A Short Trial
I do not preach from the lectionary, which means I hardly ever even mention the lectionary, which may mean — finally — that some of you have no idea what the lectionary is. The first thing I can tell you about it is that it isn’t likely to be, or to become, one of the most important things in your life, so if you have never heard of it don’t be embarrassed. I mention it only because all over the country this morning, in thousands of pulpits, ministers will be preaching from the lectionary — which means that they will take the Biblical text picked by a committee a year ago for this particular day, July 16, and all their sermons will take off from that text. I decided to join them for a change because I liked the text and the parable which is presented in it — the most famous of all the parables of Jesus, I would guess, and certainly one that never loses its relevance to the living of each ordinary day.
You heard the setting for the text when ____________ read the Scripture a few minutes ago. A lawyer, a first-century Palestinian equivalent of Marcia Clark or Johnny Cochran, decides to test Jesus with a question. He intends to put the young rabbi on trial, but since it turns out to be a remarkably short trial, and since most of us have grown weary with a certain very long trial, I thought I might as well use the phrase for my sermon title. The lawyer in our story is an expert in Jewish law and he expects to trip Jesus up with a question: “What must I do to be sure of eternal life?”
Perhaps even Jesus isn’t sure for a moment how sincere the lawyer is, so he decides to respond with a question of his own: “What does the Law say, and what has your reading taught you?” The lawyer seems pleased at the chance to demonstrate his expertiseand quickly combines verses from Deuteronomy (6) and Leviticus (19) to combine the two commandments that Jewish scholarship felt represented the ultimate distillation of the 613 points of Mosaic law. The language is not difficult. The first one, to love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind was Hebrew shorthand for insisting that the top priority in human life — as they saw it — meant loving God. The second commandment brings love down to a practical level: we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Jesus is not surprised by the quotation, of course, nor would anyone in the listening crowd be surprised. So when the lawyer reels off the great commandments Jesus says — I think he must have smiled a little — : “Quite right! Do those things and you will live.” It looks for a moment as if the little debate is over, and it looks as if the lawyer has asked a question with such an obvious answer that the crowd will wonder why he bothered to bring it up. We’d have seen a blush of embarrassment, surely, if we’d been present, and because his face is red the lawyer can’t let it end right there. Wanting to justify himself for asking a question with such an easy answer, he uses a skill some debaters lawyers learn very well and picks out a slippery word that might make the trial go on a little longer. “Well, yes,” he says, “but this one verse tells me to love my neighbor, and what I want to know is: who is my neighbor?”
Jesus decides a story is in order, perhaps because he realizes at this point that the lawyer and the listening crowd need a lesson not only in WHO their neighbors are but HOW they are to love them. And since the story he tells has been so familiar to us since childhood that it has lost most of its punch, I hope to recreate for you how radical and shocking it was to the group that heard it that day. As always in his parables Jesus uses players and images from real life. He says, “A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He fell into the hands of bandits who stripped off his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead.” If your imagination is working with me, you can see the heads nod in agreement. “Oh yeah, we know that road! Steep, dangerous stretch that is, with lots of hiding places for muggers. Man needs to be careful on that road!”
If Jesus told stories as well as I think he must have done, he would pause here for a moment as if not quite sure what he intended to say next — letting the audience wait, and wonder: “OK, so a guy gets mugged. What does that have to do with what the lawyer just asked you, and what does it have to do with loving my neighbor, because this person with no name is certainly not my neighbor, and to tell you the truth if he had been half bright he’d have stayed in the company of others on that risky road. Where are you going with this story, anyway?”
“Well, it so happened,” Jesus says, “that a priest was going down that road, and when he saw the victim he [pause] passed by on the other side. A Levite (another religious official) also came on the scene, and when he saw the victim [pause] he, too, passed by on the other side.” Jesus doesn’t bother to explain why they didn’t stop. Some scholars later have excused them by saying it was surely fear of ritual contamination that made them seem heartless. They can’t afford to touch someone dead, and the man probably looked dead, so to keep from putting themselves out of the religion business for a day they not only do not bend over to look and be sure….they cross cautiously over to the far side of the road.
My guess is that at this point in the story, some in the audience began to smile in anticipation. The priest and the Levite could be compared to a modern minister and a seminary theologian, members of the religious “establishment” who are always expected to do the right thing. Sometimes, because of this expectation, ministers and theologians start to think they are as good as their friends expect them to be, and they get puffed up and pious until by and by, if they do fall, a lot of people secretly rejoice. (Do I have to read the recent newspaper stories to you?) So when Jesus says the priest and Levite pass by without doing anything that proves love of God or love of neighbor, a few eyebrows shoot up, a knowing smirk passes from some listeners to others, and the same thought probably occurs to most of them: “Aha! The guys who should have been the heroes of this story were not, but we can guess who the hero will be. An ordinary person like us, just a decent God-fearing Jew with no professional training in religion but with a heart as big as all outdoors.” I have to believe that Jesus looked at them for a long moment and let their confidence swell before he went on quietly.
“And then a Samaritan traveler came along to the place where the man was lying….” — and I hope there was another delicious pause while they all reacted to the name Samaritan. You have to know that Samaritans were a half-breed race living between the province of Galilee on the north and Judea on the south, and hated by both their neighbors. Two pureblooded Jews might be separated by wide gulfs of class and status, but the one thing that could instantly unite them was their hatred of mongrel Samaritans. Only a page earlier in Luke’s gospel some of the Samaritans had shown how they returned the favor. Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem and need to spend the night in a little Samaritan village, but when they ask for lodgings the Samaritans take a second look at them, slam the door in their faces, and tell them, “Nothing doing! We don’t rent to Galilean Jews!” Two of the disciples, James and John, suggest that a good lightning strike might be just what these people needed. No love lost between these kinfolk!
