A Plan for Following Jesus.
Faithful Living for Hard Times: Help the Suffering.
The seventh in a ten part sermon series on our community charge:
Go out into the world in peace;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak,
and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The sermon today is about our call to help the suffering.
We know there is suffering all around us.
Somedays more than we can take in.
This storm in Texas, Hurricane Harvey, its so new and ongoing
That we’re not even sure what the devastation is yet
Though Kirk members are reporting that family and friends are reporting
Lots of water, lots of wind, lots of stress.
This sermon could be all about that, but its all still unfolding
Meanwhile we particularly are thinking about the residents of Texas in its wake
and those first responders who are
In harms way this morning
We are grateful that they include people from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance
Who will be there not just for the immediate aftermath
But the long term recovery work as well.
In the meantime, we reflect more generally about the fact that our faith encourages us
To help when there are people suffering.
There is no lack of scriptural material for us to choose this morning for our reflection.
We’ve heard Kate read one of the most powerful passages in the Gospel of Matthew
a reminder that we always have opportunities to serve Jesus
by serving the very real and very pressing material needs of our neighbor
particularly the hurting neighbor:
the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned.
That passage reminds us that its not always about how we help
But that we do something to help, that we want to help,
Rather than finding some excuse to avoid helping
Because we’d rather not,
Or because they don’t deserve it
Or because I’d rather keep what I have
Than alleviate your pain.
And its always an interesting companion text
To what is perhaps one of the most familiar parables of Jesus
The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Let us turn to that story this morning, shall we
From the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke,
Where we find these words:
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
26Jesus said to him,
‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’
27He 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.’
28And Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer;
do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’
‘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.
31Now by chance a priest was going down that road;
and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him;
and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
34He 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.
35The 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.”
36Which of these three, do you think,
was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
And may God bless our reading, and our understanding, and our applying these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
So lets start with a story:[i]
One day a man discovers a magical lamp,
and upon rubbing the lamp,
a genie appears offering him three wishes.
But there’s a catch.
Whatever the genie does for the man,
he must do twice as much for the man’s worst enemy.
The man thinks about it for awhile,
and (quickly forgetting the catch) wishes for a billion dollars.
The genie grants his wish, and the man is now a billionaire!
This makes him so extremely happy…until he discovers
that his most hated enemy is now a multi-billionaire.
So, now furious and green with envy, the man goes back to the genie,
and this time he wishes for great fame.
His wish is granted, and the man is happy once again…
until his fame is eclipsed by his greatest enemy,
who becomes twice as famous.
So he reflects for a moment.
Finally, he returns to the genie,
who reminds him, you know,
that this is his final wish. This is it. Make it good.
So the man looks the genie, right in the eye and says,
“Genie, I wish to be beaten half to death.”
Today’s parable is the story of a man who is beaten half to death.
The Greek word describing the traveler there in verse 30
is ἡμιθανῆ (hemi-thane), half-dead.
This is actually rather ironic,
because the whole story comes about
when a lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks him
what he can do in order to have a life that is αἰώνιον (aionion).
We usually translate that literally as “eternal”
but the sense of this word when it is used elsewhere in ancient Greek
is actually “full,” “whole,” or “complete.”
So a man comes up to Jesus and says, tell me how to have a full life,
and Jesus proceeds to tell him a story about a man
who was found only half alive. He was found half-dead.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well known stories
of the entire Bible–so much so that we have named laws after it:
“Good Samaritan” laws that require drivers to stop and give assistance
to those who are injured or in danger.
Those who are my age and were immersed in Seinfeld
Remember that those laws were the subject of the season finale
Where Jerry and George and Elaine and Kramer
Witnessed a robbery, and stood there filming the whole thing
Rather than intervening.
You got the sense that George would have
Uploaded the whole thing to instagram
You know, If that had been a thing then
But they are arrested and tried and convicted
After having all the people they’ve ignored or mocked
Brought before them as witnesses.
But more frequently, In common, everyday language,
“Good Samaritans” are those who rescue or lend help to others,
even when not obligated to,
and sometimes even at the risk of their own safety.
I think we’re so familiar with this story,
with the idea of a “Good Samaritan”
that we don’t really hear it anymore;
we miss the radical and shocking nature of the parable,
and especially the message about life and death and being “half alive.”
