Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The story of the Good Samaritan. Many of you have heard it dozens of times, if not hundreds. On the surface, it seems that Jesus is telling His hearers how to love the unlovable, or how even outcasts can find acceptability to God. That is, there’s a tendency to read this text as a script for how to live a good life. Find somebody who is difficult, and then love her or him. There’s a huge problem with a moralistic reading of the text, though. It’s that thinking the “go and do likewise” with which Jesus concludes the story solves the even bigger problem that exists between us and God. It doesn’t.
A moralistic reading of the Good Samaritan makes the death of Christ unnecessary by putting us in the driver’s seat for getting right. Such a reading cuts the legs out from under the Christian faith. It reduces life to a simplistic message of pop culture: “Peace and love.” As nice as it might sound, slogans never change the world. Slogans just make it easier to think we’re good because we’re spreading a shallow message to which many can agree.
Maybe we need to look a little deeper, and accept the fact that sometimes things are actually hard.
The lawyer, or religious scribe, knows the Word of God inside and out. When Luke says that the lawyer wanted to put Jesus to the test, it means the guy was just as hostile to Jesus as Satan, who also put Jesus to the test in the wilderness after His baptism. So, this is not a simple theological discussion at Bible study. This guy wants to trap Jesus as a false teacher of God’s Word.
Looking back on it as we can from our historical perspective, it’s almost comical, in a way: The man thinks of himself as the expert, and thinks he’s got Jesus on the hot seat as the one being examined. “So,” asks the lawyer, “how can I be sure that God will raise me up from the dead with the righteous?”
Like any good rabbi, Jesus answers the question with a question: “What does God’s Word say?” And the man gives a textbook answer. He quotes from the famous passage in Deuteronomy 6:5, one recited everyday by devout Jews. He also included a quote from Leviticus 19:18 about loving the person close to you in the same way that you love yourself. Love God with all your being. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus’ response affirms the man’s answer. Jesus quite clearly knows the textbook, too. But the religious scribe has not been able to trap Jesus as he’d hoped. So, he continues to state his theological position as the correct answer by asking a new question, “And who is my neighbor?” Then, Jesus moves from a straightforward interpretation to a story that illustrates that which is most important. The question begins to move from “who is my neighbor?” to “how does one be a neighbor?” Of course, if you want to remain in the driver’s seat, then Jesus’ story will drive you right off a cliff!
The most popular preachers in America today are often popular because they give people simple takeaways each week; maybe a clever, convenient list of three ways to improve their life. It’s a formula for packing in crowds of young people and often some not-so-young people who like to be in their company so they feel young, too.
A typical sermon might go like this: “The lawyer in this lesson was a hypocrite, just like the priest and the Levite in the story. They talked a lot about God but didn’t do what God wanted. Since none of us wants to be a hypocrite like them, let’s think about three things we can do to be better neighbors. First, we’ll collect an offering for the local shelter. If you can’t give money, maybe you could be a volunteer at the shelter. Second, if you have anger issues, or know someone who’s in trouble as the result of being a victim of anger, we have several support groups that you should sign up for or tell someone about. Please check the schedule on our website. And, third, this coming week, be on the look out for someone who needs your help. Even if you are busy, consider that God has sent this person to interrupt your life. Be a Good Samaritan and care enough to get involved. Please pray, “Lord, help me to learn how to be a better neighbor like the Good Samaritan. Amen.”
But here’s the strange part: That same sermon could be preached in a church like ours with a pipe organ, traditional hymns, and weekly communion, too. The style of worship and music can be dramatically different from church to church, but the sermon can be just as amazingly moralistic and shy of being fully Christian from place to place. Any sermon that focuses on what you need to do to have a better life makes it all about you, rather than pointing you to dependence on God as the only real solution to how rotten you are!
The harder reading is to see ourselves as the one who has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. It is especially hard for men to see ourselves as the one in the story who needs to be befriended, cared and provided for, and unable to do it ourselves. In fact, if you scratch beneath the surface, I suspect that everyone in this room would rather be anyone in the story but the man in the ditch. We don’t want to be beholden to anyone, helpless, and dependent.
We’re so antithetical to this idea that sometimes, if we’re given a gift, we’re certainly pleased, but then we’re already thinking about when and how we’re going to return the favor: “I’ll buy next time,” we say. Or, “We should invite you over to our place real soon.”
