The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 16, 2016
Many of us are troubled by questions about what’s enough. We ask: “Have I tried hard enough? Given enough? Done enough? Am I good enough?”
Once a lawyer – not in the modern sense of an attorney at law, but in the ancient sense of an expert in God’s law – asked Jesus what He thought was enough to get right with God and gain life with God. He specifically asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus threw the question back at him, and asked what he thought the Bible said. The lawyer quoted scripture and showed he got it that life was all about loving God and neighbor. Jesus replied, “Do this, and you will live.”
Luke tells us that this lawyer was “wanting to justify himself” – that is, he was wanting to accomplish enough by his own efforts to earn the right to claim eternal life from God. To do that, he had to not just know the general terms for making the grade, but exactly which neighbors he had to take care of to make his service sufficient for satisfying the standard.
So he sought from Jesus a precise definition of whom he was obliged to help, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus did not give him a definition, but told a story instead; and His story changed the subject in a subtle but important way. The story does not address which neighbors it is to whom we owe love, but which people it is who have the heart to act like a neighbor toward whatever needy person they happen upon, even if that one is a very unlikely recipient of their care.
Note that, after telling the story, Jesus did not ask who was the neighbor in need, for that was obvious. Instead, he asked who made himself a neighbor to the person in need. Jesus wanted the lawyer – and us – not to look for some quality in others, that we might determine whom we must help and whom we may ignore; but to look for a certain quality in ourselves: namely, God-like, active mercy.
To the question, “What’s enough to be right with God?” there are two answers. The first Jesus gave here; the second, elsewhere. The first answer is meant to lead the lawyer, and us, to despair of our becoming good enough, and thereby prompt us to search for the other answer, which is the only viable answer.
The first answer sets the bar impossibly high: we have to be like the Good Samaritan and always be on call to do everything for everyone in need! The second answer sets the bar preposterously low: we have to do nothing but admit that we ourselves are in need of mercy, more like the bleeding Jew than the serving Samaritan, and that our only hope is in the arrival of Someone compassionate enough to save us in an act of unexpected and unearned grace. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, let us heart the story out.
The story is set on what everyone back then called “the bloody way”, the 17-mile-long, nastily dangerous road descending 4,000 feet from Jerusalem to Jericho. By many twists and turns it weaved its torturous way down mountainous terrain with many blind corners, concealed caves and narrow ravines that provided thugs great places from which to spring ambushes. It was worse than walking down the darkest alley in Long Beach, with streetlights and cell phones not invented yet!
Once on this road a Jewish traveler was mugged, beaten and left “half dead”. Shortly, a Jewish priest and a Levite came by. Neither stopped to help the poor soul – perhaps fearing for their own safety and/or rationalizing they had higher priorities to which to attend in God’s service. Then, a Samaritan happened on the scene.
Now Samaritans and Israelites had a long and ugly history pock-marked by many acts of violence and injustice, and each group hated the other with a purple passion. The prejudices of the Samaritan’s culture would have inclined him, not to step around that Jewish victim, but to step on him and finish him off.
Yet, this Samaritan had a heart of loving compassion and acted like someone always on call to help anyone anywhere. He tenderly cared for this “enemy” of his, and dedicated everything he had – his personal safety, time and money – to saving his life. He abandoned whatever plans he’d had, and gave up arriving at his intended destination that day. He got his hands dirty and bloody giving the stranger first aid. He lost a night of sleep nursing him to health. He emptied his wallet to secure him a comfortable place in which to recover, and left his tab with the inn-keeper open, telling him, “When I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Our first impulse is to think that, in telling this story, Jesus only meant to inspire us to imitate the Samaritan and do everything for everyone we find in need. But I believe He had a more pressing purpose in introducing us to this made-up man perfect in love. I believe Jesus meant to dislodge us from the illusion that we could ever be that good, good enough to enter eternal life by virtue of our ethical achievement. While the Samaritan can be for us like a star in the sky by which we navigate the course of our life, he humbles us like a star in the sky by reminding us there are heights and magnificence beyond our reach.
The Samaritan, that ideal human being, sets a standard beyond attainment. In a world where at almost every turn we come across people who in one way or another are bloodied and half-dead, who could act as he and help everyone with everything they had?
While serving us as an example to emulate, the Samaritan serves us even more as a prod to search for another basis by which to gain life with God – until we find it in Jesus, the ultimate embodiment of infinite and eternal mercy – Jesus, the true Good Samaritan, and not an imaginary character but the most real person there is.
In theory, someone could get right with God by satisfying well enough God’s commandment to love; but in reality none of us has it in us to pull that off.
The story of the Good Samaritan blesses us bringing us to that “poverty of spirit” which Jesus says makes the kingdom of heaven ours. It humbles us by its depiction of the love God requires in order to motivate us to turn to the love God offers independent of how loving we are, as an undeserved gift of His unlimited grace. It shows us that we, who are tempted to think we might match the perfection of the story’s hero, in fact only duplicate the desperation of the story’s half-dead victim.
In the end, our only hope is, not in the love that might be seen in us, but in the love that is seen in Jesus. Though we are as good as God’s enemies, God treats like a favorite child. Though we are as good as dead in our sins, God devotes His life to us and rescues us from death. Though He asks us to become more like the Good Samaritan, He accepts and cherishes us apart from our becoming one bit like him. Let us give thanks!