Finding Life

+ A sermon for Pentecost +5C/Lectionary 15C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on July 14, 2019 +

Texts: Luke 10:25-37

Audio: LINK

The Good Samaritain - Luke 10:25-37
“The Good Samaritan,” Jesus Mafa, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

I’m going to bet that if there’s one story you know from Jesus, it’s this one.
If there is one parable that everyone can name, it’s the one we just heard that we have called the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
We’ve heard this story over and over again that it’s become an engrained part of our society.
We’ve established Good Samaritan hospitals and Samaritan’s Purse philanthropy.
We’ve passed Good Samaritan laws and even a Good Sam RV club.
Politicians cite this parable in their speeches and we call people who do help strangers “Good Samaritans.”

And because we all know this story so well, we know what’s going on before we even hear it—or at least we think we do.
We know how that nefarious lawyer was trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him in trouble.
Or maybe we think that the lawyer was trying to get Jesus to describe a checklist on how to get into heaven—what the minimum requirements are.
Or maybe we hear his question of “who is my neighbor” as a ploy to limit his responsibility to those people.
But we know that lawyer is the bad guy.
I’ve heard those sermons—I’ve preached those sermons.

But as I was studying the text this week I noticed something I hadn’t before.
Especially after preaching on last Sunday’s gospel when Jesus sends out the 70 disciples to go preach and heal and proclaim the coming reign of God and then they come back filled with joy and amazed at what they had done.
And while last week’s lection didn’t include all of it, Jesus then kind of explains what happened and what they had done.
And after he finishes speaking, our gospel text for today begins – “just then, a lawyer stood up.”
It’s subtle and if you only hear today’s gospel in isolation you’ll miss it, but there’s no change in scene and no passage in time.
As Jesus finished talking to those 70 who had gone out and come back, just then a lawyer stood up.
Now maybe hearing countless sermons on this text have influenced how we read it or maybe our view of this man shows some anti-lawyer bias on our part, but we are so quick to cast him as the antagonist in the dialogue.
But what if the lawyer wasn’t trying to trick Jesus, but was genuinely asking a question?
What if he was actually one of the 70 who were sent out by Jesus and now came back?
What if he wasn’t trying to get a checklist on how to get into heaven when he died but honestly wanted to learn more about the Reign of God whose coming he had just been proclaiming?

These possibilities honestly made me read this whole text completely differently this week and raised all sorts of wonderings.
Maybe this lawyer had just come back from announcing the coming reign of God but didn’t really get what that meant yet.
Or maybe he had such an amazing time out in the mission field, such a high from impacting people in life-changing ways, that he wanted to have that feeling all the time, to make that experience last his whole life long, to feel that fullness of life forever.

And so he asks Jesus what he must do and Jesus, of course, responds to his question with another question: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
And of course, the lawyer, an expert in Torah, is able to give the right answer: “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.”
He quotes the law, the Torah, from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
But he wants to know more: “And who is my neighbor?”

Good Samaritan drawing by Paulus Hoffman

So Jesus tells him this parable.
Now, of course, we’ve heard this parable so many times that we know how it all works: the priest and the Levite are cast as the villains and the Samaritan is the hero, the one we call “good.”
And we know the part we are supposed to play in the story and we commit ourselves to following the example of this Good Samaritan.

And in many ways we do a great job of emulating this nameless Samaritan.
We follow his example of showing mercy through feeding ministries and caring for the sick.
We commit ourselves to loving our neighbor by working for peace and reconciliation and caring for the creation entrusted to our care.
But we also know what a high bar this traveler has set for us and are keenly aware of how often we fail to meet it.
We walk by the person asking for money on the street corner and ignore their cries for help.
So are we the villains in this story too?
What if the priest was busy or prefers to give his money to charitable organizations?
What if the Levite had just helped another person up the road or honestly didn’t have any cash on him?
So rather than condemn these two men maybe we can see how we too can fail to help our neighbor in need.
How we’re so often a mix of these three travelers.

Or maybe we’re none of these three but find ourselves in the ditch—would we allow ourselves to be helped by that Samaritan?
Because while we think we know this story, our familiarity with it has also served to domesticate its power.
We call this Samaritan “good,” but we forget the shocking assertion that a Samaritan would help this Judean traveler.

