Who are my Samaritans?
July 14, 2019 - Sermon Text: Luke 10:25-37
There is an interesting chain of events which takes place when we read today’s parable in light of the context in which Luke placed it. “He (Jesus) sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:52-53). Previously, Jesus had been healing and casting out demons throughout Galilee and Samaria. Jesus had been breaking down the age-old boundaries and prejudices that existed between Samaritan Jews and Orthodox Jews.
He wasn’t rejected by the Samaritan villagers on account of being a Jew. Jesus kept telling people that he was headed for Jerusalem. Jesus confirms this when he says “the Son of Man must suffer many things & be rejected by the elders, the chief priests & the teachers of the law, & he must be killed” (Luke 9:21). A prophet who is headed for Jerusalem must have a death-wish!
“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go” (Luke 10:1). The previous chapter brings to a conclusion Jesus’ ministry of reaching out to the Samaritan Nation who are now rejecting him. Now, Jesus is reaching out to the Gentile (non-Jewish) nations around Israel. In reaching out to the Samaritan Jews, Jesus’ disciples would have to put their societal biases, prejudices and hostilities behind them, although James and John display their hostility when Jesus is rejected and say “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them” (Luke 9:54).
What was experienced within the Samaritan Nation would have only been a minor inconvenience to what would be experienced in the Gentile Nation. The twelve disciples would have been uncomfortable around Samaritans, while the seventy-two missionaries would be exposed to practices that would be downright offensive to them. When you enter a house, commands Jesus, “stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house” (Luke 10:7). A Gentile’s home may be filled with different idols. Not only are those providing hospitality to the missionaries ceremonially unclean the missionaries would be required to consume food and drink which is also ceremonially unclean. Unlike efforts with the Samaritans the Gentile mission appears successful as “the seventy-two returned with joy” (Luke 10:17) as even the demons submit.
You can begin to see all the dynamics that are at play within the first century middle-eastern world. Besides the gentile Roman citizens, Luke implies and historians believe that there were seventy-two gentile nations in existence around Israel at that time in history. Orthodox Jews and Gentiles did not see eye to eye because they were considered pagans and ceremonially unclean. The age old bigotry between Samaritan Jews and Orthodox Jews dates back to about 700 years (probably older) before the birth of Jesus. It may have begun after the dividing of the United Nation of Israel into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms under the two sons of King Solomon. Later, in 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom and Samaria are invaded and devastated by the Assyrians, leaving behind some Jews intermixed with Assyrians foreigners.
About 150 years later, the Babylonians would devastate the Southern Kingdom, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple as they would take all of the elites from Jerusalem away into exile in Babylon. Seventy years later, the descendants of those Jews would return to Jerusalem to find that those who had been left behind had inter-married with non-Jewish cultures. After Nehemiah and Ezra had re-established Jerusalem, “Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, you have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now honour the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives” (Ezra 10:10-11). Those who refused were rejected by orthodox Jews who considered the Samaritan version of Judaism to be corrupted.
With all of this in mind, let’s now take a look at the parable. It all begins when an expert in the law questions Jesus regarding a fairly plain and simple teaching from Scripture. “Teacher, he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25). Remembering that the crucifixion and resurrection hasn’t yet occurred, Jesus turns the question back on the expert and asks him what he thinks. This is always a good place to start, because we need to know where the questioner is coming from. Jesus identifies his answer as correct. It is as simple as what God’s word already says; “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind & love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
However, the lesson is not quite over. The expert in the law seeks further clarification in order to justify his own knowledge and interpretation of God’s Law as well as maybe justifying his own personal actions. “So he asked Jesus, and who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29)? The parable is about an unknown traveler, who is accosted by thieves and left for dead along the side of the road. Three different men come across the man, but only one takes the time to help.
Ignoring the cultural aspects for a moment, Jesus asks; “which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The expert in the law replied, the one who had mercy on him. Jesus told him, go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37). The essence of the parable is straight forward. The apostle John would drive this point home later in his three epistles; “anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:21), “anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother or sister” (1 John 3:10) and “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Now, when we introduce the cultural bias into our interpretation of Jesus’ parable in its proper historical context, we begin to see a much deeper aspect to what Jesus is teaching to his listeners. “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, and who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29)? The parable would not have been culturally offensive if Jesus had simply used, a priest, a Levite and another Orthodox Jew. The outcome would have been the same. Instead, Jesus makes the one who shows mercy into a despised half-breed cousin of the Jews. In other words, the best Judaism has to offer; a Priest and a Levite walk past an injured man and ignore him completely, while an offensive hated Samaritan stops and helps the stranger.
This creates a whole new meaning to the question “who is my neighbour?” Culturally and socially, it also takes us much deeper into the essence of the parable and the meaning of God’s Word which says “love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27, Leviticus 19:18). Maybe, we can relate to the Priest who “when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31) or the Levite who “when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:32).
