Christ Lutheran Community Church
July 14, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Jesus the Good Samaritan"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-10, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
You probably know there’s a whole genre of lawyer jokes. Here’s one: how does a lawyer sleep? First, he lies on one side; then he lies on the other side.
I’ve known a few lawyers in my day and all of them have been good, honest people. But part of the reason there are so many lawyer jokes is because of what we often ask lawyers to do for us. We ask lawyers to find a way to apply the law in a way that benefits us. When the law is being applied to other people, we want it to be rigorous and harsh. When the law is being applied to ourselves, we want it to be lenient and forgiving. When someone runs a red light in front of me, I grumble “Where are the cops?” When I run a red light, I look around and whisper a prayer of thanks that no cops saw me.
It was the same in Jesus’ day. So, when this lawyer stands up in our story, that little detail about him wanting to test Jesus helps us to see what is really going on. This isn’t someone who is sincerely trying to experience eternal life. This is someone trying to gain an advantage over Jesus.
But Jesus engages him anyway and he engages the lawyer on his own terms. “You’re a lawyer,” Jesus says. “What does the law say?” Evidently this lawyer does know the law because he answers in exactly the same way that Jesus himself answers on another occasion. When someone asked Jesus, “Which is the most important law,” Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your strength, and all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Upon these two commandments hang all the laws and all the writings of the prophets. So, when the lawyer lifts up these two commandments, Jesus affirms him: “You’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
But here’s where the lawyer’s true motivation comes through. “Wanting to justify himself, he asked, ‘Who is my neighbor.’” We could spend the whole rest of the morning meditating on that phrase, “wanting to justify himself.” I love the way an old pastor in our synod once put it: “Most people would rather be right than happy.” We want to justify ourselves – to prove ourselves right – even if it means damaging our relationships with the people we love. I get it, I’m right the with the lawyer, because when I think I’m right, I want everyone else to agree that I am right. But that kind of attitude can kill a friendship; and if friendships have something to do with eternal life, then my needing to justify myself is a good way to lose eternal life.
But rather than focusing on our need to justify ourselves, I want to focus on the lawyer’s question. “Who is my neighbor?” It’s a good question, really; because if my neighbors are just the two families who live on either side of me on Manning Street, I might be able to obey the commandment to love my neighbor as myself. But in a world that is as interconnected as ours, my neighbor could be the woman in Vietnam who made this shirt. It could be the man in India who answers the phone when I call my credit card. My neighbor could be the person in Bangladesh who is displaced because of flooding caused by carbon emissions from my automobile. Or, here’s a question that’s on everyone’s mind right now: is my neighbor that refugee from Honduras who comes seeking asylum in our country? A good lawyer could certainly find a way to avoid coming to that conclusion. After all, Honduras isn’t really a neighboring country; so maybe I don’t have to love them. Or am I just trying to justify myself?
Jesus takes the lawyer’s question – and my question – and blows it apart. And in doing so, he undermines all our efforts to justify ourselves by limiting the number of people to whom we owe neighborly love. He undermines our self-justifying attitude by telling one of the most well-known stories in the whole Bible, the story of the Good Samaritan. When a man falls among thieves who beat him up and leave him for dead, two people who should have demonstrated neighborly love, keep their distance instead. The priest and the Levite were members of the same tribe as the man lying on the street, and they were religious leaders to boot. Now granted, the law said that if a priest or a Levite came in contact with a dead body, he could not fulfill his priestly duties in the temple. If the priest and the Levite went over to help the man and discovered that he was dead, they would be considered ceremonially unclean. So, they had a good excuse for crossing the street. They could justify their behavior.
But then along comes this Samaritan. In the eyes of the people to whom Jesus was talking, Samaritans were law breakers. They didn’t worship the right way. They didn’t follow the scriptures. They were NOT neighbors. And you wouldn’t normally think of them if you wanted to give an example of what eternal life looks like. But when this Samaritan sees the man lying on the road, instead of keeping his distance, he comes close. He makes himself a neighbor to the man by caring for him, sharing his resources, taking the time to make sure he is safe. That’s what being a neighbor looks like, Jesus says. That’s what eternal life looks like.
Where do you see yourself in this story? Can you see yourself in the Levite, or the innkeeper, or the man lying beside the road? I wish I could say that I am like the Good Samaritan, but I’ve passed enough people lying beside the road as I’ve walked the streets of Philadelphia to know: I am no good Samaritan. But Jesus is. Jesus is the Good Samaritan in this story. Jesus is God coming near to us, becoming a neighbor to us, even when we were beaten up and left for dead by the stresses and traumas of life. Jesus anoints us with oil in baptism, healing our brokenness. Jesus shares the wine of forgiveness with us in Holy Communion. He brings us into this inn so that we can care for each other until he returns. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who gives life – eternal life – to us in the midst of our brokenness.
And because Jesus has become a neighbor to us, we can become a neighbor to those who are perishing. Jesus tells the lawyer to “Go and do likewise,” to show mercy as the Good Samaritan showed mercy. To show that kind of mercy is beyond the capacity of all of us human beings, dead in our self-absorbed fear. But the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ can empower us to show mercy to all our neighbors who are suffering.
It is truly chilling to hear this story of the Good Samaritan on a day when many of our literal neighbors here in Upper Darby are worried about ICE raids and deportation. What does Jesus’ story tell us about being a neighbor to these families during such a time as this? As individuals, our options are limited. But we are innkeepers in a very large inn called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church is responding. On the back table, I have photocopies of a letter to the director of Homeland Security that Lutherans are being invited to sign. On the top of the page is a website for Ammparo, an organization that advocates for human treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. As a congregation, let us give prayerful thought to how we might follow Christ, the Good Samaritan, during this time.
Christ Lutheran Community Church