Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
The Good Enemy
Closer to God, a Lenten sermon series from Luke, Week 1 of 5
Preached February 21, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
We’ve turned our face toward Jerusalem now. This is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a special season in the Christian year when we try to turn our attention, our spirit, our practices closer and closer to Jesus, even as he goes somewhere we don’t want him to go, or are afraid to go ourselves. Caitlan and I are calling this Lenten sermon series “Closer to God.”
Let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord…
Scripture Luke 10:25-42
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to challenge Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 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 love your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[k] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
We know what a good Samaritan is. It’s the person who stops to help you when your car gets stuck in the ice. It’s the stranger who recognizes the tear in the corner of your eye over your mask and decides to pause and ask you “what’s up?”, and listens with you for a while. It’s the new kid at school you’ve never met before, checking on you after you fell down in the kickball game. We all think we know what “good Samaritan” means, a person who stops and helps.
That’s not enough of the story. The good Samaritan is more than a person who stops to help. In order for this story to really hit home, we have to realize the other dynamics going on here.
First, there is the dynamic of those who do NOT help. The story says two people approached first, saw the person in the ditch, and passed by on the other side of the road. We cannot be sure why these two did that. We know one was a Priest and the other was a Levite, meaning from the tribe of priests. The two who passed by on the other side were both religious leaders.
They both saw the person in the ditch. We don’t know exactly what he looked like, what condition he was in, except that he was stripped, beaten, and “half-dead.” Some theologians assume the Priest and the Levite were worried about their ritual cleanliness, which prohibited them from touching the dead. Perhaps they saw the half-dead man, assumed he was fully dead, and to preserve their ritual cleanliness, they swung wide of him to avoid contact, and the smell, all to preserve their good standing with God.
Maybe? Maybe that’s why they went around, to preserve their own cleanliness, to maintain their obedience to the Scriptures, at least the way they had read and interpreted them. But, in another place in the Torah, the original Hebrew Scriptures, priests and Levites made an exception for neglected corpses, letting priests and Levites provide a proper burial for the dead, and to preserve the health and safety of the community. So the scriptures have both a rule against touching the dead and an exception that allowed touching and caring for the dead. Still, in these two guy’s minds, the exception wasn’t worth the risk. They were clearly more interested in practicing their preferred understanding of Scripture and ignoring that other understanding of Scripture that made an exception, that invited them to help, that even put some responsibility on them to help. Why is it that human beings often choose our favorite passages of Scripture to obey rigidly, and expect others to obey just as rigidly, then at the same time, we ignore those parts of scripture we don’t like or agree with, or that cause us to inconvenience ourselves, stretch ourselves, extend ourselves beyond the “rules” for the sake of others?
Today, they might be pastors, rabbis, imams, elders, bishops, preachers. We could also hear this as a brother, sister, mother, father, best friend, teacher, police officer, soldier. All of these descriptions are the ones in our culture that we would expect to stop and help. If we were watching this scene from afar, and anyone, anyone passed by without helping, I think we would all be disappointed in them. But our disappointment would be greater if we saw a pastor, a teacher, an officer, or a soldier walk right by. We understand the higher sense of responsibility on these professionals, and our disappointment increases if we see them avoid their opportunity to serve.
Jesus’ example wasn’t just calling out religious folk. He used the Priest and the Levite because a student of the Law, a future priest, was the one asking him the question. He used the profession of the one asking him as the negative example in the parable. So this parable works for me, to think of the priest and the Levite as a pastor. But for you, I want you to hear it as what YOU are… a teacher, a banker, a mother, a pharmacist, a judge, a business professional… and to hear the story as if someone like you was the one who passed by.
We are not supposed to hear this as if we are the ones in the ditch. We are supposed to hear this as if someone just like us saw the person in the ditch, and went around without helping. Then, we will begin to feel the parable as Jesus is telling it, to us, and not as some ancient, irrelevant story from the past.
There’s a second dynamic, regarding the person who actually DOES help. Jews and Samaritans did not like or respect one another, culturally, nationally, or religiously. They were the easy target of cultural jokes against one another. In a circle of Jewish people, I imagine jokes would often start with, “So a Jew and a Samaritan go into a bar…” The Jewish crowd would lean in and go ahead and start smiling, knowing the Samaritan in the story was about to do something humorously stupid, and that the Jewish person in the story was going to catch him doing it, and comment cleverly. The Samaritans were the punchline, the other, the different, the misunderstood, the “no thanks, we don’t want your kind around here.” Their religion was wrong, in the Jewish way of doing things. Their nation was a disgrace, a sinful place, in the Jewish understanding. Their people were dirty, unclean, not worthy of knowing, doing business with, and heaven forbid, marrying.