Of all the Israelites, the orthodox priest would be considered, not just good, but amongst the best because of his work in the temple of God. But, according to Jesus he crosses over to the other side to avoid the man in the ditch. Maybe, he looked like a drunken bum or a drug addict. Maybe he thought that the man was a beggar who got what he deserved. I believe that we often create our own cultural Samaritans today, those who aren’t like us, whom we label accordingly and set our stamp of disapproval onto because of their lifestyles. Like the Priest, it’s easier to cross over to the other side because the man in the ditch isn’t my responsibility.
Someone else will come along and help him, the Priest must have thought. And, shortly afterwards a Levite comes along, who also avoids the man in the ditch. The Levite might have thought that the man was dead, and touching a dead body would make him ritually unclean and unable to stand before God in the temple. He was afraid to defile himself and get dirty by helping another person. What is truly surprising about this parable is that the Samaritan, who is despised and hated by the Jews has every reason in the world to cross over to the other side and avoid the man in the ditch, because the man in the ditch is more than likely a Jew. Because of the racial tensions in Israel, the Samaritan had every reason to simply walk away.
The Samaritan is the only one who shows compassion to the stranger who is in need of help. He ignores any racial, cultural, societal or religious barriers. He puts any racism, bias, prejudice, bigotry or pre-conceived judgements about the other person where they belong. He doesn’t look at the beggar, alcoholic, prostitute, drug addict, homeless person (feel free to add your own biases) as anything else than a child of God in need of help. When we begin to understand the true motivation of the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable and actually begin to live a Christian life which is representative of the one who alone displays mercy, we begin to move towards what Martin Luther called being a Theologian of the Cross. The Samaritan is put forth as an example for us, while Christ suffering and death for us is the ultimate example of love.
If we are willing to open our eyes of faith, this parable will now allow us to moves even deeper into the original question of “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25) than we might have ever imagine possible. The sin-sick world in which we live has made our modern society many times more individualistic than the previous generations of the world and of the church. Today, people will raise their voices and claim their “right and freedoms.” Women want a right to their own body when it comes to abortion while older people want their rights when it comes to dying when they want to die.
Behind this egocentric desire for self is sin. It has been there since the time of our first parents; Adam and Eve. They wanted the right to eat of the fruit which made one wise and like God. Today, there is no limit to the “rights” that people, that we want for ourselves.
The expert in the Law in today’s gospel also wanted his right, to know “what must I do” (Luke 10:25). What he didn’t realize, is that along with having ones rights comes responsibility and duty. “What is written in the law” (Luke 10:26) Jesus asked. God’s law demands total and complete devotion to God, and to all other people. There is no exception to this requirement. When the Samaritan saw the man lying in the ditch, he had compassion on him. In the same way, we are to express neighbourly mercy and compassion to others, regardless of who they are, what they believe, what they have done and anything else that makes them different from us. The parable is a call for us, like it was to Jesus’ Jewish audience, to take a very difficult and deep look at ourselves and examine who we consider to be the Samaritans in our world and life.
Now, when you read parables like this one, or other passages in the Bible, and you say to yourself, “I know I’m supposed to be this way, but I’m not, you begin to see yourself to be more like the Priest or Levite than like the Good Samaritan.” I have a hard time passing beggars on the street without thinking “if I give them something, will they use it in a good way or bad?” When we see street people down on their luck, we might think that they are getting their just desert. When we see homeless people camping in open fields, we might think about how we can help them, while some people might discourage us from giving any help and others might actually consider ways to make an already miserable existence even more difficult.
Honestly, we all have been guilty of committing the same sin of judging others because they are different from us, haven’t we? When people have fallen on bad times, when people are in need, we are usually pretty good at figuring out why we don’t have to help them, why we want to avoid them by walking on the other side, or we figure that someone else will take care of it. It’s not my problem, I don’t have time, and that person deserves it. You and I can be just like that Priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable, ignoring people who are different than us, people who are in need, and then making excuses in our heads in order to make ourselves feel better.
And really, what chance do you and I have. “Teacher, he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25)? You are nothing more than a pilgrim moving from birth to death in this world and you have been attacked by the world, the flesh and the Devil (Luther’s Small Catechism) and left for dead by the side of the road. Sin leaves you feeling half dead and on your own you don’t stand a chance because Sin is your constant traveling companion waiting to ambush you around every curve on the journey. Temptation is always working to beat us down into the ditch. The Devil is never far away, waiting for hopelessness to deny God.
Spiritually, we are helpless as the man in the parable, covered with our filthy sins, lying in a spiritual ditch with no one to help us. Many will walk past us, but nobody will stop to help, except One. There really is only One who can be called the Good Samaritan, whose life is perfect and who has every right to avoid dealing with us, the sinful disobedient creatures of this world. Instead, he does everything possible for us to be able to inherit eternal life. He takes our sin from us upon himself. His effort to help us cost him his own life; dying on the cross for you and rising from the dead. Jesus is the Good Samaritan in the story of your life. And, it’s only through Him working in our lives that we can become good Samaritans to all people. It’s only because of Christ’s gift of eternal life and His love and grace which is now living inside of you that you can respond without bias or prejudice and “love your neighbour as yourself. (Luke 10:27).
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