Sermon on June 10, 2016
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 from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan 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 oil and wine 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 two denarii, 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.”
The man questioning Jesus wanted a definition of neighbor. I find it easy to be suspicious of him and his motives; he seems concerned about ensuring his place in heaven more than about living faithfully. His concern seems to learn whom he is required to love – and presumably where he can let it go. It seems so calculated. Still Jesus engages him in a theological discussion.
The man quotes Scripture for Jesus, Deuteronomy 6:5 to be precise. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. It is at the center of Judaism; every Jewish child would have memorized those words. The man goes on to quote from Leviticus 19:18 which explains how to live out the first commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. But who is that neighbor we are to love?
What title has been given to this parable? The Good Samaritan – although Jesus actually never utters a reference to the Samaritan’s goodness. For the average Jewish person listening to Jesus, the Samaritans were despised. No one would have called a Samaritan good.
Look on a Bible map and you can see Samaria is a region tucked between Judea, which included Jerusalem, and the Galilee, including Nazareth. To get from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, you walked right smack through the region of Samaria.
Samaritans were distantly related to the Jews. But the Samaritans had at some point in history intermarried with foreign tribes, changed how they practiced their faith, and a chasm grew between them. The Jews and Samaritans avoided one another at all costs. The deep seeded animosity had by this time been going on for generations. They might no longer remember the origins of their anger, but both knew the other was not to be trusted. A Jew would have gone out of their way to avoid a Samaritan, and vice versa.
When I was in Israel and traveled down the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, it did not take much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine that walking there would make you an easy target for bandits and thieves. Hop in a car today and it would take about an hour to drive from Jerusalem to Jericho.
However, I would not want to be stranded on that road for long. It is a deserted stretch and all the while you are descending into a valley, down a hot and dusty road, no trees, just the sun baking down on the oddly shaped hills rising on either side of the road, giving it a slightly eerie, otherworldly feel. Traveling alone, walking as many people did in Jesus’ day, would leave you incredibly vulnerable. Wounded and lying by the side of the road there would be little chance of survival – unless someone came along to help – and quick!
It is easy to dislike those who pass by the wounded man. First a priest walks by and then Levite, a lay leader in the synagogue, ignoring the wounded man. The religious folks aren’t doing too well on the compassion scale!
For the Samaritan to see what was wrong and then load the man on his own animal made him vulnerable. A man lying in a ditch could have been a trap. And to show up in a Jewish village with a wounded Jew, he could have been accused of all kinds of things. In today’s world we would use our cell phone and call for help – and avoid getting involved.
The first thing the Samaritan does is to see the man lying in the ditch. Jesus was always seeing people others ignored. A woman in a crowd reaches out for him and he doesn’t see her but senses her presence. He sees Zacchaeus up in a sycamore tree. He sees the hurt on the faces of the people who come to him for healing. And seeing he reaches out to them, treating them like beloved children of God, no matter who there were, no matter what they had done.
This past week we began with celebrations of our nation’s independence, bringing together people who may usually not have reason to be together, all to celebrate this great land of ours. On Monday evening I walked to the park near my house that always has a fabulous display of fireworks. When the national anthem was sung, people rose together.
As the anthem ended, a group of youth near me began to chant USA, USA, USA. In the dark I could not see their faces but could hear that their accents were different than mine. I smiled at their enthusiasm and knew there would have been many people around me watching fireworks on the 4th of July who had not long called this country home. In the dark I could hear so many different languages being spoken. We were a wonderfully diverse group: people like me whose families have been here for generations and people from Somalia and India and Ethiopia and Russian and Mexico and countless other places.
As the week progressed that sense of community fizzled all too quickly. First came the news of the shooting in Louisiana. Then like many others, I woke Thursday morning to the national news reporting on the tragic shooting in St. Paul. What – right in our own state – how could it be happening here? Just when you thought it could not get any worse, we learned a sniper had opened fire on a group of police officers in Dallas, murdering five officers.
How did our country become so divided? How could someone in our own area be so filled with suspicion and distrust that they would think it necessitates the use of deadly force? And how could such hatred exist that someone would shoot into a group of police officers working at a peaceful demonstration with the intention to kill? In response to these events, President Obama said we must bring into the light the racial disparity that led to these tragic deaths. It is American to live up to our best and highest ideals. We can do better; we have to do better.
Our world is getting smaller where we can watch something happening in real time, but at the same time the divides between us are becoming chasms that threaten to be become impossible to cross. Who is our neighbor? It is no longer a person who looks like us, or talks like us, who intends to vote the way we do, who has the same values as ours, who worships as we do – if they even worship at all.
We are not unique at our time in history. Actually, read the Bible and you see that Jesus lived in was a multi-cultural world with races and ethnicities and religions living side by side. There were Jews and the Romans and Gentiles, and the Samaritans all bumping up against one another – and it was not easy.
So back to our Good Samaritan: what made him good? He saw a person in need, did not identify him as an adversary, but as someone that needed help. Then seeing the need, he acted and did something about it.
I don’t think the priest and the Levite in the parable were bad people. They were probably concerned about their own welfare and the consequences if they acted or perhaps they were afraid to get involved.
I know there are times when I have looked the other way, when I ignored someone’s request for help. We are told not to give to someone begging for help and so I have looked away from the person at the intersection holding the sign requesting help. There are times when consciously or not, I passed by on the other side. Perhaps it was to avoid a situation or a person – perhaps my excuse was I didn’t know how to respond and so it is easier to lower my gaze and well, pass by.
Faith that calls us to engage and show compassion and care can be very hard. But what else can we do? The priest and the Levite had many miles of regret and guilt to travel.
But the Samaritan, the one who acted as a neighbor went forward without regret. Not only that, he was living his faith. You never regret an act of kindness. We never regret doing good to others. Never! Regrets come when we pass up the opportunity to serve, to care, to be compassionate, to be loving, when we neglect to bridge a divide – when we have done less than our best, less than we could have done, less than our faith requires.
We never regret an act of kindness.
A man came to Jesus asking how to live his life. “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 love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “Go and do this and life is yours.” Amen.