Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 10, 2016
Taken from Luke 10:25-37
There is difference between knowledge and wisdom. A handy way to remember difference goes like this: Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. I’ve thought about that distinction over the last few days each time I looked over today’s sermon title. I’ve wondered about knowledge and wisdom.
On the knowledge side, I know that for many of us contemporary American Christians, that a Muslim is in fact the modern-day equivalent of what a Samaritan was for a 1st-century Palestinian Jew. So, my sermon title today, “To Inherit Eternal Life: A Muslim’s Mercy” – that is informed by knowledge. I’m just not so sure it’s also informed by wisdom by actually putting it in the bulletin.
To speak of a Muslim’s mercy as though that might have anything remotely to do with a Christian’s hope of inheriting eternal life, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? At the very least, it’s a gratuitous provocation upon the sensibilities of us Christians.
As might be true for us today so it was true then, on this day when Jesus just puts it out there, as Luke records for us. Jesus doesn’t prepare this poor lawyer for what he’s about to spring on him. Jesus doesn’t qualify the word “Samaritan” with the word “good” because, frankly, for these Jews there gathered around Jesus and for generations of Jews who’d come before them, there was no such thing as a “Good Samaritan”.
If that is so, why does Jesus tell this particular parable in this way? Was it wise thing for him to do so? For us, today, of course, Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan is enshrined as Scripture, so we can’t change it.
But it wasn’t so on that day. Jesus could have told his parable a dozen other ways…but why this way? Is Jesus just pulling this out of thin air, a gratuitous provocation for those listening to this argument?
Jesus, of course, is an excellent storyteller, but Mr. Luke can spin out a pretty good tale himself. You see, Luke is not simply stringing together a bunch of little stories to flesh out a life about Jesus. Luke is weaving together little stories in order to tell us his readers one Great Story.
The Great Story is the Kingdom of God has come near to you in Jesus of Nazareth. The little stories Luke records for us build on one another, one leading to the next, unfolding before us the Great Story of God’s Kingdom now among us. And, that’s what Luke has done here.
Jesus wasn’t just pulling this story out of thin air, and Luke wants to prepare us for it. Luke gets his readers ready for what Jesus is about to tell here in chapter 10 by telling us a little nugget one chapter back, in chapter 9. Jot down this reference to read later: Luke 9, verses 51-56.
Getting us ready for chapter 10, Luke tells us near the end of chapter 9, that Jesus is up in Galilee, and he realizes now is the time for him to head south to Jerusalem. The most direct route is for him and his followers to go through Samaria to reach Judah and then on to Jerusalem.
So, that’s what they do. They head south, approaching Samaria. Perhaps it gets toward the end of the day; they need water and food and shelter for the night. So Jesus sends messengers on ahead to the next village to prepare for his arrival. Remember we talked about that last Sunday.
It’s a village of Samaritans, of course. The messengers show up at the village and make inquiry. But, Luke tells us in chapter 9, verse 53, that when the Samaritans realize this is a band of Jews headed toward Jerusalem to celebrate a festival, they rebuff them…”Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind around here!” That’s what they told them.
So the messengers return to where Jesus and the others are waiting and report this to Jesus. Luke tells us it makes James and John so angry they say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?”
Now, where have we heard that recently? They’re taking a page right out of Elijah’s playbook, aren’t they? That’s how Elijah dealt with people like this; you unleash holy fire to reign down on them.
Think about that a moment. There is a village out there in front of them. It’s full of Samaritan men, women, children, babies. All settling down for the night, and James and John want to call in a drone strike from heaven! They’re not being metaphorical! They are actually asking for Jesus’ permission to have divine fire drop down out of the sky onto this unsuspecting village and incinerate them!
We don’t need scholars to tell us what Samaritans thought about Jews and what Jews thought about Samaritans. Luke does a pretty good job of letting us know that right here in these few verses in chapter 9. The followers of Jesus despised Samaritans and the Samaritans despised them, with a racial hatred and a religious hatred fueled at least for the past 500 years, if not longer.
Why does Luke tell us that ugly incident here, now, near the end of chapter 9? Luke is telling us, his readers, you just hold that little episode in your minds for at least one chapter longer. Jesus rebuked James and John for what they asked, but you better believe this incident stuck in their craw.
Especially so because now Jesus and the disciples have to cut way over to the East, all the way over into the Jordan River valley, where they catch another road south that follows the Jordan River all the way down to the city of Jericho, where now they can catch the road from Jericho back through the treacherous, dangerous mountains, to reach Jerusalem.1
So by this little bit of foreshadowing, we now know that these traveling Jews found themselves on the road and in need, but they were rebuffed and treated rudely by Samaritans. Now, these same traveling Jews find themselves walking the dangerous road that connects Jerusalem to Jericho.
So, no, Jesus wasn’t just pulling this parable out of thin air, was he? He was being quite intentional in how he constructed this little story.
We may find the sermon title, “To Inherit Eternal Life: A Muslim’s Mercy”, is wee bit provocative. Imagine how much Jesus’ parable, “To Inherit Eternal Life: A Samaritan’s Mercy”, provoked everybody there that day. We’ll appreciate that Jesus wasn’t just speaking to this lawyer, was he? He was aiming it at James and John and the other disciples, too.
