Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
Of all the stories that Jesus ever told in the gospels, I imagine that the one about the Good Samaritan has to be one of the most well-known. Sure, the Prodigal Son is right up there, and as Christians we love the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – those are common, but I don’t think they quite get to the international recognition even people outside the church have for the story of the Good Samaritan. There are hospitals named after him. There are charitable groups. There are secular laws named for the Good Samaritan. The term “Good Samaritan” has entered and still thrives in the vocabulary of American people. People who have never stepped foot into a church or cracked open a Bible know about this guy. And as great as it is for people to be familiar with even one small section of Scripture, I don’t think that familiarity has done any favors when it comes to understanding the story of the Good Samaritan. Familiarity breeds contempt, and this is just another story like one of Aesop’s fables, right? So what’s the “moral” of the story? We all know the story – guy gets beat up, two people pass by, the third helps. So I’ll just sum it up for you: “Be nice to people. Amen. Please stand.” (Just kidding). In all honesty, that’s about as far as most will go when trying to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan. But is there something more? And when it comes down to it, is being “good” good enough?
Of course, there’s infinitely more going on here than a simple lesson in morality. I know that because of what prompted Jesus to tell this story in the first place. On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is it! That’s THE question that every serious minded, quasi-religious or otherwise person wants answered! And he’s thinking of eternal life in an entirely natural way - as something I can accomplish. What do I need to do, Jesus? Give me the list, mark off the steps, show me the ladder and I’ll climb it! In short, this expert in the law wanted to define his relationship with God on the basis of the law – what I can do, what I can be. So, Jesus lets him answer his own question on his own terms, “What is written in the Law?...How do you read it?” 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.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” So…that’s it? That’s THE answer to THE question of my eternal existence? Do this and you will live.
It sounds pretty straightforward, but have you done it? I mean, you’re here on this Sunday morning, and probably at least a couple more each month which is a lot more than some others can say. You support the work of the gospel in this place, maybe not to the same extent as some, but certainly more than others. You’re willing to lend a hand to someone in need – assuming they’re not asking too much, and it fits in the schedule. Do I love God and love my neighbor? Sure. But that’s not the answer we heard. Love the Lord your God with all your heart…all your soul…all your strength…all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God with absolutely all I am and all I have and loving my neighbor not just a whole lot, but as much as I love myself (can you even imagine what that would look like?!) is not just a high bar, it’s an unreachable one for a sinner to jump. This twofold summary of the law of God is more than impressive, it’s impossible. When could you ever say, “I’ve done that!” Mow the lawn…check. Take out the trash…done. Love God with all I am and have? Love my neighbor as myself? Is that ever really done? The expert in the law knew his Scripture and he knew the summary of God’s law, but he didn’t know its spirit. He saw the legal path to life, but completely missed his inability to keep it.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying. If you don’t like the game, change the rules. That’s what the expert in the law tried to do, And who is my neighbor? That’s what we try to do – taking the bar of God’s perfect holiness and lowering it to a level I can easily attain. God certainly couldn’t be demanding that, so I’ll just follow my slightly modified version of his law, and I should be OK. This expert in the law would be ready and willing to say that his neighbors were his fellow law-abiding, synagogue-going Israelites – but what about the robbers, what about the guy who got beat up, what about [gasp] a Samaritan? So now, in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? Jesus tells the story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. So far, the story is a bit uncomfortable to hear. Robbers rob, leaving the unsuspecting victim half-dead. And then, through the tiny slits that are now his eyes, the man in the ditch sees the sandal-clad feet and the robe flowing. A priest! It’s my lucky day! But he sees those sandal clad feet and flowing robe keep walking. Then, a Levite – a faithful temple worker will surely help me! Not happening. Those two guys were the “good” ones, people the expert in the law would’ve been proud to call his neighbors, but they passed by on the other side.
