Sunday, July 11, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 6

11 July 2004 at Holy Trinity L.C., Columbia, SC (Vicarage)
Text: Luke 10:25-37 (RCL)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus gives the world a new expression: the Good Samaritan. This tale told by Jesus is so beloved and so familiar that even the secular world uses the phrase “Good Samaritan” to describe a person who helps another person in need. In fact, one will occasionally see a “Good Samaritan” truck on the highway, carrying jumper wires, spare gasoline, and a cell phone to help stranded motorists at no charge. If you were to perform CPR on a stranger in a restaurant, you would be immune to lawsuits for any damages under a “Good Samaritan” law. The story of the Good Samaritan is a true classic. It is timeless, and never gets old. Its charm transcends Christianity and it has become a universal teaching on ethical behavior.

And the story opens with a discussion of behavior.

A lawyer comes to Jesus with a question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The Gospels are full of people who ask Jesus all sorts of questions. Some ask out of pure motives – a genuine desire for truth; while others have ulterior motives – seeking to trap Jesus, or trying to outfox him. The other Gospel accounts of this incident tell us more about our questioner. Mark tells us he is a scribe – a professional clerk. Matthew tells us he is also a Pharisee – a member of the religious sect of Jews who sought communion with God through a rigorous life of religious discipline, of laws and rules and regulations.

And so, our questioner’s motives seem dubious – which is why Jesus answers him indirectly. Jesus in effect tells him: “You’re an expert in the law, you tell me!” The lawyer gives the standard legal answer: “love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus himself has taught that the entire Law, the Ten Commandments, can be summarized in these two rules of thumb. In fact, we often speak of the “two tables” of the Law – the first table defining our vertical relationship to God, the second defining our horizontal relationship to our fellow men. If we love God and love our fellow man, we will be keeping the Law without even thinking about individual rules. This is a simple thing to define, but an impossible thing to live out perfectly!

But something is still nagging at the back of the mind of our lawyer. As the text words it, he is “seeking to justify himself.” In other words, he knows that he is not really just, or righteous. He knows full well that he has failed to love God and love his neighbor – and so he needs a loophole. He needs a technicality. He needs the judge to declare him “not guilty” – even though he is guilty. But rather than seek God as the judge, to throw himself on the mercy of the court, instead he seeks to “justify himself.” He seeks to make himself the judge, so he can find himself “not guilty.” In order to do this, our lawyer realizes he needs some wiggle room in defining the meaning of the words. If this word “neighbor” can be restricted somehow, if it can be defined only as people we like, then it would make it easier to keep this law.

The thought process here calls to mind the Promise Keepers’ bumper sticker that says: “I love my wife.” Well, of course you love your wife, is that anything to boast about? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to love our enemies, since even the heathen love their friends. It’s not an accomplishment to love your friends. It seems even less a thing to boast about because you love your wife.

But in the mind of our lawyer, a definition of “neighbor” that includes maybe one’s wife and best friend would be a much easier hoop to jump through than, say loving Saddam Hussein, or Timothy McVeigh, or Adolph Hitler. Somehow, I don’t see the Promise Keepers putting out a bumper sticker that says: “I love Osama bin Laden.” And yet, this is what Jesus tells us is what we are to do. We are to do the impossible.

This is the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Pharisee sees the law as doable, within reach of himself by his own power. He seeks to “justify himself” using the law as a yardstick of his good conduct, judged by his own standards, and perhaps in comparison with others who seem worse than himself: such as tax collectors and prostitutes. Based on that yardstick, our lawyer is a pretty good guy. Of course, we do the same today. How often do we think: “I’m a pretty good person. I go to church, I more or less obey the laws. I have never killed anyone. I’m not a rapist or homosexual. God has no idea how fortunate he is to have me on his side”?

It’s like the story of the man who buys lumber, only to find it is too short. Taking out his yardstick, the unhappy customer shows the flaw to the carpenter. In response, the carpenter cuts the customer’s yardstick – thus making the yardstick conform to the imperfect lumber.

When we do this, we seek to “justify ourselves.” We turn the Law into a means of salvation, a bar we think we can leap over. In reality, our Lord asks the impossible of us: love your enemies. Be perfect. Don’t even think of doing something sinful. And our Lord tells the lawyer matter-of-factly: “Do this, and you will live.” We can indeed earn our way to heaven by being perfect in thought, word, and deed – all the time, never veering to the left or right, loving all people perfectly.