So, Jesus and the disciples are on that same road over from Jericho to Jerusalem. Along the way this lawyer encounters them, realizes this is a Galilean rabbi he’s heard about, and decides to test Jesus’ credentials: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, that is a crucial question, is it not? If you believe there is God, and if you believe there is an eternal life with God that you might have, and if you believe that that life with God would be far richer and satisfying far beyond imagining, you and I should be asking that question for ourselves: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, if someone asked us that question, “Friend, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, we would naturally quote a Scripture from the New Testament. There’s lot to choose from, so we’d want to pick one that gets right to the point, such as Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
That’s pretty much what the lawyer wants to hear out of Jesus. He wants to hear Jesus quote back to him the correct Scriptural response. Because that’s this lawyer’s profession. It is his vocation to make sure all is being done according to Scripture.
It’s his job is to draw up contracts, to counsel clients, to settle lawsuits, to argue zoning requirements, to assess weights and balances…anything you can imagine…his job is to ensure all is done in a way consistent with Hebraic Holy Law.2
I have a lawyer friend who once served in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office down in Bedford County. She said one day a man came in needing some legal advice. He had traded away one of his hunting dogs to another man in the county for a shotgun he’d admired that this man owned. Straight trade, hand shake, nothing complicated.
Except, the hunting dog kept leaving its new owner to come back home to its original owner. This kept on happening, over and over, until finally the man wanted his shotgun back. The dog’s former owner didn’t think he had any control over the dog since it wasn’t his dog anymore. So, his question to my assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney friend: was he obligated to hand the shotgun back over to its original owner? This may have actually been the case that caused my friend to go find somewhere else to practice law.
That’s the kind of question this lawyer interrogating Jesus lived for! He could have sorted through all of the Book of Leviticus, and all the precedents of similar cases down through the generations, faster than you and I could Google it to tell that man exactly whether he needed to return the shotgun. Out would come the answer, all squared up with Jewish law.
Jesus throws the question right back to him: “What is written in the law? How do you read (what you shall do to inherit eternal life)?”
You can probably quote this without peeking down at your bulletin: “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.”
“Boom! You nailed it!” says Jesus, “So go do that, and you’ll be fine.”
Realizing that a peasant rabbi from Galilee with no training whatsoever had just turned the table on him, the lawyer won’t let it go. He says in verse 29, “Oh, yeah? And who is my neighbor?” And thus begins Jesus’ little parable about the traveling Jew walking the road that connects Jerusalem and Jericho.
A gang of robbers assault him, rob him of everything including his clothing. They leave him stripped naked under the brutal sun, dying and easy prey for the animals.
Along come other travelers, also Jews. Who among them will recognize that this man, lying in the ditch near death, is their neighbor whom the Law obligates them to help? You see, that’s the lawyer’s assumption of where Jesus is going with this little story. What does the Law say about the man lying there in the ditch? Even under these circumstances, is he my neighbor?
Well, watch, says Jesus…along comes a priest also headed to Jericho. The priest knows good and well that this man is his neighbor under the law, but he cares more about his own safety, so the priest keeps right on going. “Hah!” maybe the lawyer thinks to himself, “that’s about what you could expect from a priest.”
Then, there comes along a Levite, also heading to Jericho. The Levite does the same as the priest…he looks over in the ditch to see his fellow Jew whom the Levite knows good and well he should help. But not today, not on this lonely stretch of road. The Levite keeps on trucking. “Well,” perhaps the lawyer thinks to himself, “that’s a little disappointing. I would have expected better from a Levite. But, I bet I know who’s coming next down the road.”
Maybe he’s thinking, “I’m a lawyer, so I bet Jesus is going to bring a model lawyer along down the road, who will do exactly the right thing even under these risky circumstances, because the model lawyer knows that regardless of the situation, if you love God, then you’ll love your neighbor and help him out.” Jesus is going to tell him to go do the right thing that he already knows to do, this time by way of this story of the Good Lawyer.
Our lawyer is all set for one of his fellow lawyers to come down the road to Jericho, when Jesus drops this on him, “But a Muslim…I mean, a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him and went to him and bound up his wounds…” And, you know how the rest of the parable goes.
There is so much in this little story Jesus told, that Luke tells to us. Most of all, it was a story that shocked the lawyer, and it shocked Jesus’ disciples. Because the hero of the story, as in so many of Luke’s stories about Jesus, is not the righteous and the orthodox, it is the outcast, the one hated and despised. This story is much like the one of that unnamed prostitute Luke described for us a few weeks ago, that we, for the time being, called Roxanne.
The Greater Story, the Story of the Kingdom of God Come Near in Jesus, is meant to provoke us. Whatever we may say we believe and know of God in Jesus, if we have not love like that of that forgiven prostitute, if we have not the mercy that a Samaritan shows to his enemy, then we have to ask ourselves, has the Kingdom of God truly come to abide within me?
Never do we purchase our entry into the Kingdom of God, by anything that we ourselves do. It is by way of this truth: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.”
But, to know the Kingdom of God now come into our lives, will put us at odds with the ways of the kingdoms of this earth. Unexpected love, unexpected mercy, is what we have received from God, and it is what God expects us to offer to all who yet do not know the Great, Great Story of Jesus.
1 Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979) p. 294 n. 7.
2see for example, Dr. Allan Ross’s series, “The Religious World of Jesus: the Scribes”, at https://bible.org/seriespage/7-scribes