Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Good Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37 It’s a situation that could be the lead-in story on the evening news.  A traveler is beaten, robbed, and left for dead.  And to add to the horror, there were bystanders who looked on--who could have helped-- but didn’t want to get involved.  It could be the cover story in a Newsweek series on crime in America-- but what it is a story some two thousand years old--the story of the Good Samaritan.
As we reflect on God’s Word to us today, I would like to consider it in this way: (1) the question of the lawyer: What shall I do to inherit eternal life? (2) Jesus’ answer in the example of the Good Samaritan (3) and the challenge of Jesus: Go and do likewise.
What shall I do to inherit eternal life?  It was a question meant to trip-up or trick Jesus into making a mistake.  St. Luke tells us that the lawyer was trying to put Jesus to the test.  Any thought of sin or guilt and the need for forgiveness and grace apparently never entered the lawyer’s mind when it came to this question about his life with God.  He wanted to know what he needed to do to merit eternal life. 
We’re not immune from this idea that our relationship with God is based on what we do rather than on his grace—it’s a part of our fallen nature to think this way.  We want to believe that because we lead decent lives and give to good causes we’re somehow more “deserving” of salvation than those who don’t.  But life with God is based on his grace-- not our works.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers the lawyer this way, “Since you’re an expert in the Law, What is written in the Law?  The lawyer gives the perfect answer--the answer right straight from the Word of God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and your neighbor as yourself”.  Jesus had summarized the law just like that.  Perfect! Jesus says--Do this (and keep on doing it) and you will live!
The lawyer asked a legal question and Jesus had him given him the legal answer.  If you fulfill the Law—loving God above all and loving your neighbor as yourself—and keep on doing that perfectly for all your days--then you will live. 
Case closed--right?  Well....not quite.  At this point in the dialogue we begin to see a bit more of what the lawyer is really all about–the truth about his spiritual condition--that what he really wanted to do was to justify himself.  In fact, what he thought he needed to do-- was to justify himself. 
But if the lawyer had taken just a moment to take a good, hard look at himself in the light of God’s Law, he would have given up all hope of trying to justify himself. 
You see, anyone who has truly applied that summary of God’s Law to themselves:  love God with your entire being and your neighbor as yourself–has despaired of “doing” something to gain eternal life. 
To measure our lives by the standard of God’s law is to know ourselves for who we really are: those who have failed to love God and neighbor as we should—those who lack the ability to DO something to inherit eternal life—those who cannot justify themselves.
That’s what the lawyer should have realized about himself-- but he thinks there is still a chance.  “Who is my neighbor?”  In other words, he thinks to himself:  “If I can just get this neighbor thing nailed down then maybe I have a chance--just limit the neighborliness needed--give me a checklist of those I have to be nice to, and I’ve got it made”.
I think it’s interesting that he didn’t ask Jesus about loving God correctly.  So deluded was he about his real spiritual condition that he took it for granted that he loved God with the fullness and depth and breadth of his being as is commanded by the Law.  But his attitude towards others showed the truth-- even about his relationship with God.

Jesus knew what was in the lawyer’s heart.  He knew the self-righteousness and self-deception that blinded him to the truth about himself and God and Jesus wanted to pull him off of that shaky foundation and show him how profoundly he needed the mercy and grace of God—how helpless and broken he really was.  And so Jesus told him this story.
A traveler is beaten, robbed, stripped naked and left for dead.  Passers-by—men who knew it was their duty to help him, men who were experts in the law, ignored his need.  Finally, another man saw him, had compassion on him, treated his wounds and provided what was needed for his full recovery.  And –he- was- a -Samaritan.  You can almost hear the gasps from the crowd two thousand years later!
A Samaritan!  The hero of a Jewish rabbi’s story!  Incredible!  Jews and Samaritans were enemies.  Jews prayed that Samaritans would not be saved.  Samaritans were not received as converts.  For a Jew to eat food touched by a Samaritan was the same as eating pork.  And it was better to die than for a Jew to accept help from a Samaritan. 
And so for Jesus to use a Samaritan as an example of one who fulfilled the Law when even the religious leaders wouldn’t--well, it was just stunning! 
Jesus does something else that is remarkable in this parable.  He shows what the question should really be, holding up the mirror of the law before the lawyer—so that he can see how far he really is from keeping the law—how far he really is from God.
The question is not, “Who is my neighbor?”–trying to narrow down the list so that we can be merciful to as few as possible and still justify ourselves.  Instead, the question is:  “Am I a neighbor to others?”   That is, do I have this quality of “neighborliness” and mercy and compassion?  Do I have this love for others that is truly the fulfillment of the Law?