That’s why do-it-yourself religion and shallow spirituality are so popular today. They fit into our quid pro quo, “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” world. “Surely,” we think, “if I put my mind to it, then I can be like the Good Samaritan and not like those hypocritical religious people in the story.”
It’s interesting to note that the verb Jesus uses in to describe the Good Samaritan’s compassion in verse 33 is used elsewhere in the New Testament, but it is used only of God. Jesus’ point is that the religious scribe or lawyer, doesn’t see himself as in need of God’s mercy.
It’s like what Jesus tells us about the two sons in Luke 15. Neither the prodigal son nor the older brother really loves his father. They’re both just after what the old man has, and that makes them needier and more pathetic sons than either of them wants to admit!
Too often, the confession we say at the beginning of our worship isn’t taken seriously enough. That’s because we are self-obsessed and self-possessed. We try to remake the biblical God in our own image. We pray as if we want God to put our happiness above all else, including what’s best for everyone else. We try to reshape God so He is neither jealous nor judging. We want to ignore the harsh reality of our sin and the condemnation it demands, and to believe that God’s love means only affirmation and acceptance. And, if the truth be known, we want to believe that if things feel right to us or meet our own desires, then that ought to be good enough for God to agree.
Like pop culture or civic religion think, we wonder, “If we’re for peace and love, isn’t that good enough?”
But Jesus isn’t just a teacher like Buddha or Muhammad or Confucius. He’s not a politician or social justice advocate, either. Jesus is God in human flesh. His death isn’t just a tragic mistake that we ought to try to get past to happier thoughts. It is the essence of God’s compassion and mercy for sinners like you and me. We have a down-to-earth God who has to come down to earth in flesh like ours in order to redeem and save us from the unholy trinity of sin, death, and Satan. As Martin Luther put it, Jesus takes our sin and death and gives us the free gift of His eternal life, and a right relationship with God the Father.
When we are baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are joined to the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus. We who are beaten and left for dead by sin, death, and the devil are rescued, raised from the dead. We are given the compassionate and merciful promise of God.
We find that we, by grace, are children of God for Christ’s sake! In this life, we continue to be caught in the struggle between our old sinful flesh and the new child of God in us. We need God’s compassion and mercy not once but day by day. Living in the covenant of our Baptism means daily dying to self and daily being raised from the dead with God’s Son Jesus! We both need and have a loving Lord, Jesus!
Holy Baptism just begins with a one-time washing with water. It really is an ongoing way of life to continue until God calls us home. Every day the child of God returns to the waters of Baptism by renouncing the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises. Every day the child of God confesses that God makes us and owns us, saves us and redeems us, and forgives us and renews us. As Paul says to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20).
When we remember that Christ has rescued each one of us along our own Jericho Road, it isn’t our doing that creates concern for others. Rather, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to those around us who are beaten and half-dead. They often don’t even know it yet. Like the religious scribe, people around us may think of themselves as really quite OK just the way they are. They may have convinced themselves that the God they have made in their own image simply has nothing but affirming things to say to them, no matter what they do or what they believe. They may think they are neither in sin nor in need of a Savior. They may believe that their faith in a god they’ve defined is a get-out-of jail-free card–something that glosses over their need to be rescued from sin, death, and evil through repentance and faith in Christ’s bloody sacrifice.
Sometimes, all we can do is to tell people we are concerned about them and that we love them and that we will be there when they need us. But if someone is hell-bent on messing up her or his own life, we really can’t stop them. Sometimes loving interventions work, and sometimes the person just hasn’t hit bottom yet. Sometimes you just have to let people go down the Jericho Road of their lives sadly knowing they’re going to get it and they can’t see it!
Luther taught that the gospel is never coercive. You can’t force or argue someone into repenting and believing in the Good News of Jesus Christ! We offer the means of grace—the declared Word and the sacraments of Baptism and of Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, but we can’t make people admit they need a Savior. We can’t force them to cry out for God’s compassion and mercy.
Remembering our Baptism into the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection and receiving His body and blood in bread and wine, we go into the world as His hands and feet!
“How will you be a neighbor, now that I’ve rescued you?” That was the message and the point of Jesus’ story to the scribe. And then Jesus put the story into your life by His life, death, and resurrection. And He calls all of us, His sisters and brothers, to follow by giving our lives away in humble service daily!
In the holy (X) name of Jesus, Amen.