8th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Luke 10:25-37;
Dt 30:9-14; Col 1:1-14
The story of Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the true classics of not only biblical literature but any kind of literature. But it’s not a classic in the sense that we should simply stand by and admire it. No, it is one of those stories that pulls us into it and means to change us. It intersects with the stories of each of our lives, and, if we let ourselves get pulled in, none of our personal stories, the stories of our lives, should be the same. Luke’s story of the telling of this parable is truly gospel in that it grants us new life. If we let it, it can change our lives forever.
First, let’s let ourselves get pulled in by the story. We can begin by setting the scene. Luke begins by telling us that a lawyer stood up, presumably out of a large crowd. Jesus has just sent out seventy missionaries, and they have returned. Picture a loud crowd of excited people sitting around, telling their stories. And, suddenly, out from the crowd this man pops up and comes to Jesus. You have to picture the crowd, I think, or this story doesn’t quite work. We’ll see why in a moment.
Now, what is the story about? It is seemingly about knowledge. A knowledgeable man, an educated lawyer, comes to Jesus, to test Jesus’ knowledge of weighty matters such as salvation and the law. Jesus tests him right back. He answers the lawyer’s question with another question: “How do you read the law?” A test. Unlike Jesus, who doesn’t directly answer the lawyer’s test, the lawyer is willing to give an answer to Jesus’ test. Why? Well, Luke tells us why: he’s there not really to find the truth of things, like eternal life. No, he’s there to play the game of self-justification. “Desiring to justify himself,” says Luke. The lawyer is there to play a game, a deadly game as Jesus will show him.
We know this game, don’t we? It is the game of trying to look better than your neighbor. This lawyer doesn’t really come to Jesus for knowledge. He’s there to defeat Jesus in a game. He’s there trying to make himself look better. And here’s why the crowd is so important: this kind of game can’t be played without spectators. There’s no real satisfaction in looking better than someone else, if no one else is there to witness it. Yes, in asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”, this lawyer is playing the game of trying to look better than his neighbor.
Well, Jesus crosses the man up by telling him this little story about a neighbor of his. It’s about a man who “was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” Jesus begins his story with a person in such a pitiful state that one can hardly help but feel sorry for him — unless, of course, your main concern in life is to make yourself look good. In that case, you might just ignore this man; you’re too wrapped up in your own self-justification to worry about someone else’s fate. In fact, Jesus shows us just two such characters! By chance, a priest and a Levite happened to come down this same road. They’re caring religious folk, right? They’ll help the man, right? Wrong. They are religious folk, yes, but they are religious in the sense of this lawyer that Jesus is telling the story to. They are wrapped up in playing the games of justifying themselves, so they ignore the need of this man. The big difference between them and this lawyer, though, is the crowd. The priest and Levite don’t have a crowd to play to. They come upon the man in the road alone. If there was an audience, as there is for the lawyer listening to the story, well, things might have been different. They could have made themselves look good by helping this man. But there’s no crowd, so they don’t bother.
The lawyer won’t have the same luxury, when Jesus finishes the story and asks him about being neighbor to the man. He will have to look good in front of the crowd. Already, at this point in the story, there will be only one answer as to what it takes to be this half-dead man’s neighbor. With a crowd looking on, who has naturally become sympathetic with this poor man, the lawyer already has, no doubt, figured out what his answer must be, if he is to look good to the crowd. The crowd is simply spectating in this lawyer’s game of self-justification. Not being caught-up with their own self-justification, they can quite simply react with compassion to the man in Jesus’ story. The lawyer is the one playing the game. But now Jesus has set the playing field so there is only one answer that will look good in front of this crowd. He could end his story right here and ask the lawyer what the priest and Levite should have done to a good neighbor.
Instead, Jesus ups the ante. Rather than letting the lawyer answer now what he would do to be this man’s neighbor–which would let the lawyer justify himself–Jesus brings in a new character who does in fact do what everyone else already knows the priest and Levite should have done.
But Jesus raises the stakes even higher by making this good neighbor be a Samaritan. Do you remember the Samaritans in Luke’s story of Jesus? We encountered them only two weeks ago, as Jesus was beginning to head on his journey to Jerusalem to die. Jesus skipped over a Samaritan village, and do you remember what his disciples asked him? “Lord,” they said, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Wow! Now there’s neighborly sentiment, huh?! Yes, the Jews and Samaritans were not good neighbors to each other. Two weeks ago we talked about it as playing the insider/outsider game. That’s where some of us designate ourselves as insiders and others are designated as outsiders, and then that gives the insiders the right to call upon God to roast the others, because God is on the side of the insiders. Well, the insider/outsider game is simply the team version of the game of self-justification that this lawyer is playing. Those who are insiders are seeking to justify themselves by being on the winning team, the team of folks who can be the crowd to each other and look good to each other. The Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ day were caught up in such a game with each other, so Jesus really throws a curve here by having it be a Samaritan who does the obviously compassionate thing for the half-dead man in the road. Jesus could bring the story to a quick close here, too. But he makes sure that his point is made by telling us in some detail all that this Samaritan does for the man out of compassion for him.
Finally, comes the question that all know the answer to by now: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” And the lawyer gives the only answer he can give at this point, if he is to justify himself, if he is to look good in front of this crowd, if he is look at least as good as the Samaritan (but notice he doesn’t mention the Samaritan as such): “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer says. “Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'”
Who are you in this story? Did you see yourself, at times, as the religious folk, the lawyer, or the priest, or the Levite? Seeking to justify yourself? We all play this game, don’t we? I know I do. Were you also able to place yourself in the crowd, those who looked on as the lawyer played his game with Jesus? Graciously, I think this is where Jesus means us to be, on the sideline watching the deadliness of this game, for it is deadly. We saw the sentiments of the disciples towards the Samaritans two weeks ago, asking God to consume them with fire. It is the kind of sentiments we will look back on this coming week with the 50 year anniversary of the bomb on Hiroshima. In the parable we know the deadly consequences, too, of simply ignoring those in need as we play our games. We know what the consequences would have been for the man in the road if the priest and Levite were the only two to go by.
Perhaps we are both the lawyer and the crowd, so that we get to watch ourselves playing the game, and thereby learn its deadly nature. We learn that showing mercy is the only thing that truly gives life. And showing mercy, acting in compassion, cannot happen while we are caught up in the games of justifying ourselves. On the other hand, when we are caught up in Jesus’ story just so, and we experience God’s grace of being justified through Christ as a free gift, well then the word is very near us. It is in our mouths and in our hearts, so that we may do it. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 29-30, 1995