Sunday, July 10, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 17:21; sermon starts around 24:40)
image source: CustomCapeShop on Etsy
Just curious: have any of you heard this gospel story before? Heh, of course you have – the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most widely known stories in all of scripture! Most of us here have probably heard it dozens of times and practically know it by heart.
And if you’re like me, each time you hear it, you may find yourself resonating with a different character in the story – today it might be the Samaritan man himself, or the innkeeper; tomorrow it might be the man on the road, or the priest and the Levite, or even the robbers! There are so many ways we can read this story.
Today, I find myself wondering about the lawyer at the beginning of this passage. I wonder: what was he feeling as he listened to this story? Here he was, thinking that he had come up with a couple of pretty clever questions to stump Jesus. Yet, instead of responding to his questions with elaborate legal answers, or by quoting obscure portions of the law, Jesus tells this simple parable in which a Samaritan – an outsider – is the one who does the right thing.
The lawyer doesn’t yet realize that he’s got it all wrong from the start. He shows by the questions he asks that he still doesn’t understand Jesus or his ministry. Look at what he asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Basically, what must I do to earn eternal life? What must Ido? Luke even tells us outright that he was seeking not to understand the law better, but to justify himself.
But if this lawyer had asked pretty much any Lutheran Christian, like the ones in this room, they could have told him his mistake: what could he do to justify himself? What could he do to earn eternal life?
That’s right. Nothing. Not a thing. This lawyer is grasping at justification under the law, but he’s never going to reach it. And he doesn’t understand yet that Jesus has come to show us a better way. He doesn’t understand God’s free gift of grace.
So why does Jesus tell him a story instead of just coming right out and telling him this? Is it just that Jesus likes to be cryptic and mysterious and to speak in puzzles that leave people scratching their heads for days? I mean… probably? There’s certainly a lot of evidence throughout the gospels that Jesus seems to enjoy messing with people’s heads, lol. But in this case, I think that there are a few different things that Jesus is doing by answering the lawyer’s questions with this parable.
The first thing is the most obvious – it’s the way that this parable is usually interpreted – and that’s that Jesus is more or less calling this lawyer out on his smallness of heart, on the narrowness of his willingness to love. He knows that the commandment is to love his neighbor as he loves himself. And yet he’s asking these questions, looking for some kind of loophole. Jesus sees clearly that when he asks – “Who is my neighbor?” – what the lawyer really wants to know is: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” Who don’t I have to care about? In response, Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of his story – a member of an ethnic group most Judeans would have been happy to leave out. His story makes clear that there are no exceptions: everyone is a neighbor whom we are called to love. Jesus takes this question of “Who is my neighbor” and turns it around to ask instead: “To whom can I be a good neighbor?”
But inviting this lawyer to think about how he can be a better neighbor still doesn’t totally answer his question. Being a better neighbor isn’t going to earn him eternal life. We already know that nothing this lawyer could do – nothing any of us could do – could ever be enough to merit eternal life, no matter where we find ourselves in this story. Instead, it is Jesus himself – Jesus alone – whose saving actions bring us to life.
And so, in a way, Jesus also tells this story about the Samaritan as a way of telling the story of what he himself is doing for humanity. The story is an illustration of his own profound sense of compassion and mercy. Jesus himself is the true Good Samaritan. He is the one who finds us hurting and broken on the road, half dead and unable to save ourselves. And whether someone or something else has hurt us, or the hurt is mostly of our own doing, he doesn’t ask and he doesn’t care – he kneels down beside us without hesitation and tenderly binds up our wounds. He lavishes abundant care on us, choosing to act toward us with extravagant love. Neither we nor the lawyer nor anyone else in the story need to worry about our justification or salvation – through love, Jesus has taken care of it all.
In the story, the Samaritan man also reaches out to draw others – in this case, an innkeeper – into these acts of care. Jesus likewise invites us into caring more deeply for our neighbors – again, not in order to earn our justification, but because we have been loved so that we might go and love others. Jesus calls us to follow his example by loving our neighbor – and he also shows us, in this story, what an incredible difference we can make when we choose to do so: that we can make an incredible difference just by choosing to notice the struggles of others and allowing ourselves to care.
When I was on summer staff at Camp Carol Joy Holling, many years ago, we used to have a lot of little sayings to help focus ourselves on ministry – things like “Camp is for the camper” or “It’s not about me” – but one that has most stuck with me is: “Take a second, make a difference.” And I see this wisdom in play in this story. For the Samaritan man, the events of this story basically amount to an unplanned expense and a brief interruption on his journey. It’s an inconvenience, but not that big a deal. But for the man on the road, the Samaritan’s choice to help him has an enormous impact – for him, it literally means the difference between life and death – and you can bet that he will never forget this act of compassion.
We might not have stories quite this dramatic, but I’d be willing to bet that everyone here can think of someone who took the time to impact their lives in some significant way – someone who chose to help you when they didn’t have to, someone whose small act of kindness made your day, or someone who just cared enough to hear your story and see your hurting. Even those small acts of love can make a big difference.
And that is perhaps the single most extraordinary thing about this story of the good Samaritan: that none of his actions are actually that extraordinary. He performs no miracles, no exorcisms, no divine healings of any kind. He simply chooses to act out of love, to make use of his time and his treasure to make a difference in the life of someone else. No doubt he could have easily found ways to spend that time and that money on himself instead. But he discovers that those gifts, when combined with the love of God flowing through him, have the power to change lives.
As we often pray on Sundays, all we have to offer is what God has first given us – our selves, our time, and our possessions. But when we choose to use these things with love, for the benefit of our neighbor, they can become extraordinarily powerful. The life-giving power of God’s love flows through each one of us, amplifying our small acts of kindness and compassion into a kind of superpower! It sets in motion currents of love that can change the world.
And everyone has this superpower, if they choose to use it. We are all empowered to love. Everyone in the story of the good Samaritan has the ability to exercise their superpower of love, if they choose to do so – even the lawyer who questions Jesus – and they have all been freed by grace to keep on trying until they get it right.
The love of God flows through our hearts and hands and changes lives; it changes the world. And as you go back out into the world, I invite you to wonder: Where can you use your superpower of love this week? Whose life can your love change?
I want to leave you with this very fitting blessing recently shared by another pastor friend of mine: Beloved,
Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God, who made us, who loves us, and who travels with us be with you now and forever. Amen.based on the words of Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881)