Thursday, August 26, 2010

Acts of Mercy on the Road: Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

I came across this approach to teaching "The Good Samaritan" years ago, as a youth leader using the Presbyterian "Connections" curriculum. I still think it's a great way to breathe new life into a story we think we're too familiar with.

Preached this one before vacation. Went off lectionary because in July I was doing another thing.


We are going to do something a little different this morning. Has anyone here ever heard of “M@d L!bs”? Well, we’re going to do one now. I will ask you for a bunch of words, with which I will fill in the blanks in a story. When we’re finished, we’ll hear how the story came out. Ready?

1. Name a place you consider dangerous—a really bad location, one you would be afraid to walk around alone.
2. Name a job that commands a lot of respect—you would assume it was being held by a person you would consider really trustworthy, beyond reproach.
3. Name another job, with the same ideas in mind.
4. Now name someone you would consider to be very shady—someone you would never trust, whom you would not expect anything good to come from.
5. Name two different things your mom would use to take care of you when you had a pretty injury.
6. Help me guesstimate two days wages for someone who worked on the assembly line at a manufacturing plant.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied “A man was going down 1._____________, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a 2._____________ was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a 3.____________, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a 4.____________ while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured 5._______________ and 6._______________ on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out 7._____________, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

~Luke 10:25-37, retold by the congregation of St. Sociable

I’m pretty confident you know this story well. That’s the problem, really, with some of the stories and parables we find in scripture. We know them so well it’s hard to enter in with fresh eyes and ears, to find new insights. But we can have confidence in the endless beauty and art of scripture: it can be fresh each time we read it, because it’s the living Word of God.

And so, there are always ways we can enter into this living Word. How about through this door: Let’s pause with each character in the story. Let’s see if we can enter into their experience, come to the story from their perspective. First, there is the lawyer. In Jesus’ day, lawyers had a different role than they have in ours. They were the ones who studied the law of Moses, and advised people how to apply it. The lawyer asks a question that would surely be at the forefront of his own concerns: “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” If helping people to understand what God wanted from them was your job—and that was what the lawyer did—don’t you think maybe you’d be interested in Jesus’ answer? Especially if you were worried about the kind of teaching you had been hearing from Jesus—teaching that challenged the religious establishment.

We can’t really avoid the fact that the text tells us, right up front, that the lawyer is “testing” Jesus. Remember who else “tests” Jesus in Luke’s gospel? The devil. So. We know the lawyer’s motives are to challenge Jesus, to put him on trial. That becomes crystal clear once he’s asked his second question: “And who is my neighbor?” It seems as if the lawyer is hoping he can narrow the scope of those to whom he is to show love. He is hoping for a nice, manageable prescription. “My neighbors are A, B, and C, and those persons only.” The lawyer is looking for his escape hatch.

Next, let’s think about the traveler. We are in the midst of a big travel season—I will be doing it myself in just a few hours. We don’t know why the man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. But we do know something about that road that he was traveling on. It was notoriously dangerous. The road ran through a steep-walled valley created by a seasonal river torrent—a wadi—and there were (there still are) plenty of places for those who are up to no good to lay in wait for vulnerable travelers. Has anyone here ever hitchhiked? Have you hitchhiked, and then found yourselves in a situation that made you wish you hadn’t hitchhiked? Have any of you ever been walking alone down a street where you felt unsafe?

Lots of us have experiences that can connect us to the vulnerable traveler. Lots of us have known fear; sometimes, real terror. Army vets who know what it is to be in the thick of the battle, or engaged in jungle warfare. Women and children who have been the victims of domestic violence. Young men who don’t fit “the mold” and find themselves being menaced in the locker room. The traveler’s worst fears come to pass. He is beaten so badly Jesus calls him “half-dead.”

Then, a priest passes by—a priest, a male member of the tribe of Levi, whose job it is to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. One thing the priests had to be very vigilant about was the need to maintain ritual purity. If a priest came into contact with anyone or anything considered “unclean,” it would mean he could not perform his duties. The prohibition against coming into contact with the dead is particularly strong: Leviticus states, “The priest … shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother” [Leviticus 21:10-11]. The traveler was left for dead. For the priest, his duty to the Temple trumps all other considerations—even that half-dead traveler.