So if the pause I hoped for held a moment on that long ago day, the audience has had time to think: “Well, if the priest and Levite from OUR church didn’t show any mercy, you can bet your life on one thing: when that Samaritan came along he probably looked to see if the bandits had left anything he could steal. That’s a Samaritan for you! I wouldn’t trust one as far as I could throw him!” They have been set up deliberately, and they are about to get the shock of their lives. Jesus says, “And then a Samaritan traeler came along to the place where the man was lying….and at the sight of him he was…..touched with pity. He went across to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own mule, brought him to an inn, and did what he could for him.” The shock and dismay must have been palpable in that crowd — just before it turned to outrage. “What are you trying to do? What’s the point of all this nonsense?” Jesus goes on: “This Samaritan took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Look after this man, please, and I’ll pay you back whatever more you spend when I come through on my return.”
I feel pretty sure that two or three people near the fringe of the crowd growled angrily at this last comment, and stomped off muttering about the audacity of an itinerant idiot of a preacher who makes one of those damned Samaritans the hero of a story. It would have been a good time to yell “Communist!” but that catch-all insult hadn’t been coined yet, so maybe one or two cupped their hands as they left and did the best they could: “Samaritan-lover!” And among those who stayed, numb with shock, there was a moment, I hope, when they realized what they did not want to realize: that the Samaritan has awfully good reasons not to stop and be compassionate at all. He is well off, for one thing. He has a mule, and he has some cash — enough to pay the innkeeper two days’ wages plus whatever else it might take — and obviously the same gang of bandits that mugged the victim may not be far off. But this detested Samaritan, this half-breed, not only walks across the road to help — he takes the time to do what he can. Before he moves the man to safety he gives first century first aid: some wine as a disinfectant, some oil as a soothing and healing aid, some bandages for comfort and cleanliness. And letting his business wait, he moves the victim to safe quarters at the closest Motel Six.
You can’t read stories well without engaging your imagination, and if you read this story with imagination you can feel the consternation in that crowd and you can guess, as I do, that Jesus let it all hang there in the air for another good long minute before he turned to the lawyer who started the whole thing with a question and asked one last question of his own: Which of these three seems to you to fit the definition of a neighbor? Acted like a neighbor to the man needing help? The lawyer probably cannot bear to say the hated name “Samaritan” so he says — I would bet he mumbles it through clenched teeth — “The man who gave him practical sympathy.” He is crushed. The whole game has gone sour….and it is about to get even worse. Jesus says, “Then you go and act the same way.” And that’s the end of it in Luke’s telling. Off goes the lawyer, thinking: “I’ve just been made to look like a perfect fool.” And off goes the crowd, scattering to their little stone and stick houses, thinking: “Boy oh boy! Wait till I tell Martha how this so-called rabbi set us up for an insult. That guy won’t last, doing things like that. Somebody will put him in his place. A Samaritan, for God’s sake!”
Love God, the first commandment said. Love your neighbor, the next one says. And they are both lighted up by a story that says, “Want to know who your neighbor is? It’s anybody you can help who needs help!” And so, just as you would expect, the gospel comes back once again to the ultimate expression of religion, which is love expressed in simple acts of kindness. It was love that stopped the heretical Samaritan in his tracks. Love that reached out and tended the wounds, love that transported the man to an inn for extended care. It simply is not possible to talk very long about the Christian religion as it was meant to be without talking about love in action, and Jesus knew that nothing makes the point better than a story. Was there a priest, and after him a Levite, and after the Levite an honest-to-goodness, real-life Samaritan who did what no listening Jew could imagine from a Samaritan? Probably not. The story is more likely to be divine fiction than a literal happening, but it makes the point so well that it remains among the best known stories in the world.
The same story gets told in every generation, in every town, in every life….so here are a couple more to show what loving your neighbor means. A few years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine congestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and bean to cry. The other eight heard him. They slowed down, stopped, and then they all turned around and went back — every one of them. One girl with Down’s syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for ten minutes. People who saw that day what love means are still telling the story.
Another story, as true in fact as the story of Jesus was true in spirit: A group of computer salesmen from Milwaukee went off one day to a regional sales convention in Chicago. They assured their wives they wouldbe home in plenty of time for dinner, but with one thing or another the meeting ran overtime so the men had to run to the station, literally run, with their tickets in their hands. As they rushed through the terminal, not quite as fast or as gracefully as O. J. used to do it in the ads, one man — the one who told this story — inadvertently kicked over a table holding a basket of apples. Without stopping they all raced on for the train and boarded it with a sigh of relief. All but one. He pausd, got in touch with his feelings, and had a sharp twinge of compassion for the boy whose apple stand had been overturned. A Scripture from his childhood came unbidden into his mind: “We are the body of Christ.” He waved goodbye to his friends and went back to the terminal. He was glad he did. The 10-year-old boy was blind. None of them had noticed. The salesman gathered up the scattered apples and noticed that several were bruised. He reached into his wallet and said to the boy, “Here, please take this ten dollars for the damage we did. I hope it didn’t spoil your day.” As he started to walk away the bewildered sightless boy called after him, “Are you Jesus?”
The man stopped in his tracks, and wondered.
What a world we could make it, gracious God, if we loved our neighbor
as consistently and forgivingly as we love ourselves. Amen.