Luke 10. 25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ 227
In the churches across the country where this story is being read today, there will be a lot of ink used up and a lot of words spoken in shock at the senseless violence that left this poor man beaten and bleeding on the roadside.
And there will be words of dismay and disappointment about the priest and the Levite. How could they be so callous—not just walking by, but moving to the far side of the road, as if they were intent on avoiding infection.
And there will be lots of words, no doubt, of surprise and astonishment and praise that a Samaritan—a Samaritan, would stop and help; carry the injured man to safety, pay for his care out of his own pocket. “Can you imagine that!” preachers will say; “a Samaritan”.
And the effect of all these words—intentional or not, will be to make all of the non-Samaritans feel more than a twinge of guilt. “How about you? Are you a Good Samaritan? Who is your neighbor, eh?”
There will be a fair amount of squirming in American pews this morning, I’d wager.
That’s understandable, I suppose. I mean, Jesus told the story the way he did—making a hated Samaritan the hero and the two Jews the villains, because he was going for effect. If a disgusting Samaritan could do good, after all, maybe some other people could be talked into it, too.
But you could reverse this story and have two Samaritan villains and a Jewish hero and the point—while less surprising to the audience, would be pretty much the same: Not everybody knows how to be a neighbor. Only one person in three is willing.
But I think this standard interpretation of the story also misses the point—at least the point this familiar story makes to us today. I think there’s something here we haven’t thought much about.
So I want to come at this story from a new angle this morning. I’m not going to ask the question Jesus asked: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” The answer to that question is, after all, pretty obvious, isn’t it. I have a different question for today.
Before I get to that, however, I want talk about this story, then I have two short but relevant articles to read to you. And then, I’ll ask my question.
The lawyer comes to Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now that sounds pretty straight forward, but actually it isn’t.
Most of us hearing this question assume the lawyer is asking, “What must I do to get to heaven when I die?” But that is, in fact, far off the mark, for a couple of reasons.
First, Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t believe in heaven or even that there was such a thing as an afterlife. That just wasn’t the way they understood things. You lived till you died and that was pretty much it.
Some of Jesus’ contemporaries believed that when the Messiah came the faithful would be resurrected to live with him in Israel, but at the time, that was a fairly new idea.
Second, the lawyer doesn’t ask “How do I get to heaven?”, he asks, “How do I inherit ‘eternal life’”. And that, it turns out, is something entirely different.
The two Greek words translated “eternal life” are “zoe aionion” (S). “Zoe” is the Greek word for “life” (from this we get the word zoology among others). And “aionion”, means “age” or “ages”. The English word “eon” comes from aionion. An “eon”, you know, is a long, long time—but it is not endless time.
Now, among the Jews of Jesus’ day “zoe aionion” had a particular meaning. It was a technical term that was used to refer to (S) “the life of the age to come”, or better, “life in the age of the Messiah”. “Zoe aionion”, you see, was their term for the life Jews would live in Israel when the Messiah came and restored their country and their kingdom. It isn’t about the quantity, or length, of life. It’s about the quality of that life.
Zoe aionion is the age of the Messiah when, as Isaiah said, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord”.
So the lawyer isn’t asking, “What must I do to get to heaven?” He asking “What must I do to inherit—to experience—life at its best or life as God wants it to be; both right now and in to the future.
We can tell this is so because when Jesus asks the lawyer what Scripture tells him to do, the lawyer quotes the great commandment: love God and love your neighbor. Those are God’s instructions for life at its best— today and as far into the future as we can imagine. And notice too, Jesus does not tell the lawyer, “Do this and you will go to heaven”, he says “do this and you will live”—starting now.
There is a deeper question, too, kind of lurking underneath all the other questions being raised by this story. And it is this question that makes this story speak to us today.
The story of the Good Samaritan, you see, is a commentary on fear—our fear; it says something about our national obsession these days with security, our persistent fear of strangers and foreigners, and our urge for huge border walls and obscene military budgets.
We are afraid. And with this story, I think Jesus is asking us to consider—does it have to be this way or is there another way to live? Must we live in fear, or is there an alternative. This story is meant to make us wonder—What would society look like if we lived today as God wants us to live today?
So keep that in mind and we’ll come back to it in just a moment.
I want to read two short pieces to you that illuminate the Good Samaritan story for us—especially the connection between this story and our current situation. The first is from Parker Palmer’s book—Let Your Life Speak:
“Daily I am astonished at how readily I believe that something I need is in short supply…
The irony, often tragic, is that by embracing the scarcity assumption, we create the very scarcities we fear. If I hoard material goods, others will have too little and I will never have enough, If I fight my way up the ladder of power, others will be defeated and I will never be secure… We create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law, and by competing with others for resources as if we were stranded on the Sahara at the last oasis.
