Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 10:25-37
The question which the lawyer posed to test Jesus is a profound one: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responded by asking the lawyer another question, and the lawyer ends up correctly answering his own question by summarizing the foundational law of the Hebrew people: “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”
Very straightforward. Not unlike what we heard in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy, which also focuses on keeping the divine law. There it says, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away…”
Returning to the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer recorded in Luke, Jesus’ reply concerning the answer given summarizing the law is straightforward, but it’s also a zinger. Jesus said, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Do this, and you will live. Simple, right? Straightforward? Yes. Easy? No.
When it comes to obeying God’s law, it’s easier said than done for us sinful mortals. Undoubtedly knowing this, the lawyer’s defensive reaction is that he wanted to “justify himself.” So do we.
Here, the plot thickens, revealing the sinful dynamics at play in the human heart and mind. The human tendency is to seek loopholes, easy ways out, approaches that help us to see and present ourselves in the best possible light without fully acknowledging our shortcomings.
So it is that the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” That’s when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, or perhaps more aptly, the Merciful Samaritan.
In response to the man robbed and left for dead, the religious authorities, the priest and the Levite, do nothing, passing by on the other side. That response of maintaining their safe distance was undoubtedly in keeping with religious laws concerning purity, prohibitions against getting sullied by contact with those who are unclean. And a bloodied man would likely have been religiously unclean for clergy types of the day. So, they kept their safe distance, maintaining religious purity, and went on their way.
But it was the Samaritan, the foreigner, who came to the aid of the gravely wounded man and not only that, this foreigner went far above and beyond the call of duty in response to the wounded, dying man’s needs.
Moved with pity, with compassion, a gut-wrenching compassion in the biblical Greek, the Samaritan drew near, got up close and personal, became vulnerable, and offered first aid, took the victim to an inn where he took further care of him, and then even gave money to the innkeeper to tend to the man, offering to pay whatever it took to nurse the wounded man back to health. In short, the Samaritan was first responder, ambulance driver, nurse, and insurance plan all wrapped up in one person. That’s what it is to go above and beyond the call of duty.
After telling the story, Jesus again questions the lawyer: “Which of these three, [the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan], then, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, again rightly and obviously, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus then said, “Go and do likewise.” And of course, we know from the nature of the story of the Good and merciful Samaritan that virtually none of us consistently does what the Samaritan did. More often than not, we commit the sins of omission of the priest and the Levite in passing by on the other side of all sorts and conditions of people in need. Thus, the story indicts the lawyer, and it indicts us by extension.
The over-the-top response of the Samaritan reveals the honest, truthful reality that we simply do not and cannot consistently and convincingly “go and do likewise” in showing life-giving, healing mercy to those most wounded and vulnerable.
Consider the state of our nation and world. Mercy is in short supply almost everywhere we turn, at least with the news stories that command our attention. Vengeance and cruelty and violence are more the spirit of our times. Yes, there are the merciful responses to our crises, but these are overshadowed by the enormity of the power of vengeance and cruelty which seem to be winning the day.
But of course, there’s also good news, because in Christ there always is. The parables of the gospels are almost always stories that point to Jesus, that reveal the nature of Christ and his mission and ministry.
So, considering the story of the Good Samaritan with a view to Christ Jesus, we may see Jesus as the Merciful Samaritan, he whose approaches to religious authority and leadership, religious teaching and practice, were foreign to the stated religious teaching and leaders of Jesus’ day.
Time and again, Luke and the other gospel writers reveal a Jesus who did as the Merciful Samaritan did in going the extra mile to care for the wounded and vulnerable. In short, Jesus did not pass by on the other side. Dying on the cross, ultimately to be raised from the dead, is anything but passing by on the other side!
Normally, we might likely focus on Jesus riding on the donkey as he enters triumphantly the holy city Jerusalem. But here in this story, we see the wounded man on the animal, and Jesus as a Samaritan, whose approach to religion is foreign even to his kindred people, guiding the wounded one to the inn for hospital care. And in this case, unlike Jesus’ birth when there was no place for the holy family to stay, there was room in the inn for the wounded.
Moreover, on the cross we see a wounded God in Christ paying and repaying whatever is needed, ultimately resulting in the healing, the restoration, the eternal life which the lawyer was seeking. In short, in the Good and merciful Samaritan, we see the fullness of Christ.
In Christ, turning again to our first reading in Deuteronomy, we hear the promise addressed not just to the people of old, but to us, the wounded, for whom Christ is merciful: “The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings,” that “the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, delighting in you.” In Christ, these words of promise are for us, too.
For Jesus Christ is the only one who is obedient to the extent of fulfilling the demands of the law. That is at the heart of the gospel, the good news.
In the light of Christ, we hear and see the other words of Deuteronomy in perhaps a different way. Listen again with Christ in mind: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Indeed, Christ came down from heaven to be the word of God made flesh to dwell very near to us, full of grace and truth. In the waters of baptism, which bonds us to the baptism of his own death and resurrection, Christ has taken us to his bosom, carrying us over the stormy abyss of the seas of sin and mortality to the other side.
In the meal at this table, we take the word who is Christ into our very mouths in bread and wine, his body, his blood, that this word would dwell in our hearts for us to observe, in the power of Christ.
In short, it is Christ in us, working through us, and in spite of us, who fulfills for us the law of God’s justice.
Thus it is that Paul can say with confidence to the members of the church in Colossae whom he addresses in today’s second reading: “For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” (Colossians 1:4-6) For “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the dominion of the beloved Son of God, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin.” (Colossians 1:13-14)
That is to say, it is Christ, the merciful one, who draws so near to us that he dwells among us in word and sacraments, who makes it possible to bear the fruit of mercy for the wounded and dying of our world full of robbers. It is God’s work in Christ, our hands in ministries of mercy for our neighbors.
Thus, in Christ, here in this place, and in every Christian place, we get to go and do likewise in being merciful neighbor to the wounded ones here and everywhere. Thanks be to God in Christ. Amen.