7/14/2019 Fifth Sunday after Pentecost the text is Luke 10:25-37. Our preacher is Tom Houston, LLM.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And God’s people say…Amen!
When we encounter someone referred to as a ‘Lawyer’ in Scripture, we need to remember that the biblical vocation differs greatly from what we would consider to be an attorney today. In Jesus’ time, lawyers didn’t prosecute or defend in criminal cases; rather, they were the interpreters of the Law of Moses, the Torah. Rather like the often-mentioned ‘Scribes’ and the ‘Pharisees’. Thus, the initial question posed by the lawyer to Jesus was a rather transparent one. Jesus was well aware that the lawyer, being an observant Jew and having great familiarity with the Torah would answer correctly. The lawyer’s first response was directly from Deuteronomy 6:5; ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’. In fact, every Jewish adult male would recite a version of this admonition twice daily in a version known as the “Shema”. “Sh’ma Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad”. ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One’.
The next portion proved to be more troublesome for the lawyer. The ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ part. This Jewish/Christian commandment is nearly universal throughout the world. In fact, this ‘Golden Rule’; ‘do unto others’ is often described as ‘The Ethic of Reciprocity’. Similar versions appear in many disparate faith disciplines. In Confucianism, the decree is stated as: ‘Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence’
In Hinduism: ‘One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality’. This one, my favorite is from a Yoruba Proverb from Nigeria: ‘One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts’.
The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, in and of itself is quite straightforward. The tricky part happens when the lawyer asks Jesus who qualifies as his neighbor. Jesus chose for the protagonist in his parable, a Samaritan, one who was readily understood to be the most un-neighborly type the lawyer could imagine. The Jewish people and those of Samaria were initially closely connected; both traced their histories back Jacob.
The acrimony between them is rumored to have begun around eight centuries before Jesus’ time, around the period of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of the Jews. The major schism centered around the people of Judea being unhappy that the Samaritans inter-married with Gentiles. The separation continued as the Jews worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans considered Mount Gerizim to be their holiest place, and where God dwelled. So, we can appreciate that the person least likely for the lawyer to consider to be a neighbor, would be a Samaritan.
Thus, the Samaritan would have been considered ‘them’, and not ‘us’ in the mind of the lawyer. But what about the Levite and the priest? Jesus chose one person from each of these two classes for his parable examples. The temple priests were just that, responsible for worship in the tabernacle. A Levite would also serve in a priestly role, but not having been descended from Aaron, would be assigned a lightly lesser set of responsibilities in the temple. Suffice it to say that both were temple clerics and were expected to maintain religious purity. Not to let them off the hook, but to touch the injured man would have declared them ritually unclean for a time, unable to perform their roles in the temple.
Thus far we have met the lawyer who asks the theological questions of Jesus; also, the priest and Levite who ignored the injured man, and the Samaritan who attended to him. That leaves only the injured man himself; robbed, beaten, stripped of his clothes and left for dead. This is all that Jesus tells us about this poor soul. We don’t know his name, ethnicity, home town; only that he was on the road, travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. That said, we can safely assume he was a Jew, and thus would be considered the lawyer’s neighbor. One of ‘us’, not one of ‘them’.
Jesus has set the stage for the parable he has put before the lawyer; and we have delved a bit into the individual characters and their roles. Perhaps now would be a good time for us to consider in which of these roles we might see ourselves. This will be an exercise with a few rhetorical questions.
You won’t be asked to publicly respond to them, but I would request that you think about each of them and honestly answer them within your heart.
First up, the lawyer. He seems a bit disingenuous, doesn’t he? We’ve established that he was well-versed in Mosaic law, the Torah. And we’re told that he asked his first question about attaining eternal life to ‘test’ Jesus. Jesus turns the tables on him by asking him what is written in Jewish law. So, he’s forced to answer his own question. Upon agreeing that he must love his neighbor, he poses the next, rather sarcastic question, about who that neighbor might be. Luke records that he did this to ‘justify’ himself. It is certain that he wanted validation that his love of neighbor was to be within a tight communal circle; perhaps only those within his immediate social class; his fellow lawyers, the ones next-door, his immediate ‘tribe’. ‘Us’, and not ‘them’.
First rhetorical question; have you ever been like the lawyer? Asked a question that you already know the answer to, just to show how clever you were? Ever been scornful or cynical? Have you insulated yourself, caring only about the concerns of your immediate environment, without giving thought to those outside of your circle? Again, no one needs to answer these questions out loud. But I will share my answers with you. Yes, I have done all these things at one time or another. I’ve been all-too-clever, snarky, and selfish. Have you ever been the lawyer?
Next, the priest and the Levite. Two supposedly upright, moral men, tasked with performing rituals in the temple, the place of Jewish worship of the One True God; and presumed scrupulous adherents to the Law’s dictate to serve others. Yet, they were quick to avoid rendering any sort of aid to the victim. Going so far as to cross on the opposite side of the road. How shall we describe them? Uncaring? Hypocritical? Self-absorbed? I daresay; ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘yes’. Once again, no verbal response is obligated from the assembly; only honest introspection. Have you behaved like the priest? Ever acted like the Levite? I’ll share my answer again; I have absolutely conducted myself in an uncaring, indifferent manner. Have you been the Levite, or the priest?
The Samaritan is next. He’s the hero of the story, the good guy who comes to the aid of the injured man on the side of the road. He renders basic aid and then goes beyond, ensuring the man will be cared for even in his absence.
I’m pretty sure we would all happily see ourselves in this role, at some time or another. Maybe not as often as we would like, but surely, we’ve all reached out to others in need. That is, after all, the commandment we have received, just like the lawyer stated. We won’t dwell on this character in the parable; as I said, I’m sure each of you has been the ‘Good Samaritan’ on many occasions.
Let’s skip to the unnamed victim; the robbed, beaten, broken man left for dead on the side of the road. Without his rescue by the Samaritan, he would likely have perished. He was deprived of all that he had; he was destitute, battered, and abandoned. Others avoided him, none came to his aid; no one saved him, but one. There is no need to ask the obvious question; ‘have you ever felt like the man on the side of the road?’. Because he is, in fact, each one of us. And each one of us is him. We are all broken, sinful people, and we are not able to save ourselves. We are fully dependent on the Grace of God as expressed through the Good News of Christ Jesus. The Samaritan left two denarii for the innkeeper to spend on the man’s recovery, with the promise that any additional would be paid later. It’s a fair bet that the total wouldn’t amount to an unreasonable sum. But the coverage wouldn’t be infinite. But God’s mercy is unlimited, there is no restriction on the forgiveness we receive by the Father’s grace.
Every time we are rescued from the ditch on the side of the road, if we stumble back into it, by our own actions, or caused by others, God is present to again rescue us. There is no record in Luke telling us that the man ever repaid the Samaritan for his kindness. And we cannot do anything to earn God’s grace. It is fully unmerited. But in our gratitude for what God in Christ has done for us, we ought to strive to act as the Samaritan did in the assistance of others. Let us never forget that God in Christ is our Good Samaritan, and we remain the broken one in the ditch.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, let us not be the cynical lawyer, the uncaring priest, or the self-absorbed Levite. Help us to remember that we are always the broken one on the side of the road, confessing our need for your mercy and your Grace. By your Spirit, guide us to act as the Samaritan did, in service to whomever our neighbors may be.
And the people of God say…Amen!
Go and do likewise!