Sermon 1 in a series of 5 on the parables of Jesus in Luke.
A priest, a rabbi, and a lawyer, walk into a bar…
And they each yell, “ow!”
Classic dad joke.
This version of, “a priest walks into a bar” joke, is rare for almost always at least one of the members of the clergy comes out looking bad. This is no complaint, those are funny jokes. But our scripture this morning reminded me of it.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous parts of all of scripture. And in it, its the clergy who often come out with a black eye. In this story, you may recall, the more pious you are perceived to be, the less you do to help the beaten-up man on the side of the road.
But there’s more to this story than meets the eye.
This morning, we embark on a new journey during the five Sundays of Lent. We’ll be studying together parables of Jesus from the gospel of Luke. If you’ve signed up to be part of the Luke discussion group, reading through it during the season of Lent, our readings and discussion coincide with my preaching. But even if you’re not part of that discussion group, there’s much to learn and explore.
We’ll be looking at some very famous, and some lesser known, parables to think through what Jesus asks of us in our daily lives. It’s a pertinent question during this season of Lent when we’re thinking about being more disciplined, more focused on our spiritual life, as we prepare ourselves for Holy Week. What does a Jesus ask of us in our daily lives?
Let’s hear the parable of the Good Samaritan again, but with ears to hear it fresh, as if for the first time.
The clergy come out looking bad because they walk around the beaten man. How could they be so careless? So callous? So insensitive? Imagine if you were driving down the road and saw a massive car accident in which there are clearly injured folks who have yet to receive medical care. You’d at least pull over and dial 911! And now imagine if medical professionals drove by and saw such a scene, but did nothing? That’s how the clergy are often perceived here.
So certainly this priest and Levite didn’t live up to that expectation. How could they act in such an uncaring, even cruel, way?
Intriguingly, Jesus’s audience would not have asked the same question.
They would have absolutely expected that the priest and Levite would walk around this man. Priests and Levites were required to maintain purity. The Jews of Jesus’s time had purity laws, for they had to be pure in order to offer sacrifices or engage in other religious activity. The priests and Levites especially, then, had to be pure in order to lead the people in their religious activity.
And one of the fastest ways to become impure was to touch a wounded body, especially in the presence of blood. So Jesus’s audience absolutely would have expected the priest and the Levite to walk around the body.
Not only that, but finding a wounded body on the side of the road, having been attacked by robbers, was a very common sight in the ancient world. Today, we take traveling for granted. I rarely thought about my safety while I travelled to St. Louis a few weeks ago. But not for the ancient traveler down a road. Common wisdom said to take a companion, for those in pairs were much less likely to be attacked. But even then, attacks still occurred with great frequency. It was normal to be robbed and roughed up while traveling. People were, perhaps, accustomed to walking by such sights, feeling pity for the victim, but continuing on their way, for such sights were common.
As I learned of this, the image of the homeless in Macon came to mind, for they, like wounded travelers of Jesus’s day, are a common sight that can move our hearts to pity. But, rarely do we do anything to alleviate the suffering of the homeless. We’re like the priest and the Levite, walking around, keeping our distance, perhaps feeling pity.
But lest we judge ourselves too harshly, isn’t that the right thing to do? After all, helping one person doesn’t solve the larger issue. And if all we have is cash, what if that person goes and buys booze or cigarettes or drugs with that money? Haven’t we then aided their suffering, albeit unwittingly? Plus, what if we open ourselves up to the possibility of diseases. We don’t have religious purity laws, but we do have purity customs to protect our health.
We have many reasons to walk around the homeless, just as the priest and Levite had many reasons to walk around the man on the side of the road. The sight was common, the consequences for their purity grave, the problem larger than just this one man, so what good could they really do anyway?
Jesus’s audience would have immediately related to the sight of a man, beaten, lying on the side of the road, and to the walking around of the priest and Levite. They probably would have even excused such behavior. But, this being a story, they’re expecting a hero to come around. And it’s the hero, not the behavior of the clergy, that proves shocking.
The audience would be expecting that a pious Israelite lay person would stop to help. But instead they are shocked when it’s a Samaritan, the worst kind of person in the minds of ancient Jews. If not a pious Jew to stop and help the man, better a Gentile stop than a Samaritan! Better that a roman soldier on his rounds between Jericho and Jerusalem have stopped. But no, it was a Samaritan.
