Love from unexpected places - Luke 10:25-37
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A television producer one said this, Our rule of thumb in showing human suffering is that the death of a thousand people in the Third World is equivalent to a hundred people in the West, ten adults in our own country, and one child in our local community. In other words human worth is relative. Those who are furthest from us either in distance or type are to be accorded less care than those closest to us. Now of course this is not anything new. Aristotle argued that we should limit the reach of pity to, "people like us." We say dont we? that charity begins at home. The trouble is, it tends to stay there.
On the other hand, it has to be said that television has opened up to us the needs of a bigger world such that we are now in danger of going to the other extreme so we can have such an idealised view of helping humanity that it becomes easier to write the cheque for the hungry in Ethiopia than to help the old man living next door. I am reminded of the Peanuts cartoon with Lucy wearing a t shirt which has written on it : I love humanity- it is people I cant stand. But it is with people that we have to deal.
But for those who profess to worship the one true God, which would include most of us here tonight, this question of loving people and not just humanity involves very high stakes. Because you see, according to Jesus this is a test as to whether or not we on the road to eternal life. The real measure, is not whether we can make credal a assent- saying what we believe- but whether engage in Christian action- expressing Christian behaviour. And this is spelt out for us in one of the most well known, and yet often misunderstood, stories that Jesus ever told- the parable of the caring Samaritan. So do turn with me to Luke 10: 25 ff.
Lukes account begins with a man who has a proper aspiration -v 25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" . Here is someone who is concerned about his eternal destiny. He recognises what matters is not simply the here and now, but the there and then- eternity. But the question he asks is not a genuine one. He raises it not to gain spiritual insight but to score a theological debating point, he wants to -test Jesus. He thinks he knows the answer and that Jesus doesnt. After all, he is an expert in the law, that is someone who has been to the finest theological college and qualified as a full time professional Bible teacher. So the real intention in asking this question is embarrass Jesus, to see this self- appointed preacher fall flat on his face.
But what Jesus does is to get the man to answer his own question. It is obvious he wants to show off his Bible knowledge, so Jesus gives him an opportunity to do just that, and in so doing gives him enough rope to hang himself- v 26: What is written in the law? How do you read it? And so the man decides to really impress Jesus by quoting two remote verses from the OT - one text from Deuteronomy and another tucked away in Leviticus- and so we have a pertinent answer - v27- 28. He answered: " `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, `Love your neighbor as yourself."
When you think about it, the man is absolutely spot on. Here is the perfect summary of the whole OT law which is all to do with right relationships: being rightly related to God and rightly related to each other. In these two texts you have the embodiment of the 10 commandments dont you? The first 5 which all have to do with living before our Maker, so he is number one in our lives- and the second five about the way we live with each other. Love God, love your neighbour. Do this says Jesus and you will live.
But that raises a big question: how do you know whether you have done it? How do you measure whether you are loving God with the whole of your being? By how much time you spend thinking about him? How intensely you pray to him? How often you sing to him? If our eternal destiny is dependent upon what we do, as this man obviously thinks- What must I do to inherit eternal life? -then it is crucial that we can have some standard by which we can measure our success rate. You have to have some bench mark to which you can point in order to comfort yourself that you are on the right track. And maybe that is why the man plumbed for the keeping of the second commandment as mark of making spiritual progress, skipping over the first commandment, when he asks who is my neighbour? At least there you can see evidence of true piety cant you? For you either treat people badly or well, if it is the latter then you must be OK., if its the former, then you are not. And that is how many people see it today. In fact, the first commandment about loving God has disappeared from view altogether - leaving only one commandment in the 21st century, love each other and who needs to be a Christian to do that? Anybody can qualify, so even if there is a God then this is all he will look for in me when I roll up to the pearly gates when I die. I will be able to take out my blood donor card , as well as a list of all the charities I have donated to and tell him to tot that up, he is bound to be impressed. And maybe you are here tonight and you think that too. You feel you are not all that bad. You have never done anyone any harm and you look upon yourself as a descent sort of person. In fact perhaps you can go one step further. You are religious too, with an impeccable pedigree of having been brought up in a Christian home, having regularly read your bible notes, even attending a sound church and quoting the Bible with ease like this man-so you must be well on the way. Well let me ask: How do you know that you have been good enough? That you have done the right things to the right people? Well, what you do is to fix things so that you can be sure.
