Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sermon: Trinity 13

2 Sept 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 10:23-37

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some questions aren’t really questions at all – especially when lawyers ask them. In a court of law, the question is not an inquiry, but rather a directed stream of thought specifically designed to lead people to a specific conclusion.

In other words, a question can quite often be more of a statement, a rhetorical device to make a point.

The lawyer who puts the question to Jesus has such an agenda.

“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Of course, the lawyer – as any good lawyer knows – is not asking a question to which he doesn’t know the answer. He is an expert in the law of Moses. He knows the scriptures and the legal application of them. He certainly knows the commandments, as well as all of the ceremonial. He is obviously asking the question to make himself look good.

Unlike Nicodemus, who seeks Jesus out at night asking the same question, only in a humble spirit of true inquiry, of self-doubt, of seeking the answer to a troubling question, our lawyer asks Jesus the same question in plain sight, in public. As St. Luke points out, the lawyer is seeking to “justify himself.” He isn’t stumbling around the dark looking for answers, rather he’s looking for the praise of men in the plain of day.

So, Jesus turns the question around – showing that the lawyer’s question is no real question at all. Jesus also entraps the lawyer a bit in his own pride. Jesus says: “What is your reading of it?” What self-righteous intellectual showoff isn’t going to fall for that one? Jesus doesn’t ask: “What does the Word of God say?” or “What is the tradition of our fathers in their reading of the text to which you are bound to submit?” Instead, Jesus appeals to the man’s ego.

And our lawyer takes the bait and answers the question correctly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” All we need now is for the game show host to point to the glittering lights as our contestant has just won a million dollars. The lawyer gives the right answer. Jesus congratulates him, but also throws him a bit of a curve.

For though the answer is right, it’s not really satisfying, is it? It’s like asking a doctor, “How long do I have to live?” and he answers “about an hour.” If he is right, that’s not very good news.

Our Lord’s answer is along these lines. It’s almost like He says: “Well, done. You got the answer just right! Just be perfect and you will have eternal life. Well played, sir. Have a nice life.”

Instead of reacting with uneasiness in the face of such an uncompromising demand (the way Jesus’ friends, the sinners, the thieves, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors do), the lawyer still doesn’t get it. He is still looking for attention, for public approval, for Jesus’ praise. And so he decides to continue in his self-justification by asking Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”

Again, he’s not asking with pure motives: “Please, Lord, tell me who my neighbor is so that I may serve him.” Instead, the motivation of self-justification means he’s looking for a loophole. The real question on the lawyer’s mind is more like: “Who is my neighbor, so I can ‘love’ him in order to get my reward, while refusing to love those who aren’t my neighbors?”

Our lawyer is actually looking for the answer to the opposite question: “Who is not my neighbor?”

Our Lord Jesus, the Word made flesh, the one whose incarnation divides the story of human existence into two distinct parts, BC and AD, the greatest Teacher who ever drew breath, turns our know-it-all lawyer into a schoolboy. Having had enough of our lawyer’s leading questions to drive the conversation, our Lord and Master takes charge of the exchange – almost like a wise old uncle who says: “Boy, pull up a chair, I’m gonna teach you something.”

Jesus the Teacher tells a story.

And that story is one of the most famous in all of world literature. It is a story so well-known that the title it has come to be known by has been used by artists, poets, writers, and film-makers ever since to illustrate their own stories. We know this parable today as “The Good Samaritan.”

The tale is so well-known that it hardly seems worth the time re-reading it – which is one of the best reasons why we should look at it with fresh eyes. This is not just a story by a wise teacher, it is instruction about the Kingdom of God from the very lips of God. It has been written, inscribed, enscripturated, for our salvation. For we are like the hard-headed and proud lawyer, seeking to impress people, and God, by having all the right answers and wanting to justify ourselves.

Let us sit down and listen to our Lord’s instruction.

The victim of our story takes a beating. He’s in the gutter helpless and dying. He cannot help himself. His life is literally in the hands of every passerby.

And the first such person happens to be a priest. Priests are supposed to stand in the stead of God. They are to be the mouthpieces of the living, compassionate God. But for whatever reason, he decides to ignore the victim, and crosses the street so as to put him out of his mind.

