The Good Samaritan

I am going to share some of the most powerful words in the English language with you today.  Are you ready?  Here they are:  

"Once upon a time..."  

Those words are absolutely pregnant
 with possibility aren't they?  Your mind is already racing right this very second to finish that sentence with a story of your own, or one that you remember...  

Never underestimate the power of a good story.  Writer Matt Goins offers this description of how important stories are to human beings.  "Story is where we came from.  Story is where we are going. Story is what connects us and binds us together."  

It's in the midst of storytelling that we discover ourselves, the meaning of things, our purpose and direction.  

Jesus was a master storyteller.  In ancient Judaism, storytelling was an enormous part of the religious and spiritual life of the community.  Later, inspirational storytelling became a recognized holy activity in Judaism, along with the study of the Torah.  Any decent rabbi worth his salt would have been able to tell a good story. 

Jewish author Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "The universe is made of stories, not atoms."  How beautiful is that?  Can I get a witness from all of the Literature and Creative Writing majors out there?

But Jesus... Jesus, took storytelling to another level.  His stories have been told and retold for centuries, transcending the Christian tradition and becoming part of wider culture.  And all of Jesus' stories--also known as parables-- revealed deep and transformative truths about the kingdom of God here on earth.  Jesus' intentionally used stories to help us understand what God is like, and just how far God is willing to go to rescue those whom God loves. The stories Jesus told are not just stories--they are revelations about grace, forgiveness, right living, what God desires, what God can't stand, and how to become the kind of people that God dreams for us to be.  

Once, Jesus' disciples asked him why he told so many stories.  Jesus responded with the following, which I'm reading from Matthew chapter 13 in The Message:  

Quote the question

12 "The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”

Verse 13 "Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.”   

Recap what he's saying...  

Over the next several weeks we're going to be exploring some of Jesus' most challenging parables for the purpose of seeing more clearly how we can help to embody God's kingdom in the name of Jesus.  

This is so important for us, sisters and brothers.  If the local church can't figure this out, then how will the world ever see what it looks like when God gets what God wants in the world?     

This week we are going to begin this four part series by studying
 one of Jesus' most well-known parables:  The Story of the Good Samaritan. 

THE STORY OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN is one of those stories that has made a huge cultural impact.  There are Samaritan hospitals, there are Good Samaritan laws and there is even an organization named Samaritan's Purse that does incredible work in the world for justice and mercy. 

Most people see this story as a simple story of one person showing kindness to another person.  A man gets beaten up, and left for dead on the side of the road. Two religious people walk right by him, but a third guy stops and takes care of him.   

But this story is about so much more than kindness.  

As we are going to discover together, this is a story of radical forgiveness, radical kindness... In fact,
This is what I want us to hold on to today--the one thing that I want us to remember--and it's incredibly challenging: 

In the kingdom of God, your worst enemy gives you the greatest chance to be your best
 [God designed] self.  

Let's do some reading: 

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

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

27 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.”

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

Another way to translate the description of this guy is "lawyer."  And what he's asking Jesus is the kind of question that a lot of religious people in 1st century Judaism---and in 21st century Texas---were also asking.  He wants to know the guidelines.  He wants to know what the minimum requirements are in order to gain God's favor.  

So when Jesus answers his question with a question, the lawyer responds with a pretty good answer--he quotes the Shema, perhaps the greatest prayer of the Jewish faith--love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength... and he also adds, "and love your neighbor as yourself."  

What he's doing is summing up the whole of the Ten Commandments in those two phrases.  Jesus is pleased with this answer, and tells the guy to go out and make it happen.  

But this guy doesn't quit.  He wants specifics.  He wants to determine exactly how low the bar can go---or (let's give him the benefit of the doubt) how high it needs to go in order for him to get it all right.  

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

What this guy is really asking is, "Who is 
not my neighbor?" He's fine with the whole love thy neighbor thing, but he darn sure wants to make sure about that definition of neighbor.    

I imagine Jesus looking at the guy with a small, sad smile on his face.  Kind of like, "Do you really want to know, friend?  Okay, here goes."  

