[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. All that said, I suppose I can trust the Holy Spirit to work in the reading of the manuscript as well. Here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]
“Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.” The school year before this last one, we did a series of monthly intergenerational Sunday School lessons that used this song as a theme song. Monthly, we asked the question, “who is my neighbor?” The kids soon learned that the answer to this question is “everyone.” That’s the nice simple answer, but as we know, a more challenging answer is…well, more challenging.
“Jesu, Jesu fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.” This is the chorus of a folk song from Ghana and a hymn in our hymnal that invites a similar question invited by our Scripture today. Who is my neighbor? Who are our neighbors? It was a question of great importance to the Jewish folks living in Israel/Palestine in the First Century and it is an important question for us living in the United States in 2016–maybe it’s more crucial than ever after a week like this one. Listen now for God’s word:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Here is a parable that is so familiar, it is likely that for some of you, I could have even skipped the reading of it this morning. It is so familiar that it is a parable that has a place in our modern culture–we have “Good Samaritan Laws” and we understand “Good Samaritan” as a description of someone who stops to help someone in need. It is tempting for us to read this as a nice story about how Christians are supposed to be nice to others–but a nice story, it is not. This is a nervy parable about the radical compassion extended by someone who was perceived to be practically inhuman by his literal neighbors.
Jesus is approached by a Scribe” — an expert in the Law of Moses. The scribe’s aim is to “test” Jesus. It’s a common question, a question I’ve heard some of you in this room ask, a question I’ve asked: What must i do to gain eternal life?” Jesus puts the question back to the man–this expert in the law. “What does the law say?” Jesus asks.
Love the Lord your God with your heart and soul and mind and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself–the whole law is summed up in this, the man claims and Jesus affirms. Jesus had become, by this point, an expert in leaving well enough alone. He wasn’t looking for an argument with this scribe.
But the scribe cannot leave it alone. The scripture says he had to justify himself and so he pushes Jesus further by wanting to know who qualifies as his neighbor? Who is the one he is supposed to love as well as he loves himself?
Jesus replies with this too familiar parable. Jesus is a good storyteller. He starts with something familiar: a dangerous road and a Jewish man travelling alone. The road from Jerusalem, City of peace, to Jericho, 20 mile away on the banks of the Dead Sea, was full of wilderness and trouble and most Jews would have learned to avoid such a troubling journey by going the long way and few would have traveled it alone. A predictable result–this man is attacked, beaten, and left for dead. Inexplicably, almost, a Jewish priest also happens to be travelling that road alone…but when he sees the man’s lifeless body, he crosses to the other side and moves along. The same thing happens with a Levite–another highly esteemed religious figure. Why don’t they help? Well, we don’t know, but it should seem shocking to us and to Jesus’ listeners that they do not. It’s possible the implication is that both religious leaders were reluctant to touch the man’s body, not knowing if he were dead or alive–touching a dead body would have made both ritually unclean, but truthfully, there is not actually anything that outrightly implies this, and even in Jesus’ day, it would have been a worse offense to not help a fellow Jewish person who was in need. Jesus may have made this a bit ambiguous on purpose because of what is coming next–something even more unexpected.
A Samaritan. To the Jews, there was no such thing as a “good samaritan!” They despised their neighbors, would never have considered there to be anything worthy or redeeming about the Samaritans. But this fellow traveller on the road probably didn’t take much time to reflect on who he was helping or why he was helping–this particular Samaritan Jesus brings to life for the sake of his story would have likely stopped for anyone. This was not a political act–it was a moral one. A wounded man needed care. “Who wouldn’t stop to help?” the Samaritan might have replied to a reporter at a modern day press conference asking him why he had. Jesus’ point is clear: a Samaritan has compassion and mercy. A Samaritan cares for the wounded traveller extravagantly–wine and oil are prizes in the ancient world, and yet the Samaritan applies them generously. A Samaritan carries the wounded Jew to an inn and pays his fees and offers to come back later and settle any debt that the man might incur. A Samaritan is the one who is truly a neighbor and acted with mercy that mirrors God’s mercy.
A common misconception about Jesus is that he was nice–we may be tempted to envision him as a benign, charismatic speaker. The pastor that everyone likes. The kind-hearted healer improving lives one person at a time.
