Today’s text is from Luke 10:25-37 and is known as the story of the Good Samaritan. But the context is (as always) very important to understanding this story, so as I read it to you this morning, listen to the bigger story surrounding this well known story.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
On one level, this is a story, a familiar story, of what it means to love our neighbor. All my life growing up I thought of it as just that. I have heard many sermons reinforcing this idea - and it is true that God wants us to love our neighbor. As Martin Luther King Jr. says in his sermon the day before he was assassinated:
Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. [and] 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. 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?'”
That is a beautiful reflection on this story and I don’t want to miss that. We see in this discussion with the law expert that loving your neighbor is an essential ingredient to eternal life with God.
And so I could preach a sermon on reaching out, on not being afraid of the cost or if they are the “right sort of people” and be neighbors to those around you, but I think it would fall short of the big picture story that is happening here in this passage.
Let’s look at the scene a little closer. Jesus is usually described as being surrounded by His disciples who seemed to travel together in a group from place to place. Maybe you’ve seen a film portrayal of Jesus that has a scene like that. He is walking through a town or sitting among some followers teaching and talking to them. And the religious leaders of the day were not at all happy with Him. They were suspicious and maligning and taking opportunities to test him in public with questions about the Sabbath and the resurrection and who He was hanging out with.
And this is one of those occasions. An expert in the law stands up in the midst of this gathering of Jesus and his followers and wants to see how He will answer this fundamental question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And being the great Teacher that He is, Jesus turns the question back on the asker. How do you interpret what God says on the subject? What does the Law have to say about it? And surprisingly (or maybe he heard Jesus give this answer on another occasion) he says that the Law says to love God and love your neighbor. Great! Jesus affirms him - do this! You got it!
But, the text tells us, he wants to justify himself - wants to prove himself right, wants to show off his goodness - so he asks a second question. “Who is my neighbor?” he was pretty sure of himself and of what Jesus would say.
But Jesus cannot be contained or contrived or cajoled to fit into a human way of thinking. This is a showdown where Jesus asserts His kingdom values. Instead of a quick answer, a checklist, or an easy definition, Jesus tells a story.
Thomas G. Long, of Emory’s School of Theology, describes the scene this way,
Jesus did not respond as expected. He did not congratulate the lawyer as a man of good standing. To the contrary, he buckled the lawyer’s knees and threw him into a ditch. He did so by telling a story, a parable. “A certain man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho…,” he begins. Because this “certain man,”... is generic and everybody had traveled that Jericho road from time to time, Jesus was, in effect, saying to the lawyer, ‘Imagine that you were heading down the old road from Jerusalem to Jericho and then a terrible thing happened to you. You fell into the hands of robbers who stripped you, beat you, and left you for half dead.’ In short, the lawyer, who Luke says ‘stood up to test Jesus’ and wanted ‘to justify himself,’ now finds himself face down beside the road. No longer in the stance of righteousness, he is now in the posture of dire need.
Jesus was not in the business of giving out a moral code or a formula - He was describing a Kingdom and an upside-down one at that.
Putting the story in the context of Jesus’ purpose and message, I realized that it wasn’t just a story with a moral. The words that Jesus uses are important and definitely not accidental.
First of all, the priest and the Levite are significant choices for the ones leaving the guy in the ditch. What is Jesus trying to say about that? The priest is a representative of the Law. The Law was what this lawyer was banking on to guarantee him eternal life. The Levite was one who carried out the duties in the Temple which represents service to God. So, neither adherence to the Law nor service to God saved this man from his helpless condition.
“Then a certain Samaritan came by.” Using a Samaritan as the hero of the story is no accident. Another well known story involving a Samaritan is the woman at the well. While talking to Jesus, she asks Him about the proper place to worship God stating that the Jews say it is Jerusalem and the Samaritans say it is Mount Gerizim.
The hearers of the Good Samaritan story would have known this controversy. The Jewish lawyer, like any other Jew of that time, would have considered himself as worshipping correctly.
But how does Jesus answer the Samaritan woman? He says “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”
In using a Samaritan for the hero of His story, Jesus is reinforcing this idea. There is not a right way, a right place, a right rule to follow.
Is it possible that Jesus is saying that true worship is happening here? That somehow when we take care of one another, when we love our neighbor that God is present? As Jesus says a little later in the book of Luke, “the Kingdom of God is already among you.”