The Levite would have had all the same motivations for staying away, for crossing to the other side—he also would have been prohibited from doing his work if he had come into contact with the half-dead man. And don’t forget, in the case of both priest and Levite—they’re on that same dangerous Jerusalem-Jericho road. They are also full of fear.

This leaves us with the Samaritan. One problem we have with this passage is the fact that the phrase “Good Samaritan” is so enshrined in our culture. We have “Good Samaritan” hospitals, we have the Samaritan Counseling Center next door. For many people, the noun “Samaritan” is always modified by the adjective “good.” But that most emphatically is not what the word “Samaritan” meant in a first century Jewish context. As one writer observes,

…most people today don't realize that "Good Samaritan" would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient … war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the "true" Jews. They had [compromised] the race. They had also [compromised] the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans [was] so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. [1]

We know how the story wraps up. The Samaritan proves to be good. Not just good, exemplary—better by far than the priest and Levite who cut a wide path around the injured traveler. And it turns out that for Jesus, neighbor means neighbor in the original sense of the word (whether you’re talking about Greek or English)—the neighbor is the one to whom you are nigh, the neighbor is the one you are near. The one you are near is your neighbor. Crossing the street and diverting your eyes doesn’t change that. “Love your neighbor” means “Love the person who’s standing near you,” whether you are in your home or at the edge of the Grand Canyon or scurrying across Times Square.

It’s hard to get into the mindset of the Samaritan. He seems almost too good to be true. Picking up the one who is bleeding—who among us today would be willing to handle a bloody stranger absent some nice thick rubber gloves? And this brings me back to Jesus’ impossible admonition, “Go and do likewise.” Do what, exactly? Put ourselves in harm’s way? Risk exposure to all kinds of diseases? Spend our hard-earned money on people we don’t even know? People who might even be our enemies?

The answer is yes to all of these. Spend our hard-earned money on the 20,000,000 homeless of Pakistan, that place of not-so-secret terror cells. Notice how the lawyer responds, at the end, when Jesus asks, Who, in fact, was neighborly? And the answer is, of course, the Samaritan—a word the lawyer can’t even get himself to say. Instead, he says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Maybe the first step towards our being able to act like the Samaritan is being able to say, “The Samaritan did it. The Samaritan loved his neighbor.” Who are our Samaritans? For lots of US citizens, it would be very challenging to say, “The Muslim was the one who loved his neighbor.” But it just might be the truth.

One of the lessons here is that we have to be very, very careful when we presume to know who is holy, and who is not. We have to be ready to be wrong. We have to be ready to learn from those who are not like us—the “Others.” If Jesus has a theme that recurs again and again in his teaching, it is that we just might not have cornered the market on “goodness.” That someone else might have something to teach us, and it’s going to be someone who makes us uncomfortable. The ones who are so not-us it makes us frightened. The ones we believe we have good reason to suspect—like those Samaritans. Jesus seems to think they have something to teach us. The question is, are we ready to learn?

It’s still the season of travel. We are all travelers, in one sense or another, all journeying on roads that are fraught with peril and, at the same time, random, unforeseen kind deeds. We are all subject to the road, and the appalling and beautiful things that can happen there. Sometimes we find ourselves in the ditch, bruised and bloodied, and sometimes we see that another poor soul has landed there as we are trying to do the things we have to do that day. Maybe that’s the key to this oh-so-familiar tale: the truth that each of us has the potential to be on the giving or receiving end of callous disregard or heart-driven acts of mercy. I don’t suppose we can ever know how we will respond until the moment presents itself. But we know how our God responds. God climbs down into the ditch with us. God pours oil and wine on our wounds and sees that we are provided for. God expends all the riches of the universe to see to our care. God sends unexpected angels to see us home. And God hopes—fervently, optimistically, with all the stars in the great glimmering universe—that we will go, and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Brian Stoffregen, “Luke 10:25-27, Proper 10, Year C,” at Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks,

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