But here’s the truth we cannot ignore as we read the Scriptures: Jesus was not nice. He was challenging, confrontational, and counter-cultural…and he had a lot of nerve, really.
Jesus often used his words prophetically, not prophetically in sense of telling the future, but prophetically in the sense of speaking God’s truth. If we truly understand his words, we understand that he here and many other places was quick to speak God’s truth to power and truth about the brokenness of the religious structure of his day. This familiar parable we’ve heard over and over would have shocked the first hearers of it and angered the religious leaders of his day.
Shocking for us, I suppose, would be for us to consider Jesus’ words and find the place to put them into practice in our own contexts. There are two things that are important for Jesus’ crowd and for us today to reflect on as we consider this parable.
First, I want to lift from the text the failure on the part of the esteemed religious leaders to act justly. Whatever we or scholars of this text might determine to be the reason the Priest or the Levite acted in the manner they did, it was still a failure to seek justice and care for God’s creation–a fellow human being was in need and both went out of their way to pass him by. Who do we pass by? Who do we go out of our way to avoid? Where are we not acting justly? Whose voices are we excluding altogether? Where have we turned away?
The second thing that reaches to us from this text is the idea of this unexpected person being the vehicle of God’s mercy. If Jesus were to tell this parable today, I wonder what he might have said rather than “Samaritan?” Would he have said “Muslim?” or “Sikh?” or “Jew?” Would he have said, “Gay man” or “Transgender person?” Would Jesus have used “Immigrant?” or “person of color?” Would Jesus have said “liberal?” or “conservative?” or “Donald Trump Supporter?” or “Hillary Clinton Supporter?” Who would Jesus name into this moment as the least expected neighbor for his particular crowd of listeners? I don’t know, but I know that some of those words would challenge me and my understanding of mercy and the Kingdom of God.
There is a theme common in Scripture as a whole, and in Jesus’ ministry specifically: the one who is acting as an agent of God is rarely the person you expect, and the one who seems to be an outsider is almost always actually an insider in God’s Kingdom. It is the Upside Down Kingdom of God, ruled by the King no one was expecting and home to the broken, the weak, and the lowly.
We cannot read this parable without asking the question “who *is* my neighbor?
It’s been a hard week. Honestly, I could probably stand up here any week and say, “It’s been a hard week.” We live among such brokenness always. But this week has been a hard week. People created in the image of God have been killed so violently and publicly–Specifically I’m thinking of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa. Each one created in the image of God. The temptation is to choose a side. Pick a hashtag to support and look for ways to further your viewpoints and denigrate the other side’s viewpoints.
Don’t give into that temptation. Lament not just for some, but for all. Lament and weep for all of God’s children who die in violence and leave parents and children and spouses and friends behind. Yes, it is exhausting and messy and difficult to lament for each one, but may our hearts alway be broken for the things that break God’s heart.
Let that sadness, the horror, the anger, the lament have voice in your prayers. Pray for the whole human family mourning loss and the particular families who are mourning loss, for a tiny child who was buckled into her booster seat while her daddy was shot dead just inches away, for police officers who protect and serve us bravely but cannot predict every danger, and for their wives, children, and loved ones who are afraid every time they leave for work, for mamas of children with brown skin who are scared for their safety, for mamas of children with pink skin who are scared for their children, too. Pray the prayer you know by heart–pray for God’s Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done.
For that is the source of our hope. Our hope is not in the temporary, messy, broken things of this world–Our hope is in the name of our Lord Jesus and in the coming Kingdom of God. One day, God will set all of this right, one day we won’t have to lament anymore. Have hope in that day.
After you remember your source of hope, clothe yourself in love–love for your neighbor, even *that* neighbor or *those* neighbors. Teach your children and grandchildren to love, and remember they learn from your examples and your words. Practice hospitality and care for the greatest and the least. Guard your words and choose them carefully, making sure they are true and kind and necessary–and that goes for your words on social media, too. Remember that you, as recipients of God’s reconciliation, grace, and love, are the agents of that reconciliation, grace, and love. Share it extravagantly as you have received it extravagantly.
Who is my neighbor? Lord, have mercy. Amen.
(We ended the sermon by singing “Live in charity and steadfast love. Live in charity, God will dwell in you.”)