Looking even deeper, we see that the Samaritan is someone who was "despised and rejected" by the Jews. In the story Jesus says "when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him" which is almost word for word what the Bible says about Jesus in Matthew 9:36 "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless"
This “certain Samaritan” is a picture of Jesus. The rescuer. The unexpected Messiah who doesn’t fit into the picture that everyone at the time had in their minds of what a Messiah should be. The one who binds up our wounds. The one who takes care of our needs. The one that we would be dead without.
Ultimately, He is trying to tell this lawyer a deep truth - that he is in need. That he is not going to be able to have eternal life with God in his own rightness. He is, like everyone else, desperately in need of a savior. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
As Thomas G. Long goes on to say, “the real answer to the lawyer’s question ‘who is my neighbor?’ is that you have no idea who your neighbor is until you, yourself, know how needy you are, and in that need receive the unexpected grace of being neighbored by God.”
Jesus finishes telling the story and now it's His turn for questions: "Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” The expert in the law can't even bring himself to say the word Samaritan. He answers: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Then Jesus says, "go and do likewise" Show mercy. Find those lying in ditches and bring them hope and healing in His name. But he also has to recognize that he was once in that ditch himself. Jesus is asking him to do kingdom work. Because it is only when we see our own need for God’s grace and mercy that we can reach out to others from a place of mutuality and compassion instead of advantage or privilege.
I think we are not all that different from the lawyer in this story. At least I know I am. I like to ask Jesus questions that I already know the answer to. I like to look good in front of the crowd. I like to have my way of doing things rubber-stamped by God and be on my merry way. But it doesn’t work like that.
When I really take time to listen to Jesus, He turns my world upside down. Doreena, a woman in our community, had a great word for us at our prayer meeting on Wednesday - she said something to the effect of “Jesus turns our world upside down but because the world’s way of doing things is so upside down - when Jesus turns it upside down He is really turning things right side up!”
This Good Samaritan story is so beautiful because of the many layers of truth. We are absolutely called to love our neighbors. But as we do it, we must acknowledge that we are enacting the Kingdom of God. Bringing God’s order and the gospel of reconciliation to life. And we do this not to earn God’s favor or eternal life, but to worship and revere God as our true King. To say no to the world’s upside down way of competing and comparing and categorizing.
Jesus came to set the oppressed free, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and to preach the good news to the poor. Jesus absolutely made Himself poor and powerless and let Himself be nothing - considering equality with God not worth holding onto in comparison to the restoration of His relationship with us and each other.
Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” We know it when we see it. We feel it deep within our hearts when God is present. When forgiveness is extended. When prisoners are set free. When the impossible becomes possible through the power of reconciliation. This means that we shouldn’t merely be good neighbors, but we should also let ourselves be neighbored.
We sometimes have groups come visit our community from the suburbs or from small towns and they want to come see what God is doing here in the city. Many of these groups end up serving at Cornerstone Community Outreach, a homeless shelter just a few blocks from here.
Before we go, we talk together about the people we are going to meet and spend time with at CCO and I always have them imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of being served. And then we talk about how it feels to give. To serve. And then I challenge them and we brainstorm together some ways that we can receive from the people we will interact with. We remind each other that we don’t give anyone dignity because dignity is God-given - we simply recognize the dignity of the people we encounter. Children of God. Made in God’s image. We let ourselves be neighbored.
Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal elder, educator, and activist says “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
We must die to our own privilege, our own selfish ambition, our own interests - we must take up our cross daily to follow Jesus. It is in our mutuality - in our shared life together that people will come to know this God we serve.
Richard Rohr says it this way, “Until and unless Christ is experienced as a living relationship between people, the Gospel remains largely an abstraction. Until Christ is passed on personally through faithfulness and forgiveness, through concrete bonds of union, I doubt whether he is passed on by words, sermons, institutions, or ideas.”
The God who loves us and knows us is the first community. The three persons of God exist in a continuous giving and receiving relationship with Godself. When we reach out to our neighbors and let ourselves be neighbored we are reflecting God’s glory.
There is an old Hasidic Jewish tale that goes like this:
A Rabbi gathered together his students and asked them:
‘How do we know the exact moment when night ends and day begins?’
‘It’s when, standing some way away, you can tell a sheep from a dog,’ said one boy.
The Rabbi was not content with the answer. Another student said:
‘No, it’s when, standing some way away, you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree.’
‘No, that’s not a good definition either.’
‘Well, what’s the right answer?’ asked the boys.
And the Rabbi said:
‘When a stranger approaches, and we think he is our brother, that is the moment when night ends and day begins.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Yes, let us go and do likewise. Amen.