Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The True Good Samaritan

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ most well-known parables. We’re all familiar with it. We remember hearing it as a young child in Sunday school. Even non-Christians know this one. The term Good Samaritan is one of the few things from God’s Word that has had an effect in our culture. Everyone knows what a Good Samaritan is...they’re the people who go out of their way to help others in need. We even have laws called Good Samaritan laws that protect these well-meaning people from lawsuits in case something goes awry during their assistance. But just because something is well-known, that doesn’t mean it’s fully understood, and this story is proof of that. The parable of the Good Samaritan is often misunderstood. Our egocentric sinful nature twists this parable all around. We make this parable all about us when in reality, it’s all about Christ.

The setting for the telling of this parable is a common scene in the Gospels. An opponent of Jesus stood up to test Him. This man was a lawyer. He wasn’t a lawyer as we think of them today, he didn’t stand in a courtroom and fight legal battles, but he was an expert in the Law, in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Being such, he thought he’d test Jesus’ knowledge of the Law. He asked a very egocentric question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). The lawyer wanted to know what actions he would have to perform in order to earn salvation.

In a customary way, Jesus answered this question with a question of His own. He asked the lawyer, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Lk 10:26). Now, the lawyer already knew the answer to his question even before he asked it, after all, he was an expert in the Law. He probably knew it forward and backward. He had studied the Word of God and he knew what the Scriptures said on the matter. Without hesitation he quoted from Deuteronomy 6(:5) and Leviticus 19(:18); “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” (Lk 10:27).

Jesus agreed with the lawyer’s answer, he was correct. But this wasn’t the end of the lawyer’s questioning, he wasn’t done testing Jesus. Wanting to justify himself, wanting to prove that he knew the law and had in fact kept it, he asked Jesus another egocentric question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29).

Like the lawyer’s first question, Jesus would answer this question with another question, but first, He told the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and on the way he was mugged. Bandits robbed him, stripped him naked, and beat him half-to-death, leaving him to die alone in the gutter of the road. As he was lying half-dead a priest and a Levite, two upstanding and honored men in the community saw him, but they did nothing. They walked right on by. And as if their disregard wasn’t bad enough, they took the extra steps to cross the road. These men went out of their way in order to not help this man. It wasn’t until a Samaritan came along that this man received help. The Samaritan had compassion on the man and poured wine and oil on his injuries, disinfecting and soothing his wounds. He put the injured man on his animal and took him to a nearby inn and cared for him (Lk 10:30-35). This Samaritan saved the man’s life.

After Jesus told this parable, He asked His final question, “Which of these, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? (Lk 10:36). Again, the lawyer answered correctly, it was the Samaritan, the one who showed mercy. Jesus dismissed the lawyer and said, “You go, and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).

The lawyer’s question showed that he sought salvation through the Law. He looked inward, towards himself, believing that eternal life was a thing to be earned. If one could love the Lord with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind, as well as love their neighbor as themselves, then salvation would be theirs. If one could just obey God’s command fully, then all would be well, they would be rewarded. This is the same sinful egocentric view that we look at God’s Law with, and this is proven by the way we interpret Jesus’ parable.

What is the most common way in which the parable of the Good Samaritan is interpreted? How do we normally understand it? More often than not we think Jesus is giving us a lesson on how to be a good neighbor. We think this parable is a call to help everyone in need. We hear Jesus’ words, “Go and do likewise,” as a command to be Good Samaritans ourselves. While all of this is well and good, and something we should rightly be doing, this isn’t what Jesus was saying. Our interpretation that Jesus is commanding us to do good works shows just how much our sinful nature is turned in on itself. Our sin causes us to focus inward, on our actions.

We’re called to be good neighbors, to help those in need, to live out the love of Christ that we’ve been given. This is a good thing, but it’s not the point that Jesus is making. The point of this parable isn’t to show us how to fulfill the Law, but to teach us that we don’t fulfill the Law. The point of this parable isn’t to teach us to be Good Samaritans, but to show us who is the true Good Samaritan.

The priest and the Levite, although on the surface, seemed to be breaking the Law, they were infact trying to fulfill the Law. God had given His people ritual purity laws. These laws were given to mark the people of Israel as God’s people, so that He might dwell among them. These purity laws were very important. The priest and Levite served God in the Temple and they had to be careful not to become ritually unclean, because this would prevent them from performing their duties. If they were to help this half-dead man, they would be risking defilement. However, their desire to stay ritually clean caused them to break God’s command to love their neighbor. Even though they tried to keep God’s Law, they failed, and so do we.

Like the lawyer, we like the idea of earning salvation through the Law. We want something to do, we want the list of the 10 things needed in order for us to earn eternal life for ourselves. This is why we understand this parable in the way that we do. But we can’t earn salvation through the Law, because if we were, we’d have to keep it perfectly, and we can’t do this. When we look at our thoughts, words, and deeds and compare them to God’s perfect commands, we quickly realize that we can’t keep God’s Law. No matter what we do, we haven’t loved our neighbors and we most certainly haven’t loved God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. There’s absolutely no salvation in our works, no matter how hard we try to justify ourselves.

There is only one man who has fully kept the Law, and that’s Christ Jesus, the true Good Samaritan. Just as the Samaritan in the parable had compassion for the half-dead man, Christ has compassion on us, people fully dead. We’re dead in our trespasses, but Jesus still came to help you. He came down to you in the gutter of the road, stripped naked, with nothing to offer, dead in your sin. He lifted you up and carried you on His back. He carried your brokenness, your sin, and your death to the cross, and with His death He restores you. He pours His sacrificed blood and the water of life on your wounds, healing you, forgiving you, bringing you back to life. Christ brings you into the inn of His Church where He cares for you, where He strengthens you with His Word and feeds you with His body and blood.

Loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind means that we trust in His salvation, given to us through the work of the true Good Samaritan. This trust and faith is a gift, it isn’t something that we achieve with our egocentric works. So too is the love we love our neighbors with. It is a gift, the result of Christ’s compassion on us. When we hear Jesus say, “Go and do likewise,” He is commanding us to trust in Him and Him alone for salvation, because He is the True Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ name...Amen.

1 comment:

John Flanagan said...

Actually, I for one do not see a complicated teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but that is because I personally do not need to see theological arguments in everything spoken by the Lord. Jesus simply tells us that we are to reflect compassion and mercy in the conduct of our lives, and that by helping strangers we are His hands and His witnesses in a hurting world.