Was the Samaritan THAT Good?

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on July 12, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here. 

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

I have a challenge for you all this morning. I want you in the comments, to describe a story from the bible, as boring or ordinary as possible. For instance, we might describe the story of Jesus being baptized as ‘guy is dunked in water and comes out clean’. Take a minute to tell your ‘boring story’ in the comments.

A pastor friend of mine in Alaska posted this question on Facebook this week, and the responses were just as great as yours.

“Guy plays harp to put people to sleep.”

“Something happened to a bunch of pigs.”

“Little guy threw a rock at a big guy.”

“Some older brothers thought their little brother was a pain and were mean to him.”

“A short guy climbed a tree.”

“Some friends had dinner.”

There’s a reason this isn’t the language that is translated and read over and over again. It’s just honestly not that exciting, and it doesn’t draw us in to be inspired, motivated, or convicted.

Sometimes, when Jesus tells stories, he can be a little bit cryptic. He has a tendency to use metaphor in ways that sometimes aren’t the most obvious. But rarely is he boring. Today though, Jesus isn’t boring, and he’s very clear. The Good Samaritan is a classic story, found in every illustrated bible on the shelves of a Christian book store, part of every Sunday School kid’s repertoire. And it’s a very very clear story. The message is clear. We know what Jesus is getting at. Even when we don’t want to understand his message as clearly, like our religion scholar. 

Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated.

But even so, it can be hard to do the right thing, right? It can be hard to look at an answer, even the right answer, and actually follow through on making it happen, when it requires us to shift our schedule around, give up a luxury that we were never entitled to to begin with, when it requires us to change.

Here’s how our passage starts out, before the obvious moral of the story that comes later.

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

The religion scholar represents us at some point in our lives, and I would argue the religion scholar represents us in the current life cycle as a church too. We know what is right. We know what Jesus calls us to do, whether or not we have details for what it looks like. Love God, Love Neighbor. This message has not changed. 

But like the passage says, the scholar looked for a loophole, because well, change is uncomfortable. If you’ve ever witnessed a kid going through growth spurts, or even you yourself growing older, you know that this is true on a physiological level. Change hurts. It takes us away from what is normal, what we know, what is comfortable. 

And so the religion scholar said, ‘well, maybe I can avoid change on a technicality’. Maybe I can catch Jesus in his tracks, or argue that now is not the right time, or that it’s too hard, or that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, or insert any other justification we might feel will dismiss the reality at hand.

So the scholar tried this with Jesus, and he wasn’t going to let him get away with it. So he tells the story we know. The story of the Good Samaritan. Let me tell you something about this Samaritan, that might be controversial. We need to rename this story. I don’t believe the Samaritan was really THAT good honestly. 

There is this one person who was robbed, beaten, and left to die on the side of some abandoned road. And he survived it. He’s not a victim here, he’s a survivor, I want to point out. And the survivor waited for someone to come by, because he knew that he was in need of help. The first person comes by, the priest. And the priest looks at his ancient watch, remembers he has a sermon he still has to write, and so he crosses the street to avoid the real thing he’s called to. He makes an excuse. And then the second person comes by, the religious person. And the religious person looks at his watch, just like the priest, and he thinks to himself, wow I can not be late for our service today. I better keep going so I don’t miss it, and so he keeps going. 

And then the third person walks by, a guy from Samaria. He sees the guy on the side of the road, and he decides to stop to help him out, because love neighbor, right?

Now, getting back to my earlier point. The Samaritan wasn’t that good. He did what you should do if someone is dying by the side of the road. He loved his neighbor, like Jesus says to do. The Samaritan did exactly what he should have done, which is not extraordinary.

Yet we celebrate him as if he accomplished this huge feat. It’s like he cleared a low bar, and we decided to give him a giant trophy. And we just dismiss the other two who completely avoided this bare minimum altogether, which I feel is giving them a pass. 

Perhaps in this era of ‘call-out culture’, we’d rename the story. Instead of ‘The Good Samaritan’, maybe it would be called ‘The Story of the Priest with Bad Priorities’ or ‘The Story of the Complacent Religious Person’. I’m not telling you the Samaritan was a bad person. And in fact I’d argue he was good, but doing the right thing should not yield itself to a Medal of Honor. It should just be what we do when our neighbor needs our help.

We all have moments where we can do more, and we don’t. And this isn’t a time to try and say that we have to do everything. Because let’s face it, grace is here because we won’t ever do it perfectly all the time, even if instructions seem simple. But Jesus is sharing this story very intentionally. And so these two men, the religious people I might add, they’re not avoiding the survivor just that one time. It’s a pattern for them, like the religious scholar, to take the comfortable way out, to avoid the work that changing brings. 

Jesus asked the religious scholar: 

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

If we were to play the game we played earlier, the ordinary retelling of our story might be “A guy sat on the side of the road until someone found him.

Go and do the same, Jesus says. It’s a simple message, and it’s far from boring. In fact, we know it to be radical. Go and do the same, Jesus says. Go and do the bare minimum it takes to love our neighbor. Treat others the way you want to be treated. You don’t want your children in cages? Help other people’s kids get out of them. You want to be able to have a job? Make sure discrimination in the workplace based on gender identity and sexuality is illegal. You want to feel safe to worship? Let other people worship how they want. You want to go back to a physical building one day? Wear a mask until it’s safe to do that. 

Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s not a sacrifice, if you’re prepared for it. It’s not a burden when we operate with the understanding that change is inevitable, that being a neighbor is Jesus’ clearest message. And yes, just like growing pains, change stretches us. It grows us. It might hurt a bit. And, it’s the only way to live, Jesus says. 

Jesus asked the religious scholar: 

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

So like Jesus says friends, go and do the same. Treat others the way you want to be treated. 

Let us pray:

God of liberation and love, we give you thanks for your vastness, for the depth of your abilities and your work. Lead us to spaces and people that are bigger than ourselves. Empower us to do what your son told us to do, simply put, love our neighbors. In your holy name we pray, Amen.

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