Download or listen to The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, “Doing vs. Dead” (Luke 10:25-37)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I think this expert in the Law got in a little over his head when he asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He thought he was only in up to his ankles, but Jesus is about to throw him into the deep end. “What does the Law say?” Jesus asks, and the man says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” Which is exactly what Leviticus said: Do this Law and you will live from it. Easy enough. But as it always happens with the Law, the expert can’t help going a little deeper. He was trying to justify himself, to vindicate his understanding, Luke says: “But who is my neighbor?” See, you can’t just have the Law, with its simple proclamation of “love your neighbor as yourself.” You always have to ask how far? How far do I have to go? What is the limit of this love? To whom should I do these loving works? Who is my neighbor? (Which, of course, implies that there’s someone who’s not my neighbor.) So if I’m going to love my neighbor, I have to know which people are my neighbors. The Law, as it stands, is never sufficient; it always has to do more evaluating, more measuring, more dividing and parceling and limiting.
So Jesus tells him a story, and it’s a story we know well. We have even taken over the usual title, “The Good Samaritan” into our legal language. We have laws about when a person is required to help another person, how far they have to go in helping another person, and we also have laws granting immunity from civil or criminal charges for anyone who helps another person. But these laws are exactly opposite the reason why Jesus tells this story. He doesn’t tell it to show the limits of helping another person, but to show how far loving your neighbor goes. We know the basic story: a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. Three people come by. The first two are a priest and a Levite. Both are probably on their way to Jerusalem to do their religious duties in the Temple. The priest offers sacrifices and the Levite is responsible for the furnishings and vessels in the Temple. In the Old Testament, the Levites were the ones who set up and took down the tabernacle. Both know the law, and they know their duties according to the law (although it is slightly ironic that it is Leviticus, named after the Levites, that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself”). They know that if the man is dead, and they touch him, they won’t be able to do their duties. They know the law and they follow it. Then comes the Samaritan, who also probably knows the law. Samaritans also had the five books of Moses, including Leviticus. But they didn’t worship in Jerusalem, Mt. Zion; instead, they worshiped on Mt. Gerizim. And they were the leftover Israelites: when Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC, they left a few people in Israel, and then they sent Assyrians back to settle the land. They married the Israelites, and the Samaritans were their descendents. So the full Israelites were not big fans of Samaritans. But this Samaritan, who is outside the Law, finds the man on the road, and has compassion.
But He doesn’t just have compassion; He goes to the man. And He doesn’t just go to the man, but He binds up his wounds. And then He puts him on His own animal, takes him to an inn, pays his way, and tells the innkeeper: take care of him until I come back, and then I’ll repay whatever you spend. Jesus asks the expert in the law: which of these men was a neighbor to the one who had been robbed? Notice, Jesus has changed the question: the expert had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks, “Which one was a neighbor to the one in need?” And the expert answers correctly again: the one who showed him mercy. Now, Jesus says, what should you do to inherit eternal life? Do what the Samaritan does.
And we like this story. It confirms what we always knew: that if you’re nice enough, if you’re good enough, if you help people out, you’ll get to heaven. It gives us a standard to strive for, so that we can be good Samaritans, too. (Although, I wonder if the people listening to Jesus thought there were any good Samaritans!) Here’s something to measure your good works by, to see how far along you are. So how far do you have to go? If you ask Law questions, you get Law answers: you have to go all the way. You can’t be a mediocre Samaritan. You can’t be a pretty-good Samaritan. The Samaritan doesn’t ask any questions about what is required of Him; He doesn’t just check on him, or get him to a safe place. He does everything. You have to not only bring the guy to the hospital, you have to pay all his bills, too. Not because the government tells you to, but because you want to. The Samaritan doesn’t only do what’s convenient, or what’s on the way, or what won’t cost too much. He does everything. Sure, if you want to measure yourself against the Samaritan, go ahead. He does, indeed, show us how far along we are. Which is another way of saying, He exposes us for what we are. We are like the cartoon villain, the witch. You know the one I mean? The witch who stirs up her cauldron and makes herself beautiful; she talks sweetly to someone, she woos him, she flatters and compliments. But as soon as she encounters any resistance, any opposition; as soon as anyone calls her on her lies, she immediately becomes what she always was: a witch. She didn’t love anyone; she was only being nice to get something. And so we are. As long as the person to whom we are being nice responds the way she should; as long as we are repaid in kind; we “love” her. But as soon as there is any resistance, or opposition, we immediately become what we, in ourselves, are: the old Adam, whom we thought was drowned and dead, comes roaring back with a vengeance. We become bitter and angry. Well, if he won’t say he’s sorry, I’m done. If she won’t acknowledge my kindness, I’m done. If my neighbor changes for the worse, then he ceases to be my neighbor. See, we’re willing to wade in up to our ankles, maybe to our knees, maybe even to our waists—or for particular people, up to our necks. But Jesus throws us into the deep end. The Law is a bottomless ocean; the Law has the fiercest undertow. You try to swim around in the Law, to tread water, you will be drowned. It will beat you and rob you and leave you for dead by the side of the road.
And then, along comes Jesus. And He asks no questions. He sets no limits. He spares no expense. He doesn’t count the cost. He simply comes to you and binds up your wounds, and carries you to His cross. He washes you with His blood and wraps you in His own robe. He brings you into this temporary inn called the Church, and He says, Here, I found another one. Take care of her. Here’s another one. He’s mine. Here’s some water, and here’s some food. Here’s the medicine of immortality. Don’t worry about the cost; I paid it already. Give them everything; and when I come back, I’ll repay it. Not just repay, but many times over any expense. And His promise is that, when He comes, you will see yourself healed in both body and soul. Before God, you are that one beaten and bloody on the side of the road, helpless and dying. And Jesus is the one who comes to you, outside and beyond any law, even His own, and rescues you. And then, before other people, you are the neighbor, the innkeeper, the one who gives and does what is required. Come and eat, come and drink, rest here; it’s all free to you. It’s all mercy: mercy for you by faith, mercy for them by love, mercy forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/12/13