The hero is the surprise of the story. How could anything good be done by a Samaritan? That would have been a common thought among the crowd hearing the story. Indeed, it would have surprised the lawyer challenging Jesus. A samaritan could be a good neighbor? A samaritan would show this kind of mercy? A samaritan would be moved to compassion? A samaritan would be the answer to the lawyer’s challenge?
Yes. And the lawyer gets it. He’s been self-righteous, trying to get Jesus to justify what he already thinks: that he’s a really good Jew. How often are we like that, asking God, each other, or me questions that are really just trying to get God, each other, or me, to justify that we are a good Christian? We want that assurance. We want to be comforted, which is, I think, what this lawyer is after.
But rather than comfort, Jesus stands his query on its head: the most neighborly person in the story is the Samaritan. Help comes, sometimes, from where you’d least expect it. Help comes, sometimes, from places you might usually revile.
This, it turns out, is a complicated story. The hero is not who you’d expect. The clergy do exactly as you’d expect. The lawyer, rather than be comforted, is convicted for not being neighborly enough.
And after realizing all those complications, we’re left with this fundamental question: what does it mean to be a neighbor?
Were the clergy neighborly in walking around? They were doing their duty.
Was the lawyer being neighborly in even asking the question? There’s a certain amount of piety behind his question. He’s just trying to be the best Jew he can be.
Was the samaritan the example of what it means to be neighborly? We can’t do what he did for everyone. We can’t give two days wages, what two denarii represents in the story, to everyone we meet who has financial need.
This is a complicated story. But lest we get too lost in the details, Jesus has a simple answer for us. Well, it seems simple. But if we’re bold enough to be self-reflective on Jesus’s answer, then we’ll find that a simple answer has profound consequences for our actions.
And before we hear the answer, we must acknowledge that this is the task of these parables. This sermon, and indeed the sermons for the coming weeks, are hard sermons because they will ask us to do some serious self-reflecting upon whether or not we’re living up to Jesus’s standards. Jesus gets this reputation like a teddy bear: cuddly and soft with his love and peace. This is true, in part. But Jesus’s teachings are hard. Very hard. Very demanding. And living into them requires that we be willing to sacrifice for them.
But that’s the road to experiencing Jesus’s love and peace. In the last sermon series, I harped on the necessity of spiritual discipline. Here is an example of the consequence of regular discipline: it becomes easier to live into the teachings of Jesus and experience the love and peace for which he’s famous.
So here, as we’ll find with the next four parables, we have an easy and yet hard answer. A simple answer that will complicate our lives. And the answer is this:
“Mercy sees only the need and responds with compassion.”
That’s what Jesus means here at the end. He reflectively asks the lawyer “Which of these three…was a neighbor to the man…?” The lawyer responds, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “go and do likewise.”
But Jesus doesn’t respond by saying “go and do likewise if it’s convenient,” for it was certainly inconvenient for the priest and Levite.
Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “go and do likewise if it will help you feel better about yourself,” which was what the lawyer was after.
Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “go and do likewise if the person in need meets your conditions for being deserving of help,” which is also how the clergy responded and how we typically respond to the homeless in Macon.
“Mercy sees only the need and responds with compassion.” Jesus simply says show mercy; show compassion, when you see a need. That’s what it means to be neighborly.
While we certainly cannot meet the needs of everyone we encounter, for if we could we would be Jesus, we can still be responsive when motivated by the Holy Spirit to be compassionate. It’s too harsh of us to judge the clergy. Perhaps they were not motivated in their hearts to help. It’s too harsh of us to judge each other for not helping every time we run into the homeless or others in need. And besides, we’re not supposed to judge each other.
Faithfulness, righteousness, lies in responding when the Holy Spirit moves us to. Spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to be compassionate, to meet a need. Which is the fancy, religious, way of saying, when you feel moved to compassion, act compassionately.
It’s that simple: when you feel moved to compassion, act compassionately.
Act compassionately, even if it’s inconvenient.
Act compassionately with selflessness, not to make yourself feel better about yourself.
Act compassionately, even if the person doesn’t seem deserving of help.
Act compassionately, even if requires some level of risk for you.
For “mercy sees only the need and responds with compassion.” That’s what it means to be neighborly.
We know this simple answer is complicating for our lives. Meet a new every time we are moved by compassion? But that’s the call on our lives. That’s the simply complex answer. Which leaves us with this question to ponder as we go, this question that should dominate our thoughts for a while, if we’re willing to be brave and take this parable as teaching for our lives today. And that question is this:
Who in your life needs compassion?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.