Hopefully, a little historical context can help.
First of all, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the first century
was a dangerous road.
It was known as the road of blood.
It was renown for exactly the sort of violence and robbery
that Jesus describes in his fictional story.
So the idea that a traveler would fall into the hands of robbers
wouldn’t have surprised anyone in Jesus’ audience.
Neither would the next part of the story,
When we read that a priest comes by,
sees the half-dead traveler,
and crosses to the other side of the road
in order to avoid getting caught up in the incident.
Now, before you judge the priest to harshly,
you should know that a Jewish priest, by Biblical law,
was forbidden from touching the body of a dead person.
What’s the difference, in appearance,
between someone who is dead and someone who is half-dead?
I don’t know. Maybe not a lot.
Maybe not enough to risk breaking the law.
What laws would you be willing to break in a dangerous place,
in order to help someone who might already be dead?
And so the priest does exactly what Jesus’ audience (the lawyer)
would have expected the priest to do. He keeps on going.
No surprise there, really.
The next person to walk by,
also crossing to the other side of the road to avoid an incident, is a Levite.
If this were a Presbyterian story, the pastor would have walked by first,
and then one of the church officers, one of the ruling elders.
In other words, the most religious, churchy, ethically-minded people.
The ones who show up almost every Sunday.
And this, once again, would not have surprised anyone listening to Jesus’ story.
Think about it.
Most of us wouldn’t even dare to GO somewhere dangerous…if we have the option
like, maybe Afghanistan, or even Juarez,
if we thought our lives would be at risk on the journey.
Its not exactly in our constitution.
It is certainly a major component of our privilege that we are free
and have the resources to stay in relatively safe places.
Not everyone is so lucky or for fortunate, of course.
But we come to this story, most of us, from a place of relative safety in our own lives.
What if the robbers are still in the vicinity, waiting for their next victim?
What if the injured person is really just another robber,
faking it in order to prey on some naive, unsuspecting…Good Samaritan!
In the era of television, internet and mass-media,
most of us turn a blind eye to pain and suffering in the world every single day,
not because we’re inherently bad people,
but because we just don’t really know what to do.
Or we think there’s not really much we can do.
Or we’re afraid. Or busy. Or distracted.
Still, no surprise here, in our time or in the time of Jesus.
But what happens next IS a surprise, more than I think we realize.
We have named this story the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,”
after the one who actually stops and helps,
the man from Samaria.
And by naming the story after him,
we acknowledge that the Samaritan is the real hero of the story,
and that he is GOOD.
That seems obvious to us, with the benefit of hindsight.
But for a Jewish audience in the first century,
this would have been a sudden punch to the gut.
The person they would have been expecting next was the “good Israelite.”
That’s how ALL the stories went.
Just like we have all these jokes about the Rabbi, the Imam, and the Priest
who walk into a bar.
I’ve seen that go a few different ways:
Pastor, Vicar, and Priest.
Priest, Rabbi, Imam, and a Presbyterian Pastor
Take your pick.
Or think of other couplets: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy
Walk into the candy store….
We know how those stories are supposed to go.
We know who the characters are supposed to be.
And in first century Israel,
the typical story was about the Priest, the Levite, and the Good…Israelite.
The one who saves the day. The good guy, you know, from our side!
And the moral of the story is “be a good Israelite.”
But Jesus doesn’t do that.
Instead he picks someone who would have been universally acknowledged
by his audience to be…bad. Unworthy.
Think The Irish and Northern Irelanders, during their long and bloody struggle.
Think Israelis and Palestinians.
Think, in our day, about how some people seem to be feeling
What are you saying Jesus?
You meant to say “Good Israelite,” right?
Slip of the tongue, perhaps?
No? Ok, well maybe… maybe the Samaritan first repented of his evil ways,
turned to God and had a conversion experience,
THEN helped the injured traveler, right?
That would make more sense.
But Jesus doesn’t say that.
The Samaritan remains a Samaritan…
and the unlikely, unexpected savior in this story.
When we read these parables of Jesus,
we have a natural tendency to ask ourselves, “Who am I in this story?”
And in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when we ask this question,
I think we often focus in the wrong direction.
