Our Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies, continued with a slothful look at Jesus’ hackneyed parable of the Samaritan in Luke 10.25-37.
You can download the sermon in iTunes here. Or, you can download the free mobile app and listen that way.
The audio is also here below.
It’s not one of my better sermons. Or even really a good one.
But I’d like to think it’s not my fault.
What do you expect me to do with such a stale scripture passage?
All week long I felt like:
What’s the point? What difference could this sermon possibly make today?
There’s nothing I could preach that you haven’t already heard before.
So why bother?
The ancient Christians called that attitude ‘sloth.’
Among the 7 Deadly Sins, Dante ranked it in at #4.
Sloth is the sin you don’t do. Sloth is when instead you sit around wondering why bother?
In other words, or in 1 other word: Apathy.
That’s exactly how I felt all week long whenever I thought about having to preach Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan.
We have laws named after the Good Samaritan.
We have hospitals named after the Good Samaritan.
You probably have flannel-graph Sunday School memories of learning about the Good Samaritan.
You all already know all about this story, which is enough to reduce any preacher to paralyzing, what’s-the-point, why-should-I-bother apathy.
I mean, you already know about the lawyer, the ‘teacher of the Jewish Law,’ who attempts to test Jesus just like the devil had done a few chapters earlier, tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him.
And you probably already know the lawyer’s question itself is problematic ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ because you can’t DO anything to inherit something. You can only receive an inheritance in gratitude, as a gift.
You already know this story.
Don’t you know that Jesus, like any good rabbi, always a question with another question?
You know that, right?
And you might already know that this lawyer’s no moron, that he responds by scotch-taping together 2 different texts of Torah: ‘You should love the Lord your God’ (that’s Deuteronomy) and ‘You should love your neighbor as yourself’ (that’s Leviticus).
Why should I bother?
You likely already know that ‘Who is my neighbor?’ is the sort of bible question they could’ve debated all day.
Read one part of Leviticus and your neighbor is just your fellow Jew. Read another and it includes the illegal immigrants in your land.
Turn to another text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Read the right Psalms and neighbor definitely does not include your enemies.
They could’ve stood around and debated all day.
Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.
If you ever went to Vacation Bible School then you already know about the man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked and unconscious, in a ditch on the side of the road.
And you certainly know about the priest and the Levite who respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.
I came down with a why-bother, apathetic attitude this week thinking about this parable.
I could barely drag myself out of bed on Friday, my sermon-writing day.
Because you all already know all about this story.
You know that, like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.
For the man in the ditch.
You know that Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs.
14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2:
He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.
And because you’ve already heard this story more times than that, you already know 14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’
There’s nothing you don’t already know about this story and so this week the closer I saw Sunday coming down the road, the more I just wanted to slink on by.
Because not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan.
You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.
You see, why bother preaching this parable?
Why bother when you already know what I’m going to say and where it will go?
I mean, show of hands:
How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into a contemporary illustration of it?
How many of you would expect some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?
How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote like…
…on Friday morning I drove to Starbucks to work on a sermon for which I had zero interest. As I got of my car, standing in front of empty storefront windows, I saw this guy in the rain.
I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.
And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the rain, I thought to myself:
‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’
It’s not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.
‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out?
I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool.
You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic.
Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’
I thought to myself.
Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.
I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.
I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.
And passed by.
Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.
And passed by.
Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.
And passed by.
When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.
‘I don’t have any cash on me’ I lied.
I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’
Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’
And then we stood in the rain and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.
After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.
It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.
And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.
And then I took his picture.
Tacky, I know, but I figured you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven just this Friday.
I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.
See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?
A predictable slice-of-life story for a worn-out parable.
Why bother? What’s the point? You expect me to tell you a story like that for a parable like this right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’
And, I expect, you will go feeling not inspired but guilty.
Guilty knowing that 7/10 times, whether you’re walking by a metro or a street bench or a coffee-shop, you won’t do likewise because none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.
If 14 verbs x Everyone We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all.
It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford.
If 14 verbs x Every Jamison = the price of admission- if that’s what Jesus is saying- then apathy is most sensible response to it.
Why bother preaching a parable you’ve heard so many times before?
Why bother listening to a parable you can possibly live up to?
The good news is- there’s more to the story.
I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.
Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said:
‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’
Then it hit me.
‘Say that again’ I said.
‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’
And suddenly it was like he’d thrown cold water on me, smacked me across the face, to wake me up.
‘That’s it’ I said, coming alive and, in my zeal, I smacked him on the shoulder.
‘What’s it?’ You could tell he was starting to wonder if maybe I was the crazy street person.
And, sure enough, like a crazy street person I kept repeating myself: ‘That’s it!’
I thanked him and I hurried inside to begin working on my sermon.
‘When I saw you was a priest I expected you to help me.’
We all know this story so well, we’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the prophetic point of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.
It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.
The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work- every last listener in Luke 10 was a Jew.
And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.
When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’
When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, sure, we’re tracking. What’s your point? Where you going with this? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’
Ditto the Levite.
No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve thought the priest and Levite jerks. No one would’ve thought their actions apathetic. The priest and Levite would’ve struck no one as compassionless hypocrites.
No one would’ve been offended by their passing on by.
No one would’ve been surprised they passed on by.
No one would’ve been outraged
As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.
The priest had no choice- for the greater good.
According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.
And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, according to the Mishna, the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.
Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic, immoral, and contrary to everything we know of God.
Of course we feel that way.
But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.
As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.
If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.
If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.
If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.
In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.
And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.
So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized.
They weren’t just considered outsiders or other.
They were a lot more than heretics.
They were considered enemies.
Terrorists. Less than human.
Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.
That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’
‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.
You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.
The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.
The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.
The irony is- as bored as we’ve become with this parable, we’ve gotten it all backwards.
It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.
The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.
The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.
Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need. You don’t crucify someone for saying something so obvious. If that’s what Jesus meant, he was boring and we were stupid.
No, Jesus is saying that even our worst enemies care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.
And if we’re to inherit eternal life, we better learn to love our enemies as we love ourselves.
So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we meet.
He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.
I warned you it was a sucky sermon.
It’s no wonder why people always reacted to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:
Apathy- wanting nothing to do with him.
Or wanting to do away with him.