Here’s my sermon from this weekend.
The text was Luke 10.27-35. I got several anonymous complaints (from both conservatives and progressives) in the offering plate so maybe I was tracking with Jesus.
In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:
“Who is my neighbor?” he presses.
It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.
Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.
Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.
Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.
Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.
So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.
Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.
About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.
A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.
Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.
For the man in the ditch.
Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:
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.
14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’
Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?
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.
I mean, show of hands:
How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into 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?
An anecdote like…
On Friday morning…
I drove to Starbucks to work on the sermon. As I got of my car, standing in front of Starbucks, I saw this guy in the cold.
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 cold, I thought to myself:
‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’
I admit, I’m 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.
But mostly, I was irritated.
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 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 cold 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 otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.
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 this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’
And, I expect, you would go.
Feeling not inspired. But guilty.
Guilty knowing that 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 Every Needy Person 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.
The good news- and the bad- 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 as if he’d smacked me across the face.
We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense 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 is 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 ‘What’s your point? 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 been offended by their passing 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 contrary to everything we know of God.
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 the 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.
Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.
A little context-
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 strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.
They were Other.
They were despised.
They were considered deplorable.
Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.
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 the 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.
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 need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.
No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.
Therefore, they are our neighbors.
Upon whom our salvation depends.
I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.
On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.
They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.
And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.
So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”
I thought about how to answer.
I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.
Turns out I managed to be both.
“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”
Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.
Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.
As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.
Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?
Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.
Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.
No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:
That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs not between Us and Them but through every human heart.
That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our idealogical purity. It’s our bondage to Sin.
“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says
All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.
“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”
“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”
“No one is righteous, not one.”
if you want to be justified instead of judged…If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…
Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch… and imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure.
We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.
Maybe now you can feel why.
Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-
Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-
Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.
Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.
Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed- mustached hipster.
Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.
A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.
When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.
He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.
And more counter-cultural.
He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.
They are our neighbors.
Not only our neighbors.
They are our threshold to heaven.
Go and do likewise?
It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.
After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:
Wanting nothing to do with him.
Or, wanting to do away with him.