First Presbyterian in Beaver Falls extended warm hospitality as I preached this sermon today.
My heart is heavy, brothers and sisters. My heart is heavy. All around us are those who have fell among thieves, who have been stripped of their clothing, who have been wounded, and who have been left half dead. We could speak of those whose tragedies have been in the news and social media, of Alton Sterling, of the Dallas Police officers, of Philando Castile, of the officer in Georgia ambushed via a fake distress call; we could speak of our own city, still hurting after all these years from predatory business practices, absentee and criminally negligent landlords, and racial tensions; we could speak of ourselves, beset constantly by despair, by anger, by greed, by lust, by hubris and pride. “In Adam all die” says St Paul (1 Cor 15:22); in every senseless death, the whole of Adam dies, and we die as well. “My brother is my life” says the monk of Mt Athos, St Silouan. It is right, then, to mourn: the image of God, in which we all share (Gen. 1:26-27), has been damaged, distorted, and broken. We mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15), yet we do not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13), for as our Lord says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
What is our comfort, though? It cannot be found in the powerful and connected of this world; not in the Sadducean priests who had access to Rome. Nor can it be found in the respectable, upright civil and religious leaders; the Levites will fail as we do. It is well to remind ourselves that the broader audience of this parable would have been shocked by the actions of these two. Yes, the priests were not allowed to defile themselves by touching a dead body -- but this traveler was not dead. While they would help a brother whose donkey had fallen off the road (Deut. 22:4), they would not help a brother who had been forced off.
The lawyer who asked the question, however, would not have been surprised: he was a Pharisee and the others were Sadducees by birth or association, long-standing rivals. He had asked the question to “justify himself” (v. 29) and his vindication seemed near. When we begin, instead of mourning, instead of repenting as the Prophet Daniel did for his errant and sinful nation (Dan. 9), or as Nehemiah did (Neh. 9), when we begin by trotting out statistics about misdemeanors or even felonies that apparently demand execution without trial, or about how overall highway robberies are down, or we say that by traveling down that road the beaten man was “asking for it”, or some other nonsense that abstracts the situation, we are seeking our own justification, seeking to be “right,” becoming the blustering and hateful friends of holy Job. What good is it in being right when our brother lays half dead, beaten, shamed, in the street? This justification leads only to damnation: not only of ourselves individually, but in the further breakdown of our neighborhoods, of our city, of our church, and of our nation. “What does it profit, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jam. 2:14-16).
Our Lord Christ does not give the lawyer the justification he wants. Instead, knowing his heart, the Lord skips over a hypothetical Pharisee in his story and goes straight towards an enemy: the Samaritan. There was long standing, bitter rivalry between Samaritans and Judaeans: the separation of David’s Kingdom, the two Kingdoms squabbling, the Assyrian repopulation and inter-marriage, the fight for control after the Judaeans came back from Babylon, and so on. St John reports to us that it was strange for Jesus to be talking to a Samaritan woman even (John 4). One chapter previous in Luke’s account of the Gospel, a Samaritan village had rebuffed Jesus and His Apostles and denied them hospitality, due to the fact that He was headed to Jerusalem (9:51-56). By bringing a Samaritan into the story, though, our Lord Christ is taking the lawyer back into the heart of the Law. The lawyer had quoted the commandment as “you shall love...your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27), which is only half of the original. In Leviticus 19:18 it says, “you shall not take vengeance, nor bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Samaritan, even though history had altered things, was part of the children of Israel, and so was a neighbor to the lawyer -- the lawyer who would have seen only bitter rivalry. Jesus is digging deep to bring the man to repentance.
Being a neighbor, though, goes further than being part of the “children of your people.” Our Lord is not only calling the lawyer to attend to his own sins, but also is revealing the true heart of God: a neighbor is revealed not by bloodline, or ethnicity, or even church membership; it is revealed by love. “‘So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him’” (v. 36-37). The one who kept the commandment, the one who be doing so “will live” or “will inherit eternal life” (vs. 28, 25), is the one who loves. As St John puts it in his first epistle, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (I John 3:14-17)
But, who is the Samaritan? Who is the one who shall inherit eternal life? Can any of us claim to be the despised one who pours out of his generosity for the care of another? Especially of an enemy? Hear these words of comfort:
“...the True Light, which coming into the world enlightens every person, He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:9-11): Christ came as one rejected by His own, as a cast-out Samaritan.
“God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His Life” (Rom. 5:8, 10): God in Christ loves even His enemies, laying down His life to death for them.
“I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven...therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48): God loves His enemies and seeks their good, by doing so we become like Him -- that last phrase is a future-tense promise, not a command.
Christ Himself is our Samaritan, who has found us, in our sorry condition since Adam, and has bandaged our wounds, poured on wine and oil, carried us on His animal, brought us to an inn, and has taken care of us. Notice here that Christ does not celebrate our brokenness, or say that there is no victory in this life over sin; no, he cleanses and carries and restores. He leaves us in the care of the inn, the Church, that we might be healed by sharing in His life: bread, wine, oil. Here it is that we learn of the Samaritan’s kindness and are called, now that we share in His eternal life, to “go and do likewise.” Where are we hurting? Come to Christ in His Church and be healed. Where do we see others hurting? Bring Christ’s love to them, with the true healing tools of the Great Physician; bring them to His Church, that they might be healed. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Go and do likewise.