There really are only three responses we can have to this understanding of God’s Law which demands perfection. First, we can realize it is impossible, become angry at God, and just do whatever we want. Live a completely self-centered life, only to die in despair when it comes to an end. Or, we can follow the pattern of the lawyer in our text: redefine the Law to make it doable, justify ourselves by playing games with what words mean. Put on a pious front, and make a great show of how religious we are. By seeking the praise of men, we can fool ourselves into thinking we can earn our way into God’s graces. But there is a third way: we can understand, like St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, that the Law condemns us. It is a yardstick that we cannot trim. It is a mirror that shows every blemish. And once we have been exposed, we plead for our lives before the judge. We say “Lord, have mercy” over and over.

The concepts of “mercy” and “neighbor” are difficult to explain and understand, since we are all sinners like our lawyer friend. We naturally want to see the Law as our friend, and not as our prosecutor. So Jesus tells us all a little story.

Like every great author, the Author of Life itself creates meaningful characters. There is the victim, the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, and the minor characters of the robbers and the innkeeper. The tale opens with a crime scene, a robbery. The victim is “half dead.” He is obviously unable to help himself, nor is he able to do anything at all for anyone who might assist him. He is headed straight for death. The priest and the Levite are both religious professionals. Both of them know the Law, and yet both of them see no connection between what God demands and this bleeding victim. They avoid doing anything to help. Perhaps they cannot see in the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill” the reality that life is a gift of God to be nurtured. All they see is a narrow rule not to murder. Perhaps they even “justify themselves” with self-congratulations that they are not robbers, that they did not beat up this man. Good for me! God is so lucky to have me on his side!

The Samaritan is not only a layman, no expert in the law, no “professional church worker,” no pastor, not even a member of the church. Samaritans were treated by the Jews as racially inferior, half-breeds with a confused religious doctrine. Jesus’s character development here is as subtle as a sledge-hammer. The Samaritan “had compassion.” This compassion flows from love – and has nothing to do with self-justification. It has nothing to do with seeing the Law as a series of tests to pass on our way to Heaven. The Samaritan goes to seemingly ridiculous lengths to help this total stranger. He uses his own property for his care, he spends two months of wages to house him, he uses valuable supplies to minister to his health, and even pledges more to the innkeeper should the victim need more time to heal.

Jesus then turns to the lawyer and asks him who is the better neighbor: the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan. The answer is obvious. The key here is “mercy.” In being merciful, in looking out for others with no desire for anything in return, we keep the law. When we treat others with love, we are not breaking the commandments.

And of course, this parable is an indictment against the Pharisees, against this lawyer, and against all of us. Do we go out of our way to help those in need – even strangers? Do we “pass by on the other side” and congratulate ourselves on how good and pious we are? Do we treat God’s law not as a prosecutor, but rather as a friendly witness?

What Jesus is getting at in this exchange is that the attitude inside trumps the actions of the outside. Good works flow from pure motives. But from evil motives, even works which seem good are really evil. For such deeds pervert the law and seek only to “justify ourselves.”

And so, the law convicts us, shows us our blemishes, and leaves us with only one alternative: to plead for mercy. Once the Law has done its work, the grace of God can take over. For our Lord has come to save the world, not to condemn it. He has come to take away the evil of our hearts, and give us his love so that we can share that love with others. He has come to justify us so that we don’t have to delude ourselves into believing we can justify ourselves.

Jesus himself is truly the Good Samaritan. When he came into the flesh, he was treated as an illegitimate child. He was taunted that “nothing good comes from Nazareth.” He was chided for sharing a table with “tax collectors and sinners.” The Son of Man had no place to lay his head. He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, and by his stripes we have been healed. Our Lord has had compassion on us, and forgives us all our sins. Our Lord has mercy on us, even as we sing: “Kyrie eleison! Lord, have mercy!” As we have fallen among robbers, into the grips of Satan and our own evil, our Good Lord anoints our broken bodies with the oil of his forgiving love, and cleanses our wounds with the wine of his very own blood. He gives all of his possessions for our care, even his very life. He tells the Innkeeper that no matter the cost for our redemption, he will pay it. His mercy endures forever, as he forgives us even as many as seven-times-seventy times.

And our Lord seeks no payment for what he has done, what he does, and what he will do. But he does tell us: “You go, and do likewise.” When we imitate our Good Samaritan Master, we, the church, as his body, continue his work in the world. We provide the oil and the wine, the mercy and the care, the love and the forgiveness that the entire world hungers and thirsts for. When we love our enemies, it is Christ who loves through us. And when we give up the notion that we can justify ourselves, it is then that we are truly justified. When we stop trimming the yardstick so as to short-change the law, it is then that we are able to appreciate the full measure of God’s love. It is only then that we allow the Lord to apply oil and wine to our wounds, to welcome his payment for our lodging, and accept the eternal hospitality of the Innkeeper.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.