Go and Do Likewise

Jul 10, 2022

Sermon 7-10-22
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     Our Pentecost Season journey toward devoted – not distracted – discipleship continues today with an oh-so-familiar story. So familiar, in fact, that people who have not read the New Testament use the term “Good Samarian”, a reference to this parable, to describe an individual who assists someone in need even though that person is unknown to him or her. But, there’s a whole lot more to the account than that summary.
     It all begins in today’s Gospel reading with an expert in religious law who tests Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The questioner probably has no doubts about his own salvation; he just wants to see if Jesus’ answer is “correct”, according to the law. Jesus, annoyingly, answer the question with a question: “What is written in the law?” When the man responds that the faithful must love God with one’s whole self, and the neighbor as oneself, Jesus confirms that the answer is right and is the path to both abundant and eternal life.
     However, the expert wants a less foggy response, so he asks Jesus to define “neighbor.” No doubt there are people the questioner has NOT loved, nor does he want to love them, and he will be “off the hook” in terms of keeping the law if they do not count as a neighbor. Wouldn’t it be great if those who are neighbors are only those whom we already know and love, or at least like? So, who is my neighbor?
     Jesus tells a shocking story to answer the question. It features a man who is attacked on the notoriously dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Jesus makes it clear that this victim of violence is half-dead – a term for unconscious – and naked. Obviously, it was a vicious attack, but these details also mean that the man cannot identify himself or be identified by his dialect or style of dress. Who, or what, he is remains unknown.
     This is a problem for the priest and Levite who come that way. If they get close enough to see if the injured man is alive, and he’s dead, or if they help him, but later learn that he’s not a Jew, but a Samaritan, they’ll be made unclean in both cases. Then, they’ll be unable to perform their religious duties.
     The only scenario by which these two will stay pure enough to fulfill their religious responsibilities, based on tradition and interpretation of the law, would be if the man is still alive and Jewish. And so, they play it “better safe than sorry” and pass by on the other side.
     These are the “good guys”, the listeners may be thinking, and their actions are understandable. So, maybe the true hero of the story will be a normal Jewish layperson (like us). Then Jesus says, “But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near him.”
     There could not have been a more SHOCKING, appalling statement. The hero is not a Jewish layperson but an unclean heretic – a Samaritan. Among the listeners there may be people who would rather die than be helped by a Samaritan.
     Yet, he is the one who comes near the man, sees him, and is moved with pity. He cares for, protects and provides for the injured man at great risk to himself. That’s because he could be attacked on that dangerous road, but he also could be blamed for the man’s suffering. Let’s say the victim is Jewish, and dies, and his family seeks vengeance on the Samaritan, whose people are long-time enemies of the Jews.
     The expert in the law is, no doubt, standing with his mouth open in amazement as Jesus concludes the story; he has failed in his quest to lower the bar on what God requires by defining a neighbor as being within the realm of what is comfortable. Instead of defining who is a neighbor (who is a faithful Jew required to help), Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor? Who acted as a neighbor?”
     The Samaritan’s actions spell out what it means to be a neighbor. #1 – He opened his eyes. He saw the man in need, rather than turning his head away. He stepped closer. #2 – He opened his heart. The Samaritan felt pity, but also compassion, which involves action. #3 – He opened his hands. This man took on the unpleasant task of bandaging the man’s wounds, perhaps using his own clothing for the bandages, and poured out oil and wine from his own supply as treatment. #4 - He opened his time. Loading him onto his donkey, which probably meant he had to walk, the Samaritan took the man to an inn and cared for him through the night. #5 - He opened his wallet. Money was given so that the wounded man could stay at the inn, with promises to cover any other expenses. (1)
     He opened his eyes, heart, hands, time and wallet for someone he did not know; furthermore, someone who might have viewed him as an enemy. The criteria for his actions was that the man needed help.
     We tend to make judgements about who does and does not need (or deserve) our neighborliness, but the message here is loud and clear. First, we are called to love God and love neighbors fully. Second, a neighbor is anyone who needs mercy - that is, compassion, grace, loving-kindness. Third, we are neighbors when we offer mercy, that is, compassion - grace and loving kindness.
     On Friday I heard an interview on NPR that included a pastor from a church in Buffalo. NY and an Episcopal priest from Illinois, both of whom had congregation members and friends who were present at recent mass shootings, some of whom were injured or died.  The last question that the interviewer asked these clergy was what they were going to say in their sermons this Sunday. The priest noted that the Gospel reading would be “The Good Samaritan”, a story about showing radical mercy (or love) in the face of violence.
     Indeed, it is. But how does it apply to a mass shooting or situations like the one with which our community struggles as people grieve the death of Jayland Walker?  The criteria Jesus set is that we act with mercy (compassion, grace, kindness) toward anyone who is in need, not judging if it is deserved. In violent situations, there are many people in need; we think first of those who were physically injured, their loved ones and the community, but there also are those who caused the injury and their loved ones. That’s why seeking justice is only just when it’s grounded in mercy.
       One of the things that makes this parable of Jesus so captivating is that judgements could not be made about whether or not the injured man deserved assistance because there was no basis on which to make them – he could not speak, he had no clothes by which to be identified. There was no way to do a background check or check his job history or to find out if there was more to the story of his being attacked. But what was obvious was that he needed mercy. The other captivating detail is that it was the Samaritan, the outcast, the one considered a heretic, who sacrificed to show mercy. Only need is the basis for action, and mercy is the goal.  The Samaritan’s behavior is our guide – go and do likewise. AMEN
  1. “The Story that Changed the World” by Chris Ritter, 02-15-2021, www.peopleneedjesus.net