Oddly enough, if you go back far enough, Samaritans are descendants of Abraham. They descended through Joseph and Levi, the same Levi the Levites are named for. The 12 tribes of Israel, each named roughly for one of the sons of Jacob, who was later given the name Israel, had been able to hold together as one nation, one kingdom, under the leadership of David. But with Solomon, the split began and the northern kingdom, named Israel had its capital in Samaria, and the southern Kingdom of Judah had its capital in Jerusalem. In other words, in more ways than not, the Jews and Samaritans were family, at least cousins if not brothers and sisters, behind all their centuries of animosity, arguments, and hatred of one another. They were just on different paths.
Jesus’ parable, spoken to a Jewish Lawyer, and a mostly Jewish crowd, about a Jewish person who was robbed and disregarded in a ditch, is a trap. At this point in the story, most of the audience would already be doing a racial profile of the robbers, and would in their minds see the gang as a bunch of nasty Samaritans. Then, two Jewish folk arrive on the scene… and do nothing. They protect their way of life, without risking assistance. Then, the enemy, the people of that mixed-up religion, of that shunned race, of that strange, bad country… one of them, a Samaritan, arrives on the scene.
What, you didn’t beat him enough the first time? What else does he have to give you?! You even took his clothes last time? Why did you come back, to kick him some more just for fun?! But the Samaritan stops. He checks on the beaten man. He treats his wounds. He redirects his own journey to get the injured man to safety and comfort. He walks beside the animal he had been riding on, so the injured Jew can be carried. He pays for the nights in advance, and he promises to pay more in the future if his current payment doesn’t cover it.
The crowd of Jewish folk was waiting for the punch line, but the joke was twisted on them. The priest and the Levite made a traditional, nationalistic decision that did not show love. The Samaritan, the one who reads the scriptures wrong, worships wrong, acted lovingly toward one of us. No one is laughing.
I hope we can be very honest with ourselves, and think about who are the assumed robbers, the punch lines of our jokes. Think about the people we would never think of as helping. Think about the label we almost spit when we say it of someone. Think about the people we think of as wrong, religiously, who read the wrong scriptures, or worship in odd ways. Think about the people that would make you gasp if your son or daughter came home engaged to one. That’s who helped. That’s who stopped and did what you and I wouldn’t do for one of our own.
Okay, now we can put ourselves in the role of the beaten, robbed person for a moment. Imagine you couldn’t move, and couldn’t speak. But you could peek just barely through your eyes swollen shut. Imagine you saw one of your leaders coming, a politician, a pastor, a celebrity, a prominent business owner, and then watch as they catch your eye, see your struggle, and drive right by without even slowing down. “What? What’s going on? Why? Why didn’t they stop?”
Then imagine you see one of them coming. “Oh no. Please don’t see me.” They do. “Please don’t stop.” He does. “Please don’t come down here.” He does. “Please don’t hurt me,” your mind screams with fear, even though your body and mouth can do nothing to shout or brace yourself against the attack you are sure is coming. You’re vulnerable, at the foot of your supposed enemy, and he begins to wash your wounds. He tears his own clothing into strips to bandage you. He pours his wine on your scrapes as a disinfectant. He gives you a drink from his canteen. You hesitate to drink after him, but your thirst, your raw humanity overcomes the prejudice, and you drink. “What is happening?” When you are ready, he loads you onto his animal and walks beside you for miles to the nearest safe Inn, where you overhear him paying for you, and promising to pay more later if more is needed to care for you.
It wasn’t that long ago when one group of people forced others of different skin colors to sit at different counters, or drink from different water fountains, or swim in different pools. Today, I hear personalities spew terms like Liberal or Republican, Muslim or Atheist, immigrant or gay, as if each one of these is a curse word, almost defiling just to say it. And I see supposedly good Christian folk steering their lives to the other side of the road to avoid those they consider wrong, scary, unclean, sinful.
In Jesus’ way of showing us the kingdom of heaven, its those who label, stereotype, and fear the others who find themselves in a ditch, and see the very one we didn’t want to see coming not to hurt us, but to help us when we couldn’t help ourselves.
Can I carefully suggest something to you? Imagine the most undesirable kind of person you can, a generic face that matches all those fears and stereotypes. Draw that face. Now imagine, that face as the face of Jesus for you. That’s the face you can expect to see when you find yourself at the very end, without help, and without hope, beaten down, stripped of everything you thought was important, down to the raw, created humanity. That undesirable face will be the face of Jesus who sees yous, stops, helps you, carries you, pays in advance for you, and promises to come back to you.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown