Proper 10C1 Luke 10: 25-37
The dramatic journey continues in Luke from the Mount of the Transfiguration to Jerusalem and Holy Week. First as we read two weeks ago in Luke 9 there was the incident at the Samaritan village—as Jesus and his disciples were refused the customary hospitality of travelers. No room in the inn for them! And then, in last week’s reading from the first part of the 10th chapter, the mission of the 70, sent out two by two to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Savior and his Kingdom. There were some amazingly positive things that happened, we’ll remember, but also doors slamming. Rejection. An early foretaste of what it would mean to be “lambs in the midst of wolves.”
Now the pilgrims, becoming something of a crowd as folks come out to see them, are stopped in one of the towns along the way by a lawyer--which we probably should understand not quite in our modern secular sense anyway. What we might in our context call a “canon lawyer,” in this case a rabbi specially trained in the scriptures, a teacher of the Law of Moses, a “Torah expert,” an important leader, someone to whom the community would go for questions and judgments on matters of Jewish religious law and custom. He approaches Jesus to “test” him, which is an interesting word. It’s a question addressed by one debater to another. It’s strategic, an opening move, searching out a weak spot. Tell me, Jesus, “what must one do to inherit eternal life?” Throwing down the rhetorical gauntlet: show me what you’re made of.
This Jesus crowd must be creating quite a stir, a buzz, and those in the villages who heard the message of the 70 now have come out to see what is going on. The authorities can’t ignore it anymore. They feel forced to step in now to see if they can’t nip this business in the bud. To demonstrate that they are the ones the people should trust and follow--and not this charismatic but uncredentialed country preacher from Nazareth.
Jesus is quick to turn the tables: “You tell me.” The Lawyer then quotes Deuteronomy 6 to show that he is on top of his game. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Right in the heart and center of Biblical Jewish teaching. But the lawyer tries another move to see if he can’t find something he can use: “All right, then, Jesus: who is my neighbor?”
Jesus doesn’t quote scripture. Instead he steps into the preaching role that has been so effective in his ministry in the Galilee. He tells what is for us of course the familiar Parable. A wounded victim, two stock religious officials. We might think of them as colleagues of the Lawyer, both of whom of course would have recited from memory the same verse that the Lawyer has just quoted about loving God and loving neighbor, even as they pass by and look the other way. In Matthew 23 Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention to the words of these religious leaders, but not to follow their example. Probably a good bit of advice in any era. They talk the talk, but they won’t walk the walk. “Whitewashed sepulchers,” he calls them. Like tombs that are beautiful on the outside but full of death and corruption within. --And then, finally, famously, the Good Samaritan himself-- the last person in the world the rabbi or priest or Levite or any even marginally observant Jew would ever have pictured in such a role. The hero of the story—the most unlikely character of all ends up embodying the values that the official defenders of the faith can’t seem to put into practice in their personal lives.
It’s not hard to find the kinds of analogies that we would search for to get the impact of this. Thinking this week with a heaviness of heart about the polarities and divisions in our own society, Questions about who our neighbor is. In the tensions in the African American community and among those who serve in police and public safety positions, issues of trust and connection--and in all the latent electricity that gets sparked across the political spectrum and in the press and media and social platforms. We imagine settling down to talk with a circle of Palestinian villagers in the occupied West Bank, and to share with them the Parable of the Good Israeli. In Apartheid South Africa we venture into a shebeen in the urban sprawl of Soweto and recount for the gathered crowd the Parable of the Good Afrikaner. Perhaps we gather a few Hillary supporters and tell the Parable of the Good Trump Supporter!
We just so often put our trust in all the wrong places. That’s the idea that makes this story work. We expect one thing, we get something else altogether. What we think is going to save us when the chips are down, when our backs are against the wall. Who and what we think we can count on. Those two religious officials: if the victim of the mugging was awake at all, he must have rejoiced to see them coming down the road! We all have our own items on the list. Our financial resources, our education and careers, our physical fitness, our intelligence, our respectability, our friends, our families, our political and social and religious institutions and leaders, the fact that we go to church on Sundays or give to good causes or support the right causes and candidates.
If we were doing an analysis of this story in an undergraduate English Lit. course one of the bright students would probably point out fairly quickly that the Samaritan is “a kind of Christ figure.” The unexpected outsider who gives sacrificially of himself to save one who has done nothing to deserve that precious gift. The stranger who pays the debt in full, before the debtor even knows how much he owes. It is precisely in and through this Samaritan, of all people, and not through one of those religious leaders, that the peace and hospitality and gracious blessing of God’s kingdom is revealed.
If the Lawyer posed the question in the first place to “test” Jesus, Jesus is testing him right back—and testing us too, I guess. Because we all know, don’t we, that all those places where we most of the time turn to find our help in the day of trouble, they’re like the house built on sand that Jesus talks about at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7. Deep down we know, though we try to pretend otherwise, that one heavy storm will wash the whole thing away. In the end none of that will save us, just as the priest and Levite who passed by would save the man by the side of the road. They just didn’t have it in them. None have foundations deep enough to stand against the storm of sin and death. We know that. None of them are able to pay the price that needs to be paid. What the crowd may be thinking as they look at their canon lawyer this morning. The thought that may go through all our minds. Who will be the one who will stop for us?
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.