2016-07-10 Sermon for the Parable of the Good Samaritan
So, a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk into a bar. Ouch!
This has got to be one of the best-known parables in all of scripture. Surely everybody knows who the Good Samaritan is. We call people Good Samaritans. We’ve got laws named for him. Sometimes when you’re driving on 465, you might see one of the CVS/Samaritan vans on the side of the road, helping out a stranded motorist. Really, it’s fascinating how this story even sticks with people who don’t profess any sort of religion at all. Maybe it’s because it sounds like a simple lesson about being a good neighbor, and you don’t have to be Christian to know that’s a good idea.
Consider the priest and the Levite – they’re the bad guys, right? They see the guy suffering in a ditch and ignore him, like some kind of criminal negligence. But to be clear, this guy laying in the ditch isn’t just beat up – he’s half-dead. He’s dying. It’s not like they’re driving past someone stranded on the side of the road. These guys aren’t doctors – what are they going to do for him – give last rights? Let’s be sympathetic – maybe they think they can’t help, or what if they make it worse? What would we do? Except, Jesus makes them a priest and a Levite. There’s no way to help without getting your hands dirty and bloody – they CAN’T do that. They’d defile themselves. That means the end of their temple service. The end of everything God called them to do. Now, you could try to argue that Jesus is slamming the church here – laws getting in the way of common sense and compassion. He does that a lot. But that’s not what these people would have heard. They would have heard an impossible choice. Kind of like a shooting in self-defense. Safety at what cost? When we’re pushed to the edge, nothing feels like the right answer. That guilt sticks with us for a lifetime.
But wait a minute – aren’t we forgetting about the robbers? Aren’t they the real problem? But Jesus doesn’t say much about them. They’re anonymous. Why? Well, Jesus doesn’t have to, because it’s the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Tt’s got a reputation – “The Way of Blood.” This road was rife with bandits, like a sea of pirates. It’s infamous. Yet at the same time, Jericho’s like a suburb of Jerusalem, and lots of people walk it every day to work in Jerusalem, including more than a few priests and Levites. Obviously not everyone gets attacked. Think about it – people get mugged in Broad Ripple and the Monon Trail. So maybe there’s a right way and a wrong way to take the road, and this guy made a bad choice. Alone. Nighttime. We don’t know, but it’s not hard to imagine. We hear about dangerous Indy neighborhoods all the time. 38th Street shootings. But don’t we get a little too used to this kind of evil? I confess – I do, every time I read about another black body killed by police and I don’t react – the latest one just down the street from the campus of Luther Seminary. The first thing we wonder is what they did, and we’re not talking about the police. Now, it’s true that we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know exactly what precipitated this guy being attacked on the road to Jericho, but does it really matter? He’s dying in a ditch.
Now, we’re kind of spiraling downward fast, but there’s a clear hero – the Samaritan. Let’s consider him. He comes out of nowhere, he finds the dying man, he tends to him anyway. It’s incredible! Puts him on his own animal and takes him to an inn. Kind of a savior, right? We want to be just like him – wouldn’t the lawyer and his friends hearing this story want to be too? Nope. He’s not a Jew like them. He’s not even a Gentile! The Samaritans are all descended from intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. Half-breeds. To these folks that makes them something less than human. And they’re violent. So much violence between Jews and Samaritans, always attacking each other. That’s racial violence. Of course, we’re way beyond who started it, because it’s generational by now, and besides, you reap what you sow. But the lawyer and his gang don’t think about their part in it. They only know that Samaritans are worthless, violent thugs. Doesn’t everybody know that’s just how they are? They can’t even get their own act together, let alone help anyone else. Did you notice – when Jesus asks the lawyer who was a neighbor to the man, he can’t even bring himself to utter the word “Samaritan”. “The one who showed him mercy.” How much do you think he resents Jesus right now? Or is it more like total disbelief?
But the thing is, Jesus knew. He knew exactly what the lawyer was up to. He asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, but it wasn’t a real question. He wanted to test Jesus, and that doesn’t mean a quiz. Everyone knew just how well Jesus knows the law. No, the point was to entrap Jesus, to set him up to say something scandalous like he always does. And Jesus gives them the most repulsive answer possible. Sure, there’s the robbers, priest, Levite, and innkeeper, but they’re just doing what you expect them all to do. But it’s obscene that the enemy Samaritan is the only one who obeys God’s law. And if you can’t be the Samaritan, who’s left? The dying man in the ditch. And that’s what Jesus is really telling them – you fail to love your neighbor because you don’t see your neighbor, and you’re as good as dead. It’s not about what you didn’t do – it’s about the blindness that’s embedded in your heart. And the thing with blindness is that it’s something that happens to you, and you can’t remove your own blindness. Can you see – it’s not just the breakdown in society that destroys us, sowing violence and death. It’s not just that we see the stranger as nothing but a threat. It’s the way we become desensitized to it all. It’s blindness, and it’s our new normal. And it’s killing God’s children, who we don’t always recognize as God’s children. Jesus says – Love your neighbor as yourself, and you will live. But if we can’t see our neighbor to truly love them, then what’s left for us?
Brothers and sisters, Jesus doesn’t take us to the edge of the abyss to let us go. He loves us too much for that. That’s why he engages the lawyer. They don’t see it, but he tells them and us this good news anyway. Even from this Samaritan who you hate, the least likely person in the world, God will have God’s way. And what does God want more than anything? To reward us for good works? No. God wants to rescue dying people from ditches. Dying people like the lawyer and his gang. Dying people like us. God always hears the cries of the afflicted, and God does not stand still. But, it’s not by God teaching us how to be better people. We mess that up all the time, and don’t you think God knows that? No, it’s because we’re so blind that we can’t see the ditch we’re in, that God unexpectedly sends others to pull us out. Even when we don’t know how to ask, even when our prayers dry up, even when we feel so forsaken and alone. God shows up.
After all, this is the God who creates everything out of nothing with a Word. The God who turns death into life. The God who always does what we cannot. We see it in Jesus, God’s only son, who was crucified on the cross, died, and was buried. And after three days, risen from death, resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit. By the waters of our baptism, we are bound to his death so that we might rise with him. All because none of us are beyond the reach of God. None of us are hopeless, and we have to hear this, over and over, because we forget. Jesus knows this – he always has good news for the lawyer who just wants to set him up. His good news will prevail – the in-breaking kingdom of God can’t be stopped. That’s why it had to be a Samaritan binding the wounds of the dying man, because only by the power of God would this even happen.
To be sure, God knows this racial and ethnic violence that would seek to destroy us. By the power of the Spirit, God removes our blindness, to behold the lies of our preconceptions. Not to convict us, but that we might finally recognize everyone as God’s beloved children. So we can’t help but speak out, even when we never said a word before. The Spirit will fill our mouths with words that we don’t expect. To speak on behalf of victims of violence, to be present for families and communities torn apart by hatred. To reach out to those who perpetuate this suffering. We have hope and confidence that the Spirit will flow through us to soften their hearts, because the Spirit has softened ours. People will listen, especially because they know that we have failed and wounded others, because we are all Samaritans. We are the least likely people for God to use to redeem the world. This is exactly how God in Christ wants to save us all. Thank God for that! Amen.