We certainly hope that we’re the Good Samaritan;
we want to see in ourselves the capacity to be a hero, to help those around us.
That’s part of what this story is trying to do, within us,
To remind us of this calling of ours to help the suffering
To turn to our neighbor in their moment of need,
To all of our neighbors
And to help.
So we hope that we’re the Good Samaritan.
Though we might fear that we might actually be the priest or the Levite;
that in our busy-ness,
our desire for safety and security,
we might be the ones who cross to the other side of the road
and keep on walking.
But here’s the thing:
One of the realities of being people who are following God on the way of Jesus
Is that we recognize that we are not in this alone
That despite our failings and our limitations, we are here to be reminded
Of possibilities in our life that are bigger than we can imagine.
I think there’s another place for us, in this story.
Let’s go back to the beginning…to the real story outside the fictional parable.
Remember the lawyer who comes to Jesus and says
“What can I do to have a life that is full, whole, and complete?”
In asking this question,
he reveals himself to be one whose life
is NOT full, NOT whole, and NOT complete.
He is, in fact, only half alive.
He’s a lawyer, so Jesus points him to the law:
Love God with all your heart, soul and strength,
and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.
But you see, the lawyer thinks that he is already doing all these things.
I’m a good person. I go to Church. I pay my taxes.
I come to a complete stop at stop signs when no one is looking.
I’m nice to my next-door neighbor, Johnny,
who looks a lot like me and has two kids like me
and lives in a house that’s about the same size as mine
and goes to that other church down the street.
Johnny’s a pretty decent guy.
That’s who you mean when you say MY neighbor, right?
I mean, I only have a few to choose from.
Robert, on the other side, well he’s Catholic,
and his kids are already grown up.
I wish he’d take better care of his yard, but I’m still nice to him anyhow.
So we’re covered, right, Jesus?
That’s what you mean by “neighbor,” right?
Jesus tells a half-dead man THIS story in order to answer his question:
“Who is MY neighbor?”
And at the end of the story, he asks the lawyer,
“So which one of these three was a neighbor?”
If you’re wondering who you are in this parable,
Maybe we can consider another possibility:
Maybe You and I are the half-dead traveler,
beaten down by life,
not as “in control” as we think we are,
trying to figure out how we can save ourselves,
when what we really need is a savior, someone to pick us up,
to carry us to a place of shelter and refuge,
someone to pay the price for our weakness and our healing.
And that savior is probably not who we’re expecting.
In fact, if we’re honest,
that Savior might be the last person we want to see and to rely upon.
Yes, as Christians, we acknowledge Christ alone as our Savior.
But can you see and accept Jesus in the face of the person you hate the most?
Boy, that’s tough.
We are, all of us, wounded and dying on the side of the road.
We are, all of us, living half-dead lives.
We are, all of us, in need of a savior.
And so we lift our eyes to heaven and look for God.
But Jesus tells us, like he tells the lawyer, to look down again.
Look around you.
Because that’s where you’re going to find God, and God’s healing, saving love.
You cannot be whole unless we are, all of us, whole.
If you want your life to be full, then work to make someone else’s life full.
Work to alleviate the suffering around you.
Start not just with your friend, but with your enemy, your neighbor.
Because if you can do that, it only gets easier from there.
And when you can be grateful, thankful,
for the un-loveable, unrepentant, un-like-you,
low down, dirty Samaritan that God sent to SAVE you…
maybe then we’ll all be just one step closer to the Kingdom of God,
right here on earth.
We are called, each week
To go out into the world following God in the way of Jesus.
To go out in peace, with courage, holding on to the good
And returning not evil in the face of evil.
We are called to help the suffering
Because in our suffering Jesus helps us
And because, in offering material help to those around us
Food for the hungry
A drink for the thirsty
A visit to the lonely
We are offering these to Jesus himself.
May we cultivate helping hearts
As we realize how much WE have been loved and cared for along the way
And in so doing, may we learn to break down these artificial labels
And see the humanity in all of our neighbors.
May it be so.
[i] Sermon indebted to and adapted from the work of The Rev. Neal Loccke, in his sermon “Small Stories, Big Ideas. The Good Samaritan”
Image Credit: by Falco at Pixabay, used under creative commons license. https://pixabay.com/en/good-samaritan-samaritans-help-1037334/