Sermon preached at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship today (July 13)
Good morning. I am glad to be here sharing the good news today. And I don’t mean because I am delivering the sermon—although I do believe that our text for this morning offers us challenging, good news—but it is good because I am the one here this morning and Samuel is not, meaning that Samuel and Rachel are off getting to know the long-awaited Jonah Eugene. And because of that, I think Rachel would approve of me saying how good it is to gather in worship with all of you this morning.
I will confess that it is rather intimidating to be the one standing before you to talk about our text today. As you may have noticed, it is the priest and Levite—two religious leaders—who are depicted as the bad guys in this parable of the man who fell among thieves. And I say bad guys intentionally, hoping that my gender will somehow distance me from these two men who passed by a traveler who had been striped, beaten, and left for dead. They merely glanced at him before intentionally crossing the road and continuing on their way. But, if I am honest with myself, it may be that these are very much the characters that I represent–I’ll leave it for you to determine where you fall.
At the beginning of our text we meet a lawyer who is trying to test Jesus. He asks a question that he already knows the answer to in order to see if Jesus will give the “correct” answer. Knowing nothing else about the lawyer, I can’t speak to his intentions. Growing up, I understood that anyone testing Jesus was bad. But we all have these tests we place before new churches or those claiming religious authority. “What Scripture translation do you use?” “Is this a Bible-believing church?” “What are your thoughts about (insert issue here)?” We want to know if this is a congregation we can trust, a person who will lead us in the direction that seems best. This lawyer obviously knows the Torah, the law, as Jesus points out, turning the test back on the tester. When the man answers his own question, stating that we are to love God and love neighbor, Jesus confirmed that the man had the right answer, but pushed him a step forward—“do this, and you will live.”
The lawyer is clearly feeling some pressure on his toes—who wouldn’t?—because he asks another question in order to justify himself “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responds with a story we know well—perhaps too well. Once we believe we know a story, we stop prodding it, stop asking what it means because, of course, it is obvious. But parables are remarkable because they are like riddles. Their meaning is not always clear at first glance. And even when we have figured out a meaning, there are always other layers of meaning to discover.
So today I’m going to ask that we look at this story with new eyes, to find more layers to explore. To do that, we need to know a little bit about the first century world and the context Jesus was in.
Jesus was likely part of the peasant class. He entered the world in a stable and was first visited by shepherds. He spends his days with fishermen and tells stories of day laborers and those who tend fields. We see over and over in Scripture that it is not the wealthy or religious elite who resonated with the message Jesus brings, but the lowly. Peasants of the day, perhaps much like the poor everywhere, saw goods—money, food, resources—as limited. You only had access to so much and that allotment never changes. If someone somehow gets more, then that must mean someone else has less. If your neighbor suddenly comes into a source of food or money, something must be wrong. This is a world in which bandits were seen as heroes. Like Robin Hood after them, these bandits stole from the rich—who lived at the expense of their poorer brothers and sisters—and even if these bandits only divided the riches amongst themselves, they were already doing more sharing that the rich man who hoarded the resources. Bandits helped correct the injustice of the world. The selfish rich folk who were attacked? They totally deserved it.
So in the story, our man who fell among thieves? The assumption of those who heard the story would be that he wasn’t a very good guy. He was a rich city-dweller—one of the elite. So he was stripped of his riches? Great! He was left nearly dead? No different from the way he left people every day.
The priest and Levite who walked by? The did what they were supposed to. Aside from purity laws which would render them unclean for touching a dead or bleeding man, there were safety concerns to consider. Might this be a trap? Bandits might be waiting for someone to stop and offer assistance. Of course they crossed the road. Any reasonable person would.
And then the Samaritan enters the story. We traditionally hear about the tensions between Samaritans and the Judeans. But not only is this man part of a despised ethnicity, but he is a tradesman—he obviously travels; he has a donkey to carry his supplies, and he has oil and wine, which were typical items of trade.
And at this point, he does the most foolish thing imaginable. He takes a nearly dead man to an inn and promises the innkeeper to pay whatever is needed. Now, if you have a tendency to think of inns as quaint getaways run by pleasant semi-retired couples, erase the image. Replace it instead with the innkeeper from Les Miserables who sings “charge ‘em for the lice, extra for the mice / two percent for looking in the mirror twice.” The hands are out, the pockets are deep, and chances are the other guests aren’t particularly savory. If you aren’t familiar with Les Miz and want more to compare, it will be showing at the Muny starting tomorrow.
Respectable people didn’t stay in inns—those folks who did stay at inns were wise to sleep with one eye open to avoid having their throats cut.
And it is at such an inn that our nearly dead man who fell among thieves is left.
And that is our story. So who was a neighbor to this man?
It gets a bit more complicated, right? New Testament scholar Douglas Oakman suggests that we might look at this story as if it began “The kingdom of God is like . . . “ which is what most of Jesus’ parables are about. The kingdom of God is like a despised fool who cares for a deeply selfish man despite a high level of risk, leaves that man with the vilest of characters and fully believes that he will return to collect the man in full health, with plans to pay what will surely be an outlandish bill.
And this is a beautiful story if we picture a God who stop at no end to pick us up when we are fully deserving of the cruel treatment we receive, and who is willing to pay whatever price necessary to see us restored. That is a God I can get behind, a Holy Parent who is worthy of praise. But Jesus does not let us think of this story as simply being a tale of a God who is a fool in love with creation. We must instead consider a world where our neighbor is a selfish man, a collection of thieves, religious leaders who are more concerned with doing the right thing than being the right sort of people, a traveling fool from a despised background and occupation, and a corrupt innkeeper . . . all of which is far more complicated than simply being willing to help someone wrongly attacked and dying on the side of the road.
Our mercy is to extend to all. The Kingdom of God is a place where foolishness is only outdone by generosity. How do you live? By going and doing likewise.
What does that mean? The first thing that comes to my mind is praying what Anne Lamott calls the “first great prayer”—Help!
As I pay attention to the news of people in conflict, of justice that seems to be missing in so many places, I admit that I feel powerless. In light of the trial results that came out last night, I have tried to reflect on what it means that both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are my neighbors, that the drug addicts in my neighborhood are my neighbors, that the woman who stormed away from my garage sale yesterday after reading the price tag on a pair of shoes is my neighbor. That those who are deeply hurt and angered believing that society feels the color of their skin makes them worth less . . . and those who are afraid that their rights are being taken away are my neighbors.
Calling out “Help!” seems the only valid step, trusting that we serve a God who can help us learn how to stand in the tension, seeing one another as the presence of Christ even with the glaring, painful, hideous faults we bear.
Friends, we are called to be fools, embracing all as neighbors to be loved. Let us go and make it so.