Here is where the story goes from uncomfortable to utterly shocking: But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Who is my neighbor? The one in need of mercy, even if that neighbor is the sworn enemy of your people. That’s what the Samaritans were to the Jews, after all. The Samaritans were half-Israelite, half-foreigners with their weird worship and their distorted God. Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other, but here’s a Samaritan stopping to help, and going the extra mile to see to it that this beaten and bloodied man is made whole again. So, who’s the neighbor? The one who helped – not just the one who helped people like himself, or helped those who could help him back – but the one who did more than help. He took the entire burden upon himself for the sole purpose that another person would benefit.
A sometimes helpful question to ask when we read a parable of Jesus is, “Where do I find myself in this story?” So, let’s ask it. Who am I in the story of the Good Samaritan? Who are you? I’m the man in the ditch, beaten, robbed, bloodied, and good for nothing but dying. But not so fast, because I’m also the priest who’s too concerned with my own schedule and purity. I’m the Levite who’s just following the party line and knows that we don’t associate with those types. I’m the thieves who did the beating and stealing. The law of God shows me that in this parable, I’m certainly not the Good Samaritan. So, here’s the point of the parable, I think. It’s not just a lesson in morals, and an encouragement to “be a good person.” If you want to define your status before God on the basis of the law, if you want to justify yourself like that expert in the law did, realize something very important – the kind of love that God demands in his law is a love that the law will never give. The law demands flawless obedience, perfect performance, every-second-of-my-existence holiness, but it doesn’t move me an inch toward righteousness, holiness, and purity, because at the same time, it’s always showing me how far short I’ve fallen of the glory of God. For as many times as I’ve tried to be that helpful person, there are infinitely more times that I’ve walked by on the other side. Maybe a Good Samaritan isn’t good enough. We need a better “Samaritan;” in fact, a perfect “Samaritan.”
And who is that? Someone who was ostracized, marginalized, looked down upon like a Samaritan in the first century? An outsider who came in and did the most unimaginably merciful thing for someone who would’ve spit in his face if he could’ve mustered up the strength? A sometimes helpful question to ask is, “Where do I find myself in this story,” but that’s not quite the right question to ask. The even more helpful question to ask is, “Where do I find Jesus in this parable?” Here he is – the One who comes and takes action on behalf of those who were his enemies; the One who spares no expense to provide for all of our needs; the One who heals our wounds, forgives our sins, and saves our souls. This is perfect love. Jesus had every reason imaginable to pass by the other side and avoid us, but he refused. He came a lot farther than crossing the street. He came from heaven to earth, took on our human flesh, placed himself under the exacting demands of his Father’s law, and after living a perfect life that we could never live, he set his face like flint toward the cross of Calvary – for you. Jesus didn’t just tell the story of the Good Samaritan to encourage people to be nice. Jesus told this story to show us that he himself lived it and still lives it for you. The perfect love the law demands is the love that Christ has shown to you.
This is why we love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind – because he loved us first. This is why we love our neighbors as ourselves – because we’ve been so loved by God that he has set us free from our sin, free from the burden of slavery to the law, free from accusation, free to love our neighbor. So, who is your neighbor? Really, that’s the wrong question to ask. What kind of neighbor do I get to be? I get to be a neighbor who shows love and forgiveness even to the person who “doesn’t deserve it” – because that’s exactly what Jesus did for me. I get to be a neighbor who sees the need of the person next to me and my only thought is, “How can I serve?” – because that’s exactly what Jesus did for me. So, when Jesus ends this gospel lesson by saying, “Go and do likewise,” that’s not a pithy, “You’ll figure out how to earn your way to heaven.” Hardly. When Jesus said, “Go and do likewise,” it’s the opening of a prison door; it’s the chains falling off; it’s the declaration of freedom from sin that he’s won for us. This is Jesus sending us to the world with a love that the world could never dream up, but a love that he’s revealed in the gospel and given us fully and freely. In other words, this isn’t Jesus saying “Do, do, do!” as much as Jesus saying “Done, done, done.” Why did Jesus tell this story? Be a Good Samaritan? OK, but even more - You have a Perfect “Samaritan,” who has loved you with an everlasting love, and whose love you get to take to everyone you meet. God grant it, for Jesus’ sake!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen