Neighbors (Luke 10.25-37) [sermon 3-5-2017]

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March 2, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for March 5, 2017. From an ongoing series: “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”

Text is Luke 10.25-37. The Parable popularly known as The Good Samaritan.

Resources I used for this sermon include:

Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 112-18.

Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 138-41.

Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 409-37.

Bernard Brandon Scott. Hear Then the Parable. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 189-202.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Bad Samaritans

In today’s Gospel lesson, we heard the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan. Two thousand years of telling and retelling has stripped this tale of some of its explosive power, but back in its day—it was pure dynamite. Jesus meant into to be downright subversive. More shock and awe than hits-me-right-in-the-feels.

But before Jesus spun this prickly yarn about a Samaritan’s hospitality, he and his disciples encountered inhospitality from a Samaritan village. Luke 9.51-56 tells the story.

As Jesus and his followers were traveling to Jerusalem, he sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival. This was quite odd. Samaritans and Jews had hated each other time out of mind. The Samaritans violently resented the Jerusalem-based, temple-centered religious establishment. Usually Galileans—like Jesus and his followers—went the long way around Samaritan territory when they traveled to Jerusalem. Here, Jesus does just the opposite.

But the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. They may have refused to let Jesus into their village strictly on the grounds that he was a Galilean Jew headed to Jerusalem. Another possibility is they’d already heard he was a troublemaker. If something popped off over him in Jerusalem, and the authorities found out he’d been welcomed into the village, they wouldn’t spare a second thought to sending in Roman troops to punish them. Whatever the case, they refused to show him any hospitality. They would not give him shelter or aid.

When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” They’d just come off the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus had been speaking with Moses and Elijah. Back in the day, King Ahaziah of Samaria had refused to acknowledge the God of Israel; so two times Elijah had called down fire from heaven to burn up his representatives (1 Kings 1.10-12). That’s what Elijah did to Samaritans who refused to welcome God and his prophet. So you can clearly see where James and John got this idea. But like we heard last time, on the Mount of Transfiguration, someone greater than Elijah had come. God had told James and John, along with Peter: This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him! (Luke 9.35). Apparently, James and John were slow to take a hint. Here’s how Jesus had told them to deal with rejection: Wherever they don’t welcome you, as you leave that city, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them (Luke 9.5). Nothing about barbecuing the entire village alive. They weren’t listening to Jesus.

So Luke says Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them. Luke often used that same phrase, spoke sternly, or harshly, to describe how Jesus spoke to demons during an exorcism. So basically, Jesus spoke to James and John in the tone of voice he usually reserved for demons. Their hateful, violent response was from the devil—and as destructive to them as any demon.

Jesus had already told them the path he was on would lead to rejection. They’d know that if they’d listened to him, like God said.

Point is, Jesus told his shocking story about a Samaritan offering hospitality to a stranger not long after a Samaritan village had refused to show him any hospitality.

Who is my neighbor?

Jesus had just sent out seventy-two disciples in pairs to every city and place he was about to go (Luke 10.1). To preach the Good News of God’s kingdom and salvation. And to heal any sick people they found. Now they’ve returned, all giddy at their success: Lord, even the demons submit themselves to us in your name, they told him. But Jesus said: don’t rejoice because the spirits submit to you. Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven. He also took the opportunity to rejoice before God because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and shown them to babies (Luke 10.17-21).

And it’s right then that today’s lesson picks up. The conversation Jesus was having was private, but one of the wise and intelligent ones had obviously overheard it, and interrupted. A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” This legal expert just heard Jesus telling his followers their names are written in heaven; but people like him were apparently not on the list. Legal experts, or scribes, were way up the social ladder in ancient Palestine. So he probably wasn’t used to be left out.

Jesus doesn’t just give the scribe a quick answer. Instead, Jesus asks the him a question in reply: What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it? Jesus probably asked this because he knew the legal expert was testing him to see if he would bypass the Torah. After all, Jesus had already gotten in trouble for healing on the Sabbath.

The legal expert has a ready answer; and interestingly enough—his answer is exactly the same as Jesus’. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind—that’s Deut. 6.5. And love your neighbor as yourself—that’s Lev. 19.18. In other words, the scribe says the whole point of the Torah is to teach you how to love God, and how to love your neighbor, who bears the image of God.

You have answered correctly, Jesus told him. Do this and you will live. Jesus agrees with the scribe’s interpretation of the Torah. All he needs to do to gain eternal life is to follow through and act according to his interpretation. Maybe this legal expert and Jesus have some common ground between them, after all.

Or maybe not. But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Love your neighbor as yourself, is from Lev. 19.18. In that context, your neighbor was your fellow Israelite. A few verses down the scroll, the definition of neighbor was stretched to also include foreign immigrants living in Israel. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt (Lev. 19.33-34).

The legal expert wanted to hem and haw about who could rightly be called neighbor. Surely that didn’t include Roman invaders—like the centurion’s servant Jesus had healed a while back. Certainly it didn’t include apostate Israelites, like the treacherous tax collectors who were flocking to Jesus. Surely God didn’t mean to love them!

Unfortunately, this legal expert would hardly be the last among God’s people to try to narrow down the definition of neighbor to justify their refusal to love.

Bad neighbors: A priest and a Levite

Jesus didn’t just throw out an answer to the scribe’s first question; he asked the scribe a question of his own to draw him deeper into the conversation. Now the scribe has asked another question: And who is my neighbor? Again, Jesus doesn’t just give him an easy answer to pick apart. Jesus draws him deeper in, this time with a story.