30-32 Jesus answered by telling a story. “Once upon a time... there was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

Okay, lots of people have written about this portion of the story and have tried to understand why the priest and the Levite walked by him.  Jesus was a shrewd storyteller so there's deep meaning in his use of characters.  

But let's back up a bit and think about the man who was beaten.  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is winding, treacherous and also desolate in places.  I have been on that road before--the very same road that you can still use to make the Jerusalem to Jericho journey.  

Throughout the centuries that road was always a dangerous place for pilgrims who were traveling to Jerusalem through the Judean wilderness.  This guy fell victim to a mugging.  It's probable that everyone listening to Jesus' story would have known someone who had been accosted on that road.

In fact people would often travel days out of their way to go all the way around the mountains and approach Jerusalem from the south just to avoid this road. 

So who were the priest and the Levite?  Why did they avoid the man?  Jesus used these characters because they fully represented the elite, religious class of people in 1st century Judaism.  

Most of the sermons and teachings I've heard on this parable always feel back on the idea that the reason these two religious guys didn't want to help the fallen man was because they were afraid of being unclean.  

But, these are the kinds of people who knew the law, and knew what the law required when it came to people in need. And the law required that if, at all possible, you should help someone in need without fear of being made ceremonially unclean.  

In her excellent book "Short Stories of Jesus," Dr. Amy Jill-Levine states that these guys didn't avoid the fallen man because they were afraid of being made unclean by him.  There's evidence to suggest that the Torah actually protected them if they had tried to help him.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of the best interpretations I think I've seen of this part of the passage.  He asserted that the reason why they didn't stop was because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they did.  They weren't about to risk their life for the fallen man, not by a long shot. 

33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

Let me give you just a bit of history when it comes to the problems between Jews and Samaritans.  In short, to say they hated each other is an understatement.  The Samaritans were associated in the ancient Jewish imagination with some of the worst things in Jewish history.  

The city of Shechem was believed to be a precusor to what would eventually become Samaria.  In the book of Genesis, Jacob's daughter Dina was raped by a prince in Shechem and her brothers eventually took vengence upon them in a horrible and violent way.  

Samaritans were also associated with the peoples who occupied the area surrounding Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed the city and the Temple.  They were believed to have been the people who tried to thwart the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah.  

Interestingly enough, Samaritans claimed to believe and follow the Torah, just like the Jews.  They claimed a similar ancestry, but had their own beliefs about the Messiah and their national aspirations.  The Samaritans had their own Temple on Mt. Gerazim, a temple rebuilt by Alexander the Great.

Not even a century before the birth of Christ, there were violent incidents between Jews and Samaritans.  Allegedly some Samaritans snuck into the Temple in Jerusalem right before Passover and spread human bones throughout it, defiling it and making it unclean for worship. 

The Jewish king John Hyrcanus raised an army and attacked Samaria, destroying the temple on Mt. Gerazim.  

When Jesus used a Samaritan in this story, his Jewish listeners would have undoubtedly physically recoiled.  The idea of accepting help from a Samaritan was outside the realm of possibility.  They would have rather died.  

And we know by modern day equivalent of what was paid, that with the amount of money the Samaritan put up that he was essentially paying for twenty four nights of lodging.  It was crazy, astounding, over the top.  

Jesus finally turns to the lawyer and asks him...  

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

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

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

Do you notice something? The lawyer couldn't even say the words, "The Samaritan."  He probably clenched his teeth when he gave the answer he did give, but there was no way he was going to say the words "The Samaritan."  

Jesus was throwing something into the face of this guy and everyone who was listening--he was forcing them to confront their hatred. This guy had no desire to see Samaritans as children of God.  He had no desire to entertain the notion that a Samaritan could be good.  In fact, in his mind it was the equivalent of saying "The Good Rapist," or "The Good Murderer," or "The Good Terrorist." 

Jesus essentially posed this question to all of his listeners, and to all of us:  "Is it better to acknowledge the humanity and the potential in the enemy or to simply go on choosing death?"  