It’s hard to overstate the animosity between the Jewish people and the Samaritan people during this time.
This was an ancient rivalry that divided these two peoples religiously, culturally, and politically for centuries.
These people absolutely did not like each other.
So while we may think of the Samaritan as the undisputed hero, it would have been scandalizing to Jesus’ original audience to hear this Samaritan cast in this way.
Today it would be more akin to a story about an Israeli settler and a member of Hamas.
Or how an ICE agent was found in the ditch and was rescued by an undocumented migrant.
Or perhaps how a member of the Klan saved the life of a black man he found on the side of the road.

This story is about that shocking answer to this fundamental question the lawyer asks: “Who is my neighbor?”

“Good Samaritan” by Paula Modersohn-Becker, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

It’s about how this idea of neighbor stretches far beyond any definitions we would want to impose upon it – how it spans religious, cultural, political, or even legal divisions.
It’s about how we can’t limit our definitions to caring for those whom we like or doing what’s convenient, because every single person and indeed the whole creation is our neighbor.
It’s about how we can experience the surprising wildness of God’s reign with a love that knows no boarders and takes delight in popping up in unexpected places.
It’s about how we are called to show mercy and love to everyone we meet because we have experienced an abundance of mercy from our God and we will never meet a person whom God does not love.

So if we want to embody the example of this Samaritan, if we want to follow Christ’s command to “go and do likewise” in a culture where this story is so engrained, and if we as a country really want to call ourselves “Christian,” we have to ask ourselves: Who is our neighbor?
How are we following Christ’s command to show them the mercy and love of God?
How do we see this work in the world around us?

Is it by locking refugees into dehumanizing detention centers?
Is it by ripping children away from their families?
Is it by denying visas to those who legally deserve them?
Is it by announcing raids to round up anyone without the proper paperwork?
Is it by prosecuting those who are actually trying to be Good Samaritans by giving water and aid to migrants crossing the desert?

Or is it by showing compassion to those who are fleeing violence, allowing love to flourish in families, working for justice for all people, showing mercy to our neighbors regardless of immigration status, and caring for those who are risking their life in the hopes of finding a better one?

If we really want to hold ourselves to this Samaritan’s standard, we will see how far we have missed the mark.
Our Lord has commanded up to love our neighbors as ourselves, to show mercy and compassion to anyone who needs it, to find life in enacting God’s love to our neighbors.
And so we try to follow his call, not because we have to, but because that’s how we experience life with each other and life with our God.

Untitled2.pngSo who is our neighbor?
How are we going to show them mercy and compassion?
How are we going to replicate the love of God that we have been given and share it in the world around us?

I’m not sure if the lawyer in our story fully understood the question he was asking, but whatever his intentions, he does not receive a checklist to get into heaven, a set of requirements to complete—that’s not what this story is about.
We can’t just turn this story into a morality lesson about what we must do to go to heaven when we die—because there is nothing we could ever do to earn our way to heaven and because everything has already been accomplished through the love of God that we know through Christ Jesus our Lord.
But as Jesus tells this man, he tells us, “Do this, and you will live.”

“The Good Samaritan” by Hanna Varghese

This story is about how we can experience the fullness of God’s love here and now.
This is a story about how we live into the abundance of life that God’s reign promises.
This is a story about how the reign of God subverts all of our rules and expectation and shows up in the most surprising of places.
Because when we fall into the traps of fear and hatred, tribalism and nationalism, we miss the fullness of community God intends for us.
When we see heaven as a goal for which we must strive or view our faith as a moralistic checklist, we miss out on a larger vision of God.
Professor David Lose writes, “God is less a ruler than a parent, less law-giver than lover, less a rule-enforcer than one who desires all things good for God’s children. And perhaps Jesus’ entire ministry – including his death on the cross – was to demonstrate God’s tremendous love for us and God’s burning desire that we similarly love each other.”

My friends, God isn’t concerned with rules and laws, God doesn’t care about artificial boarders or paperwork; God just wants us to care for each other, to help one another flourish, to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And by doing so we experience the reign of God here and now as we proclaim the love of God in word and deed to all our neighbors across creation.

Do this, and you will experience the abundant life that God intends for all people.
Do this, and you will live.

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