The next passerby is a Levite – not a priest, but a helper of the priest. Levites don’t serve at the altar offering the sacrifice, but they are a priestly people, the hands of God in the care of the holy things. More is certainly expected of a Levite than to simply follow the priest’s bad example, ignore the victim, and cross the street.

The third man, unlike the priest and the Levite, has no reputation for holiness. In fact, he’s a Samaritan, a despised racial minority. But, of course, he’s also the hero of the tale. As a storyteller, our Lord loves irony – because it makes us think. This fictional Samaritan challenges us on many levels. Not motivated by doing what is expected of him, and with no reason to think he would ever be applauded or rewarded, the lowly man of Samaria shames the priest and Levite by doing what they should have done.

The Samaritan pays attention to the victim, bandages him, salves the wounds with oil and wine, transports him to a place of lodging, and then pays the price for his ongoing care.

Of course, Jesus wraps up the tale with a question of his own – a question to which our Lord likewise already knows the answer: “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” Our lawyer is no longer asking questions, but is boxed in to giving the answer Jesus maneuvered him into: “He who showed mercy on him.”

For in the end, mercy is what every sinner needs, every person who has fallen among the thieves of this fallen world, every victim who has been brutalized by the devil and by his own sinful flesh. We cannot help ourselves, our lives are literally in the hands of God, dependent upon His mercy. And Jesus, “the stone the builders rejected,” is the One who comes to us in our fallenness, bandages us with His Word of absolution, salves us with the oil and wine of baptism and communion, transports us not with a beast of burden, but upon his own back scarred by the Roman whip and cross, carrying us to a place of eternal lodging. Moreover, He pays with His life for our ongoing care unto eternity. Jesus is our Good Samaritan. He is the truly correct answer to the question of eternal life. And thanks be to God our Lord doesn’t seek a loophole to the question of “who is my neighbor?” For the Lord is not just our Neighbor, but our Brother. Instead of seeking to justify Himself, the One who is Just justifies us through our being baptized into Him.

Having been justified, having been healed, having been given the gift of eternal life, having been given the example of the Good Samaritan in the flesh, we are indeed free to “go and do likewise.”

For just as God works through priests and Levites to forgive sins and be present upon the earth, our incarnate Lord Jesus works through pastors and lay people alike to be the mouthpieces and hands of God. But above all, God’s people are to be merciful, even as He is merciful with us.

For like the lawyer in our story, we already know the answer to the question of eternal life. But like our lawyer, we need to hear the answer repeated over and over again from the very lips of Jesus, through hearing of the absolving holy Word of God at every possible opportunity, through the oil of daily repentance and remembrance of Holy Baptism, through frequent application of the medicinal wine of Holy Communion, unto the living out of the life of mercy as our Lord enables us, now and forevermore. Amen.

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


Pastor Beisel said...

I thought you were going to say: "Who is my neighbor? Everyone! Your friends, and your enemies. The unborn child, and the aged grandfather with tubes in his lungs. etc. etc." I love preaching on this text.

Father Hollywood said...


There's a great episode of Davey & Goliath (which I used to watch on TV when I was a kid long before I was a Lutheran) called "Good Neighbor." It is a clever re-telling of the Good Samaritan.

The mayor is giving out balloons in the park that say "I am a good neighbor." On her way to the event is a little girl - who has gotten hurt and is lost. Two separate neighborhood boys hurry by the crying child, eager to get their balloons.

Davey sees the girl, considers leaving to get his balloon, but reconsiders. He hunts the neighborhood with the little girl until he finds her home. By the time he gets back to the park, there are no more balloons.

One boy teases Davey for helping the little girl while admiring his balloon and claiming to be a good neighbor.

Just then, the balloon pops.

One of the lessons of the program is "who is my neighbor." The girl is Davey's neighbor not because of the proximity of her home, but because she is in need.

The old Davey & Goliath episodes are on DVD. I managed to get a couple of them for a buck apiece at Big Lots. They were put out by the now-defunct ALC (American Lutheran Church) in the days before women "pastors" and the hand-wringing over gay bishops. The theme song of the show was "A Mighty Fortress" and Luther's Seal was prominently displayed.

This was the best version of the Good Samaritan for children that I've ever seen.