The answer is no.  No for me--for you--and for the lawyer that day.  We have all failed to love our neighbor as ourselves preferring instead to look the other way when we come across those in need-- soothing our own consciences with the excuses that seem so right at the time.  All of us have failed to love others as ourselves and in doing so have failed to love God above all.
But I want you to notice what Jesus does.  He doesn’t say “Aha!”--gotcha you wretched sinner!”  He doesn’t point his finger.  Jesus is so gentle with the man.  Even in turning this question back on the lawyer—Jesus’ purpose is to get him understand the truth of his spiritual poverty so that he can see that he has a need even greater than the man beaten and robbed—that is he is even more helpless when it comes to saving himself.
Jesus simply asks the lawyer to be the judge in his own trial.  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?  The priest?  The Levite?  Was it those experts in the Law?  Or was it the Samaritan?  The lawyer had no choice but to render a verdict:  the one who was the neighbor was the one who had compassion and showed mercy--the Samaritan.  Who would have ever imagined it?  The most unlikely of heroes!
Jesus told this story so that the lawyer might see the truth about himself with his self-righteousness and self-deceit stripped away--that he was the man who was helpless in the face of spiritual enemies more powerful than himself—that he was the one beaten and broken by the forces of evil--that he too must hope, for the help of hero, who is filled with courage and compassion—the One who stood before him.
Then as now, Jesus is the most unlikely of heroes in the world’s eyes.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son” the people of his day asked?  Not a mighty king.  Not a brave warrior.  Definitely not what was expected-- either then or now!  A Jewish carpenter from a backwoods town–and yet, true God in the flesh on a mission of mercy and love.
 Jesus told this story to reveal the truth about the man- but he also told it to reveal the truth about himself.  Jesus is the true Good Samaritan, who looked with compassion at a world full of people who had been wounded and injured and broken-- and had compassion on them—just like the Samaritan had compassion on the beaten and broken traveler.
It was Jesus who left his place of honor and dignity at his Father’s right hand and humbled himself to come into a world filled with danger and violence to help those who are by nature his enemies--just like the Samaritan in the parable left his donkey and entered into that dangerous situation to help an enemy.

It was Jesus who poured out his life-blood on the cross that healed our wounds and it was Jesus that paid the full price for our salvation just like the Samaritan who gave of his riches to provide healing for the wounded man. 
Life apart from God is much more desperate than the traveler wounded by robbers for we would have perished eternally if Christ had not given of himself into death for our sins.  It is in his death and resurrection that we are restored to wholeness of life--delivered from the selfishness that so often characterizes our life with God and others--now ready to bestow mercy on others from the boundless love that has been poured into hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Can you imagine how grateful the traveler was when the Samaritan stopped to render aid?  How thankful he was that the Samaritan did not pass by like the others?  Can you imagine how his life and attitude and outlook were changed by the mercy of that most unlikely of heroes?   So it is with those who know the care and compassion of Jesus, the Good Samaritan.
Jesus concludes his conversation with the lawyer with these words, “Go and do likewise.”  For the lawyer it was a challenge.  Jesus in effect says, “O.K.  You think you can keep the Law--you want to justify yourself--go ahead--give it a try--go out into this broken, needy, dying world and truly be a neighbor to all those you come into contact with.” 
“Go and do likewise”–try to keep just this one small part of the Law and you will quickly learn how shallow your own mercy really is--how meager your own spiritual resources are–how desperately you need what only I can provide. 

We don’t know what happened to the lawyer.  Did he go into the world and give it a try?  Did he begin to see the truth about his own great need in the mirror of the Law?  Did he eventually despair of trying to save himself and turn to Jesus with repentance and faith, trusting only in God’s grace?  We hope so!
Christ concludes his Word to us this morning with the same words he spoke to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise”.  But for us who have put our hope for eternal life in Christ’s righteousness–for those of us who have stopped trying to justify ourselves and simply learned to rest in God’s grace--these words are not a burden but a gracious invitation to show our love for Christ in acts of loving compassion for those in need.
We probably won’t come across someone beaten, robbed, and left for dead this week.  But we will have an opportunity to help someone--to encourage someone--to pray for someone--to give time or money to someone in need. 

Let’s not pass by on the other side of the road like the priest and Levite pretending that we don’t see.  Instead, let us follow the example of the Good Samaritan, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and reach out to others in mercy and love.  Amen.

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