Luke 10:25-37
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 10, 2022

Prof. Gary Burge tells the story of a modern-day Good Samaritan.

Back when homophobia was more prevalent and deep-rooted, and much misinformation and fear swirled around AIDS, a gay Israeli soldier lay dying of it in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.  His family had disowned him and his friends were avoiding him. The hospital staff provided him the bare minimum of care.

The soldier happened to have served in a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank and was known for its cruel ferocity.  Palestinians hated those soldiers.

One evening this soldier went into cardiac arrest.   All the usual alarms went off, but the medical staff’s response was half-hearted.  After all, they rationalized, he was bound to die soon any way.

On that floor a Palestinian Christian worked as a janitor.  By sheer coincidence, he came from a village the soldier’s unit had brutalized.  He’d heard the talk about the soldier and saw how the staff neglected him.  But moved with mercy, this Palestinian Christian took compassionate action.  He dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room, vainly applied CPR, and stayed with him until he passed.

So, a “nobody”, in the eyes of the hospital staff, gave an “enemy” the love they’d all hope to receive if they were dying!

One day a “lawyer” – not an attorney as we now use the term, but an expert on God’s law in the books of Moses – stood up to “test” Jesus.  He asked a good question about how to inherit eternal life, but his motives were mixed.  While no doubt genuinely interested in hearing the answer, he was, it seems, just as interested in showing off and showing Jesus up.  So Jesus threw his good question back on him to answer, and he gave an answer that couldn’t be improved upon:  To inherit eternal life, love God with everything you’ve got, and your neighbor as yourself.

The lawyer got the right answer, but he got it with the wrong attitude.  His concern was to “justify” himself – to prove how right and wise he was.  He indicated no interest in implementing the right answer in his life.  Thus, twice, both before and after telling His parable, Jesus told the lawyer to “do” what his right answer commanded.  Jesus understood, as Fred Craddock once put it, that one can get a 4.0 grade point average in biblical studies and still miss the point.  Walking out the implications of a biblical truth does not amount to walking humbly with God.  Following God’s truth requires following God’s heart.

After the lawyer gave the right answer but with the wrong attitude, and after Jesus challenged him to live up to that right answer, the lawyer tried to get off the hot seat by asking a follow-up question – which was in fact very much the wrong question to ask. He asked, as a theoretical exercise, “Who is my neighbor?”  That question was so wrong Jesus chose not to answer it!  Instead He told a parable and then asked the lawyer to answer a different question:  Which person in the story “was a neighbor” – that is, acted like one.  Jesus recognized that the lawyer’s abstract question about who qualified as a neighbor was a deflective, defective and deceptive attempt to justify his not bothering about a whole lot of neighbors.  He was seeking a limiting definition of “neighbor” in the hope of reducing to a manageable size the number of folks who had an ethical claim upon him for his compassion.

While the lawyer wanted to think about who counted as a neighbor, Jesus wanted him to think about whose neighbor he’d choose to be.  To whom would he make himself a neighbor by actively caring about their well-being?  When he came upon a needy person whom God put before him and for whom God provided him the wherewithal to help, would he take responsibility?  Would he give what he’d hope to receive if he found himself in such a plight as they?

It’s impossible to determine whether the lawyer listened to Jesus’ parable fairly and honestly, but it is imperative that we determine to listen to it fairly and honestly.

To begin, we must not suppose the priest and the Levite to be bad men.  After all, they were on their way to Jerusalem to serve God and the members of their community.  Seeing that mugged man must have thrown them into a dilemma.  Yes, the man, if still alive (an uncertainty because he’d been left “half dead”), needed someone to help him, but they had crucial responsibilities to fulfill for people down the road who were depending on them.  If they took the time to attend to the mugged man, they’d risk failing to keep their promise to those people; and, if it turned out he was already dead, their coming into contact with his corpse would, per their religious law, disqualify them for days from helping anyone else in their special ways.  Moreover, on that road on which thugs often attacked travelers, they had reason to fear the man at the side of road was faking it, a plant to lure people near enough for fellow thieves to ambush them.

In listening fairly to this parable, we must not demonize the priest and the Levite.  I think Jesus would rather we see a bit of ourselves in them.  We too face hard choices between one duty and another, and we too may let our sense of self-importance and our wish to avoid the riskier course blind us from seeing God’s prioritizing first of all our bringing His mercy to the desperately needy.

Moreover, just as we should hesitate to too quickly judge the priest and the Levite, we should hesitate to too quickly identify ourselves with the Samaritan.  Honest now!  Would we really be as brave and open-handed as he?  He abandoned his plans for the day, kept his life at risk for hours by remaining on a dangerous road, expended a lot of time and energy on someone he had no guarantee would ever even thank him, spent much money on the mugged man’s doctoring and lodging, and obligated himself to spend even more on his behalf for quite a while.  We’d do well to refrain from presuming we’d be that courageous, merciful and generous.  On the other hand, we’d do well indeed to pray to become more like him.

For the Samaritan embodied the love of neighbor God wants us all to have: an active care and concern for those around us that crosses the bounds of nationality, ethnicity, familiarity, affinity or respectability.  (Remember, in that day, Jews and a Samaritans were just as likely to view each other as vilely bad people as political conservatives and progressives are today.)

If we encounter someone in need and have the opportunity and the means to help them, whomever they are, to walk away from them is to walk away from the God who loves us without limit and who in mercy offers us eternal life.

God extends the same generous mercy to every kind of human being.  So should we.  It’s just a matter of giving others what we’d hope to receive.  Let us pray.

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