How can a rail company make sure that trains run on time? They change the time table- so the formerly late time becomes the new correct time. How can an examination board improve the pass levels? Simple- make the exams easier. The name of the game is accommodation. And the religious leaders of Jesus day were brilliant at doing just that. For them the way of ensuring the keeping of the law was by making it easier to keep- they employed the principle of minimum requirement. And that was certainly behind the question of the bible expert in v 29 which revealed a twisted attitude. But he wanting to justify himself, asked Who is my neighbour? From beginning to end, his view of salvation was all about justifying himself. He thought he had to do something to inherit eternal life, he wanted to justify himself, not only to Jesus, or to himself, but ultimately to God and so he throws out the question with a knowing smirk, Who is my neighbour? You see, if the circle of the people we are to be kind to in order to get into heaven is small enough, that certainly would be manageable, at least in theory. And the religious elite of Jesus day had an answer to the question who is my neighbour- a fellow Israelite. The text from Leviticus 19:18 taken literally seems to imply this, for the first part reads: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your own people, but love your neighbour as yourself. So are we back to Aristotle then in showing love only to one of our own kind? Well no. Because Jesus in this parable does two things which blows such narrow mindedness out of the water. First, he shows that there are times when we dont manage even to do that- our self interest is such that we dont help one of our own-so we fail miserably- we wont get into heaven that way. And secondly he asserts the principle of maximum application over and against minimum requirement. And he does this by relating a shocking account -vv 30-36.
The first part of the story could have been taken straight from Palestines News at Ten. Sadly, such brutal incidents were all too common. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a well travelled and notoriously dangerous one. It was literally a case of going down that road, for Jerusalem was 2,700 feet above sea level and Jericho 820 feet below. This meant a drop of 3,500 feet over a seventeen mile journey through desolate and craggy limestone hills. It was ideal bandit country. That is why many of the people tended to travel in groups. It was a scary and risky business. I know how this feels. Last year when I was in South Africa, some friends decided to take me to down town Pretoria on a Friday evening. Now South Africa is a very violent place and one of the most violent crimes is car jacking. And so they took me to an area called Sunnyville which is anything but. There we were, at night, waiting at the traffic lights -the standard place for people to jump in with guns and steal your car. And I was frantically making sure that the car door was locked when they told me that in the very spot where we had stopped, that a few months earlier a gang of three men, burst into a waiting car which had a mother, grandmother and baby. At gun point they drove them away- shot the mother and grandmother and abused the baby. Pure evil. Well, there was pure evil on this road too. And Jesus listeners would not have been surprised to hear his description of a man beaten, stripped naked, robbed and left bleeding to death on the open road- it happens.
But then it looks like all is not lost for help is on its way. It may not be the arrival of the cavalry but the priesthood- v 31. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. Well, you can shrug your shoulders and say there is always one bad apple in the barrel isnt there? But look, here comes a Levite, and so hope raises its head once more, but he does exactly the same. Here are the two pillars of the religious establishment- a priest and a levite. Now just think about that for a moment. The priests were the clergy responsible for offering the sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem. They lived and breathed OT religion-including Dt and Leviticus .They not only heard the OT scriptures daily, they taught them. And the Levites job was to help them, especially in providing music and ensuring temple security- these were the worship leaders and bouncers of the temple. And what do they do here? Absolutely nothing. Imagine a paramedic seeing a cycle accident and driving on- that is the picture. It should not happen! Now at this point some commentators begin to make excuses for the them. Some say, they may have thought the man was dead, so they couldnt do anything anyway-it would have been dangerous to stop because they could have been mugged. Certainly the word used in v 30 translated half dead (emithane) could mean that he was in such a bad way he appeared dead and so was beyond help. Or it could be taken that he was so badly beaten that he was on the verge of death and therefore needed help. Given that the next person who came along did take action seems to indicate that it was the latter so there is no excuse. But secondly some draw attention to the fact that for these religious people to touch a dead body would have made them ritually unclean and since they were no doubt going on to do temple business that was a risk they couldnt afford to take. But this wont do either because Jesus says the priest was going down the road- the implication being that it was in the same direction as the man -from Jerusalem to Jericho. And that figures because Jericho was the place for the rich and famous to live- that is where Posh and Becks would have had a villa. It had a wonderful climate and was known as the City of a Thousand Palms. So these people werent hurrying to get to work and serve God, they were hurrying to get home and have a holiday and that makes their callousness even more deplorable. You see, whatever reasons they had for not helping the man- fear of personal danger, thinking they were too late, ritual uncleanness- simply demonstrates that for all their talk and religion some people are not willing to show love even to one of their own. So even when we do draw the circle closely we fail. Its not as if the priest and levite had hurt the man, they simply didnt help the man and in Gods sight that is just as bad. There are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Have you ever seen someone needing help but because of an appointment, fear of embarrassment, you have moved on, looking the other way, maybe hoping someone else will do something? If so then you have been the priest and the Levite. And so have I.