Jesus began the story: A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Notice he didn’t say a Jewish man. Just a man. Could have been any sort of man. Now, the fact that he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho might suggest he was probably Jewish. But Jesus doesn’t say one way or other. You know what that means? Any of us can identify with this guy.

What he does say is the man was attacked by bandits, which was a fairly common occurrence on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. It was a seventeen-mile journey, mostly downhill; and the terrain is wild, barren, and rocky. Plenty of nooks and crannies for bandits to ambush a lone traveler.

Jesus says the bandits not only beat him nearly to death, they even stole his clothes. Roadside bandits didn’t usually take their victim’s clothing. Jesus may have added this detail because in those days, clothing was a primary way to distinguish what race, nationality, and class someone was. Stealing the man’s clothes would erase his identity. So this victim is an everyman. Jewish hearers could identify with him; but so could Luke’s later Gentile audience.

What we do know is this man is left helpless and vulnerable in hostile territory. What will become of him?

Jesus tells us that first a priest, then a Levite came by; saw the man; but didn’t do anything to help him. Some have suggested that because the man was unconscious, they wouldn’t have known if he was dead or not. If they touched a corpse, they’d be ritually unclean, and unable to work to feed their families. But Jesus says they were also going down the same road as the wounded traveler (10.31). So they were leaving Jerusalem—where the temple was—to go back to Jericho. Taking care of him, dead or alive, shouldn’t have interfered with their livelihood.

Jesus doesn’t say why they didn’t stop to help. And here’s the thing: heartless as it might sound, many would have said they did the right thing by not helping him. There was even a popular proverb at the time that said: If you do good, know for whom you do it … Give to good people, and don’t assist sinners (Sir. 12.1, 7). The priest and Levite didn’t know who this guy was. If he was good or a sinner. If he was even a neighbor—a fellow Israelite. And the sad thing is, there were more than a few people would have praised their actions. You have to think about your own security. Help those who deserve help.

Fact is, Jesus probably also made the men who passed by a priest and a Levite because most scribes—like the legal expert who was testing him—were off-duty priests. He wanted the scribe to find himself in the story, too.

Who knows why they didn’t help him. Maybe they were afraid they’d get jumped too. Maybe they thought he deserved whatever happened to him. Maybe they thought they were too busy. Maybe they were just lazy. For whatever reason, the spiritual leaders of the people—the best of the good guys—didn’t show hospitality to the injured man. So who will stop to help him? Will it be a layperson—like the rough and ready fishermen among his disciples? Maybe even a tax collector or sinner?

Good neighbor: a Samaritan

Now Jesus says: A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. Remember, Jews hated Samaritans, and Samaritans hated Jews. Even the disciples wanted to torch a Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus.

What would this awful Samaritan do to the helpless, wounded traveler? Would he make fun of him? Would he kick him while he was down? Would he pick up a rock and finish what the bandits started? You never know; those Samaritans are some bad hombres, after all.

Jesus says: But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The priest and the Levite—the good guys—had also come to the man; they’d also seen him; but instead of being moved with compassion, they just moved to the other side of the road.

Jesus says the Samaritan tended to the man’s wounds with his own oil and wine; he bandaged the injured man; and he put him on his own donkey. Then he took him to an inn, where he put down a deposit with his own money for the wounded stranger’s ongoing care. And before he left, he told the innkeeper: Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs. Which opened him up to being fleeced by the innkeeper. Innkeepers in those days were notoriously sheisty.

The wild compassion of that Samaritan puts the priest and Levite to shame—and also those who would have applauded their choice not to get involved. Jesus had preached: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, and lend to others without expecting repayment. He taught that when you do that, you will be acting the way children of the Most High act (Luke 6.27-36). It was this hated Samaritan who showed what it would look like if people put Jesus’ teachings into practice. His Jewish neighbors would have called him everything but a child of God. But that day, he acted as a child of God acts.

We don’t know if this Samaritan was “good” or not. Jesus never uses that word. But that day, he was compassionate as Father God is compassionate. That day, he was a good neighbor. And the scribe who questioned Jesus, along with anyone else who heard the story—you could have knocked them over with a feather.

Now Jesus hands the story back to the scribe: What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?

Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” The scribe couldn’t even bring himself to say, the Samaritan.

Jesus has completely flipped the script. The scribe had asked: Who is my neighbor? In other words: Who am I obligated to love and serve and have compassion on? The story Jesus told was meant to show him that’s the wrong question. You don’t get to ask, Who is my neighbor? The right question is always, What does it mean for me to be a neighbor?

The man had asked Jesus, What must I do to gain eternal life? Jesus finally answers his question: Go and do likewise. Go and do like that Samaritan, and give life to others. When you do, you will receive an abundant life that can’t be taken from you. Just like Jesus taught elsewhere: Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap (Luke 6.38).

What must I do to gain eternal life? That was the scribe’s original question. Jesus’s answer is to go and do what the Samaritan did that day. And in two thousand years, I don’t believe his answer has changed.

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One thought on “Neighbors (Luke 10.25-37) [sermon 3-5-2017]

  1. […] those who don’t have enough. Being a good neighbor—even to your enemies, as we heard from the parable of the “Good” Samaritan last week. We tend to think of repentance as making a commitment not to do bad things anymore. But in the […]

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