a sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10)
The lawyer asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with a story about a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan man that teaches us all kinds of important lessons about how we should treat those who are in need or trouble.
But the question remains: Who, exactly, was the man in the road, the one that Jesus says is our neighbor?
We might not remember the question, but we sure remember the President’s answer – “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Spoken as the lawyer he was trained to be, it has come to represent the hair-splitting that goes on in legal proceedings. That focus on a technicality reminds us of this conversation between the lawyer and Jesus in today’s Gospel.
The lawyer approaches Jesus with a simple question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
No beating around the bush. Spell it out for me, Jesus.
So Jesus points him to the law books, to scripture. What do they say?
Lawyer knows his law, and happy to say so:
“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.”
Jesus commends the lawyer. “Do this and you will live.”
But lawyer isn’t satisfied. He wants to justify himself. So he asks another question:
“Who IS my neighbor?”
Presbyterian preacher and theologian, Frederick Buechner, wrote that the lawyer probably wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question of loving another person ever happened to come up. He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”
Instead, Jesus tells him the story we know as “The Good Samaritan.” How a man, travelling on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers, beaten, stripped naked, and left on the side of the road to die. Three men come by, a priest, a Levite, and a foriegner, a Samaritan man. The priest and the Levite avoid any contact at all with the man. But the Samaritan, the one who was not a member of the man’s tribe, helps him at great cost to himself.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke about this parable in the last speech he gave before he was assassinated. He said, “The priest and the Levite ask, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me. The Samaritan asks, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
Of course, we can look at the good Samaritan and see all kinds of important lessons – lessons about how we should treat those who are in need or trouble; lessons about how we are called as Christians to go out of our way for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the needy.
But today, I want to look at who man in the ditch, the man Jesus says is our neighbor. The story really doesn’t tell us very much about that man. All we know is that at that time, he was broken. He was beaten, stripped naked, and left in the ditch to die.
Of course, that man could have been any one of us; at any given time, we, too, need some help from our neighbors.
One of the the most interesting things about this story is how it is heard in different parts of the world. When we hear the story, we are most likely to identify with the Samaritan, the one who has the resources to help out. But when people in the Third World hear it, they have more empathy for the man in the ditch. It’s as if they can say, “We’ve all been there, too. We need to help our neighbors.’
The story doesn’t tell us anything about who the man on the side of the road was. We don’t know what he did for a living, or why he was traveling on that road. We don’t know if he was a good citizen, a kindly grandfather, or a bum. Maybe he was another robber, or a kid with skittles and a hoodie.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that Angela Corey, the Florida assistant attorney general who prosecuted the Travon Martin case, is a distant cousin of mine; we grew up together and sang in the children’s choir together at St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville. Now, I don’t know anymore about the case than you do. I don’t know what happened that day, or who started what.
All I know is that on that particular day, nobody showed anybody any mercy.
Once upon a time, there was once another man who was beaten and stripped and left to die on the side of the road. Jesus, himself. He’s the one who died for the sake of all the people who ever needed help on the side of the road. Jesus died, so that we might never have to die alone on the side of the road. Jesus died and was raised from the dead so that all of us, rich and poor, might have eternal life in him.
Jesus told the lawyer that nothing less than his eternal life depended showing acts of mercy to everyone he met.
Jesus also tells us, “Go and do likewise.”
Thanks be to God.