Because in this story, the Samaritan does what God does... He forgives, he heals, he binds wounds, he redeems and sustains the fallen man. 

So now this story lands on you and on me.  We find ourselves asking the same questions of Jesus don't we?  Who is our neighbor? Who do we not have to be in relationship with?  Who is beyond redemption?   Because we have lists don't we?  We have lots of people on our lists that we think deserve God's judgement.  

Who are the Samaritans in your life?

Who do you want to scratch off your list?  

Who do you hope experiences some fire and brimstone?  

Who would you least like to see playing tennis in heaven when you finally get there?

In what ways are you being called to be your best self in those moments?  Like the lawyer in the story, how are you being pushed by God to see the potential for goodness, grace and peace even in those who you would consider an enemy?  

What would it look like for you?  Who do you need to forgive?  To invite to dinner? To open your home and heart?  

I've heard it said that this kind of grace is inconvenient.  In other words, how inconvenienced are you willing to become in order to see the divine image of God in someone you once considered an enemy?  

Can you imagine how this could change the world if we all figured this out?  

It's a good thing we have an example in Jesus to know what it could look like.  Jesus knew how to turn the world upside down.  He put people who were enemies on the same team, taught them, loved on them, empowered them and then through them changed the world.  

I'm talking about his disciples...  

Peter, Andrew, James the Elder, & John were all fisherman, according to Scripture. 
Philip, Thomas & James the Younger were most likely fisherman as well.  
Nathaniel was described as a Seeker of the Truth, a perpetual student, who never graduated (and also probably a fisherman). 
Judas, Thaddeus, Simon were all Zealots, conspiracy theorists, who hated the Romans, and who were most likely violent Jewish nationalists.  
Matthew was a Tax Collector, one of the most reviled of all vocations in Israel.  

The fishermen in the group would have thought the Zealots were a bunch of troublemakers, who were always causing problems for everyone else by their activism, and penchant for violent activity that would bring the Romans down on everybody.  

The Zealots thought that everyone else in the group was a coward, who didn't care about the fact that the Romans were taxing everyone to death, oppressing people and generally making life miserable for Jews.  

And everyone--and I mean everyone--in the group hated Matthew.  He was a tax collector, working for the Romans.  He worked the docks where the fishermen returned with their daily catches, and he taxed them on the spot.  

So the fishermen in the group couldn't stand him because he took their money and the Zealot couldn't stand him because he was a traitor in their eyes.  

But these men, came together.  They quarreled sometimes.  They had disagreements on occasion. They sometimes didn't see eye to eye on much of anything.  But they served together.  They preached the Gospel together.  And the gave their lives to this together. They showed the world what the love of Jesus was all about... together.  

These men who should have been enemies gathered around the table and said this is the body of Christ, the blood of Christ. 

Because it was Jesus that held them together, Jesus who transformed them.  Jesus who broke down the barriers that divided them.  

And the reason why Jesus wanted it this way is because that's what the kingdom of God looks like.  The kingdom of God turns our way of thinking and seeing things upside down.  

In the kingdom of God, the first are last, and the last are first.  
In the kingdom of God, you need the simple, trusting faith of a little child in order to understand the depth of God's grace and mercy. 
In the kingdom of God there is forgiveness for the unforgivable. 
In the kingdom of God there is restoration for the one who has ruined it all. 
In the kingdom of God there is resurrection for all who have been left for dead.  

Imagine if we started by practicing this right here and right now.  The thing that I love about this church is the way we put aside so  many of our differences to come together to embody the kingdom of God.  But we could do better.  

Imagine how we could show Christ to the world if each one of us learned to love our "enemies."  For some of you, that might mean loving on that person who keeps posting all of those pro-Trump posts on Facebook.  For others, it might mean loving on that person who goes out and protests the president at the state capitol.  

For many of us it might mean praying for peace for the families of a suicide bomber, who just took his own life and the lives of innocent people.  

Because beloved... 

In the kingdom of God, your worst enemy gives you the best chance to be your best self.  



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