But we all know how hypocritical the clergy are dont we? But what about an honest to goodness fellow Jew putting the clergy to shame? Now that would make a good story. And perhaps that is what the listeners were expecting Jesus to say next. But he didnt. The person he chose to be the hero could not have been more repulsive and offensive- in fact it was plain sickening. He chose a Samaritan- v 33. You can tell how seething the hatred was between the Jews and Samaritans by the fact that in v 37 when Jesus asked who was the real neighbour in the story our theological whiz kid could not even bring himself to say the word Samaritan , he just managed to mutter the one who had mercy on him. It stuck in his throat. There was no such thing as a good Samaritan, by definition. You see the Jews looked upon Samaritans as religious and ethnic half breeds. The animosity which existed between them went way back to OT times. When the Samaritans built an rival temple on Mount Gerazim, in 128 BC the Jews took a force and burned it down together with most of the city-not the best way to win friends and influence people! The Samaritans were just as bad, because a couple of years before Jesus was born a group of them broke into the Temple of Jerusalem and on the Passover scattered human bones around the place so defiling it- religious vandals -thats what they were. So when Jesus introduced the Samaritan into the story, you can be sure that the people expected something nasty to happen. It would have been like speaking of a Serbian coming along the road and seeing a Croat bleeding to death, he would have simply finished the job.
But this one didnt. On the contrary he did the unthinkable- he actually helped the man. And make no mistake his action was both risky and costly. It was risky in that he too made himself vulnerable to attack- he got down from his donkey and later when he places the man on the donkey- he extends the risk of attack even further as now he would be slowed down. He took wine and oil, antiseptic and balm to soothe the mans wounds. Which was ironic really, because that the priest and Levite carried these in their back packs to be used in religious festivals, and here this semi-pagan Samaritan putting them to proper use. But it was also costly, he paid for the man to be taken care of , and notice how in v 35 he is willing to incur any extra cost. Now that is love.
But why did he do this? We are told in v 33, When he saw him , he had pity on him. Thats the difference. In fact that is too weak a translation. The word used is, moved with compassion , literally his guts were churned up. The only other times that word is used in the Gospels is to described Jesus when he saw people in need-his guts were churned up too.
Now do you see what was happening? When the Samaritan came by what did he see? Well, he didnt see a Jew. He didnt see an enemy. He saw someone in need and was moved! And he was moved to do something. And so Jesus implicitly answers the question: Who is my neighbour? Anyone in need is my neighbour. There are no religious, racial or social limitations -so dont dare ask the question so that you can cop out in helping someone and satisfying your smug self-righteousness!
But Jesus pushes it one step further. For in v 35, he says: Which of these do you think was the neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? You see, the lawyer wanted to know the limits of neighbour love, so he could get away with the bare minimum-who is my neighbour?. Jesus turns it around and asks what sort of neighbour he should be. The answer: one who shows mercy without limit.
And why should we be like this- like the religious no-hoper Samaritan? Because God is like this. The Samaritans response was Jesus response- he was moved with compassion. That is the pitiful irony here. The ones who were supposed to represent God, who knew their Bibles backward, who were steeped up to their necks in religion and ceremony-the priest and the Levite- and to be frank the expert in the law- were least like him, whilst the one who was supposed to be a little higher than vermin on the Israelite scale of values was most like him for he had -mercy. And isnt it sad to say that sometimes the most religious people can be some of the most hard hearted people? It should not be friends.
Let me tell you something. When God looks at you and me , he too sees a person battered and on the verge of death , helpless and hopeless, unable to heal themselves of the spiritual sickness called sin. And he is moved with compassion. He climbs down from the glory of heaven, making himself vulnerable in taking to himself human flesh, and opening himself up to the same bad mouthing abuse normally reserved for Samaritans. In fact in one incident in John 8:48 the religious leaders were so antagonistic towards Jesus that they accused him of being a Samaritan and demon possessed to boot.- the worst insult they could fling at him. Had they called him a dog it wouldnt have been as a bad . But he took the insult. And like this man he binds up our spiritual wounds by being wounded on our behalf as the prophet Isaiah says By his wounds we are healed. That is why he made that journey towards Jerusalem, along the same road, as he came from Galilee and made his way to a cross. And all of this underscoring the fact we can do nothing to inherit eternal life, but he has done everything. And those who have received his love, are meant to show that same love to others, as a sign of salvation not as a means of salvation.
And that is where the double challenge comes to us tonight. First, are you still trying to do something to put yourself right with God? If so then forget it- you cant. You have to swallow your pride and accept his mercy like everyone else. So stop trying to justify yourself.
But supposing you are a Christian, then what are you doing to show it? Jesus words to this man are the same words to us: Go and do likewise.
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