In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the “scarce resource” is money or love or power… the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Abundance does not lie in… stockpiles of food or cash…but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them – and receive them from others when we are in need.”
The way of abundance, Palmer is saying, is the way of neighborliness.
This next is part of an interview with Pope Francis that appeared in the Catholic News Service a few days ago. Jeff Jenkins sent this to me just yesterday and I had to re-arrange a few things to get it in—but it fits really well.
The Pope was asked whether giving money to people begging on the street was the right thing to do. He said this, “People who don't give money to the homeless because they think it will be spent on alcohol and not food should ask themselves what guilty pleasures they are secretly spending money on”. So they can feel better about not giving anything, the pope said, some people think, "I give money and then he spends it on drinking a glass of wine."
But if "a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that's OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What 'happiness' do you seek in secret?"
The way one reaches out to the person asking for help is important, he said, and must be done "by looking them in the eyes and touching their hands. Tossing money and not looking in (their) eyes is not a Christian way of behaving.” But giving something to someone in need "is always right.” It should be done, he said, “with respect and compassion.”
Both of those pieces—from Parker Palmer and from Pope Francis are, I think, modern re-tellings of the Good Samaritan story. And they suggest for us a question different from the one Jesus asked the lawyer.
“Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Jesus asked. That’s easy; the Samaritan. That doesn’t surprise us anymore.
But here’s what I’m wondering:
Why are there neighbors at all? Why do people ever help other people—especially strangers; especially when it costs them a lot of money; and especially especially, when it puts their lives at risk?
And the opposite question is equally interesting—why do people refuse to help? Or, in the imagery of this story, what makes some people pass by on the other side of the road—even when the person in need is one of your own? What makes us afraid?
I don’t usually answer my own questions, but this time I will. The reason some people help those in need and some people don’t is because some people have eternal life and some people don’t.
Did you get that? (S) The reason some people help those in need and some people don’t is because some people have eternal life and some people don’t.
Some people, you see, have been captured by the message of Jesus and the message of the Hebrew Bible—Love God and love your neighbor; or—love your neighbor because you are loved by God. When we know we are loved, we have eternal life, and so we can love.
Some people, like Parker Palmer suggests, find eternal life in God’s generosity and abundance. This eternal life is so abundant and our provision is so sure we can freely and safely be outrageously generous ourselves. In fact, the way God has set up this world, the only way we can be sure we have enough is to be sure everyone has enough. Abundant, eternal life does not lie in stockpiles of stuff, but in belonging to a community and in sharing.
And some people, Pope Francis suggests, look into the eyes of a beggar and find themselves staring into the face of Jesus. And there, in that connection, they find eternal life. How can they not give then. What can they be afraid of then.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell among thieves who beat him half to death. His life was saved by one person with faith in the abundance of Creation; one who trusted that even in the face of violence, danger and loss, it somehow made sense to act in peace, with kindness and in generosity. Sometimes one person with “eternal life” can save the life of another person who has little life left.
“Go and do likewise”, Jesus said to his lawyer friend. I think he offers the same opportunity to us. Amen.
Sermon - Brad Brookins
Here are the text and your instructions for this week’s lesson: First read the questions below the story, read the story, read the questions again, think for a while (then maybe think some more) and then answer the questions.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
In 1st century Palestine, there was no distinction made between religious law and civil law. The “lawyer” in the passage would have been an expert in both.
The great majority of Jews in Jesus’ day did not believe in heaven. What do you think the lawyer was asking in his first question? What does the English word “eternal” mean? Can you think of any alternative meanings for the English word “eternal”?
What does it mean to “inherit” something? What do you think it meant to “inherit eternal life”?
The Greek words translated “eternal life” are “zoe”, which means “life” (we get the word zoology from here, for instance) and “aionion”, meaning “age” or “ages” or “ages and ages”. In the Jewish setting of Jesus’ day “zoe aionion” had a articular meaning— “the life of the age to come”, or better, “life in the Messianic age”. So “zoe aionion” was the life Jews would live in Israel when the Messiah came and restored the kingdom to them (See Isaiah 11.6-9 and 65. 17-25 below) . It was life of a particular kind and quality, but it was not life forever and ever and it was not life in heaven. Notice, Jesus does not tell the lawyer, “Do this and you will go to heaven”, he says “do this and you will live”. So, with all that in mind, what do you think is the main point of the story of the Good Samaritan?
What did the priest and Levite have to gain by passing by and not helping the wounded man?
What would the Samaritan have lost if he had not stopped to help?
There is a close connection between the statement : “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” and the question, “Which of these three… was a neighbor to the man…” How are these two related to each other?
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 65. 17-25
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind…
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands…
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox…
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.