject the Good News about him, however nice they might otherwise be. “…do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).
His disciples come back from their advance work, fired up by the power they’ve wielded. (10:17-20). But Jesus tells them, “Don’t define yourselves by the history that you want to write about yourselves, but by the fact that I write your names in heaven.” Do-gooding isn’t what Jesus is preaching; he’s offering grace, unmerited and undeserved favor.
Next, we get a glimpse of Jesus in intimate prayer, the Son of God at one with the heavenly Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit (verses 21-24). The Holy Trinity rejoices in the gift of grace, “…no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” None of us merit God’s favor – it is offered as a gift.
Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Human achievements and status do not entitle anyone to meet the Savior of the world; his presence comes as an unexpected gift, to times, places and people he chooses.
All of these passages, making Jesus the focus and downplaying human do-gooding, lead us into the familiar story of The Good Samaritan (verses 25-37). Knowing what comes before, we can read it with refreshed eyes and hear it with opened ears:
An established authority on the Law of Moses engages Jesus in debate.
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” What shall I DO. He’s asking a question in the way most human beings begin. “If there’s a God out there, what good deeds will get me on his good side?”
Jesus tells the guy to try it his own way. “This Law you study, what’s it say about that?”
The man comes back with a good summary, “Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.”
“Right,” Jesus says, “enter into the love of God and you’re on your way to sharing God’s eternal life. It isn’t about keeping a scrupulous list of good deeds, it’s about who God is in every moment and forever.”
But the debater isn’t comfortable with that, even though it was an affirmation of his own answer. He wants to define goodness on his own terms. “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
He wants to JUSTIFY HIMSELF. God’s love is too vague; he wants a list of good works he can do to hold up like a diploma or credential.
And he wants the works to be the kind he can do on his own terms. “Who is my neighbor?” is a request for loopholes – “The good deeds I want to do, who’s entitled and who’s not? Help me define my own morality, Jesus.”
Instead, Jesus overturns the guy’s moral structure with a story.
There’s a traveler on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a stretch that affords lots of hiding places for robbers. This poor fellow gets jumped, robbed, beaten and left “half dead.” A couple of godly ministers pass by, but handling blood or a dead body will make them ritually unclean and unable to do their duties. So they won’t help. Along comes a Samaritan, no friend to “our people.” He’s one of those mixed race types who worships in a wrong headed cult. But he takes care of the half dead guy, gets him to safety and sees to his recovery.
Jesus uses this story to tell the debater, and all of us by extension, “You’re half dead.” Not beyond help, but lost if help doesn’t come. We’re like the traveler, wandering along and prey for thieves. And just who are thieves, according to Jesus? Any belief or practice that isn’t connected to him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep” (John 10:1-2). The thieves are all the falsehoods we get from the world, the flesh and the devil and we are “half dead” and getting worse under their control. They include our self-made morality of good deeds.
Then he uses the two passing religious figures to tell us that our rescue can’t come from belief systems that don’t know Jesus as the final sacrifice and the fulfillment of all morality on our behalf. Religion that doesn’t point to Jesus always becomes turned in on its own preservation as just another earthbound institution. When confronted for disrupting the routines of the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus said, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21). Jesus points to himself as the altar of sacrifice and the sacrifice itself, the “Lamb of God” who is offered to restore our relationship with God. It’s not what “I DO” and I can’t “JUSTIFY MYSELF.” I can inherit eternal life only because of the offering Jesus made for me.
Finally, Jesus says that our Savior is unexpected and alien. Jesus is the ultimate “mongrel,” fully divine and fully human; God’s gift to both Jew and Gentile. Just like the Samaritan in the story, he’s an unexpected and often rejected Savior. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Corinthians 1:22-25). Our preconceptions about “being good” get in the way of the Good News.
Jesus ends the story, and the debate, with a question. “Who in the story, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
His debate opponent, who speaks for all of us, really, says, “The one who showed him mercy.” That’s right. The victim didn’t pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Passing religion didn’t help him. Only the unexpected Savior brought the mercy that restored him to life. That’s what we need in order to “inherit eternal life;” not what we do, but what Jesus, our merciful neighbor who gives his body and blood – does for us.
Jesus moves gracefully from exposing the man’s false thinking to setting him on the new path of life. Jesus says, “You go, and do likewise.” That is, “You go, and share with others what I’ve just given to you. You can’t save them, but I can if you will represent me to those who are beaten down by all the spiritual robbers out there.” In another place, Jesus says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). We can’t save, but we can be set free to represent the mercy of God given to us in Jesus.
Jesus and his followers move on. Chapter 10 wraps up with a final example of how receiving the gift of Jesus replaces our striving for good deeds to earn God’s favor.
Jesus and his companions get a break from their long walk at the home of two generous sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha goes into a frenzy of hospitality, storming about with sweat on her brow to prepare a meal and comfort for the guests, while Mary stops working to listen to Jesus.
Martha is angered and tells Jesus to send Mary back to the good deeds.
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:41-42).
Our take-away from the Parable of The Good Samaritan, whatever other moral lessons it might impart, needs to be the “one necessary thing,” the unexpected Savior without whom we are dying. The Samaritan is the grace of God to a dying world, given in Jesus Christ.
To him, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, be eternal thanksgiving, praise and glory. Amen.
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