Sermon on St. Luke 10:23-37
2 September 2012
Who is my neighbor? – St. Luke 10:29
Who is my neighbor? Ask a law question and you’ll get a law answer. Two questions of the law, in this case. The lawyer of the synagogue asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Perfect love is the answer: Love the Lord your God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Building on the idea of loving the neighbor, the lawyer asked a second law question, which will serve as our focus this morning: Who is my neighbor?
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. It’s a dangerous road, especially for those traveling alone or at night. Even with the prevailing Peace of Rome, high and winding roads like this one were a chance for thieves to mug and to steal. The victim of this crime was stripped, beaten bloody, and left for dead.
Enter the priest, who was traveling the same road. Recall from the Old Testament that every priest had a two-week tour of duty in the Temple at Jerusalem. Those who were assigned to other tribes had the other 50 weeks to bring the gifts of the Lord to the tribes throughout Judea. This priest was probably leaving his two weeks of “active duty” in Jerusalem and returning to his usual preaching station. Imagine the aftermath of the crime scene: the priest sees the victim lying on the side of the road. The victim looks at the priest with a longing sense of desperation in his eyes. Here’s a priest! He is an expert in ritual healing, one who examines the body for purity and who does not get squeamish at the sight of blood. Surely my help has arrived!
But it was not that simple. The priest was caught in a “Catch 22,” a situation with no easy way out. According to the Law of Moses, one who touched a dead or diseased body was impure and therefore unable to serve his priestly duties until he was purified. The rite for purity involved returning to Jerusalem, making a sacrifice, being quarantined, and waiting for “two thumbs up” from a priest on duty. At the same time, however, the command to love one’s neighbor no doubt raced through his mind. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and what could be more unloving than pretending not to see your neighbor in his hour of deepest need?
He passed by on the other side of the road.
Enter a Levite. Recall the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe of the Old Testament. From the tribe of the sons of Levi were chosen priests. From the priests was chosen a high priest, successor of Aaron. Unable to own land, the Levites were scattered throughout Israel, as sure as pastors today are called to every corner of the world. The image of the Levite, then, is not just any Levite passing by, but a Levite who was in some way involved in the priestly work. As one who assisted in the Temple liturgy and other duties, he knew God’s Law. If you look closely at your bulletin cover, you will see a man just down the road from the Samaritan who is walking while he reads a book. This is probably the image of the Levite as he reads the Law of Moses, yet neglects a neighbor in dire need. Is he reading the part of the Law that tells him to remain pure or the part that tells him to help his neighbor? He faced the same dilemma: touch a body and break the ritual Law, or neglect his neighbor in need and break God’s moral Law.
Once again, imagine the scene from the perspective of the victim. A robber has beaten you bloody and taken your valuables. A priest, of all people, has passed by on the other side of the road. But now a Levite is coming. Surely he will help! He knows the Law of Moses. The Levite will at least take my hand, tell me it’s going to be OK, and call for help.
But the Levite also passed by on the other side of the road.
Taken together, the priest and the Levite remind us of how we have neglected our neighbor, ignored his need, and brought ourselves under the same condemnation as those who passed by on the other side. Consider your own life under the second Table of the Law, O Sinner, and repent!
Have you perfectly obeyed your parents and other authorities, or have you hurt them, despised them, and been impatient with authority because of your own, selfish ego?
Have you consistently helped your neighbor in his every need (including every physical need), or have you hurt or harmed your neighbor by neglecting his need and passing by on the other side?
Have you lead a sexually pure and decent life in every thought, word, and deed, or have you hurt your spouse and others by lusting after that which God has not given to you?
Have you always helped your neighbor to improve and protect all that he owns, or have you in any way neglected your neighbor in his need?
Have you always spoken kindly of your neighbor, including your worst enemy, or have you hurt his reputation by speaking ill of him, slandering him, and generating gossip in cyberspace?
Have you always been perfectly content with everything God has given you, even in a recession, or have you coveted what belongs to your neighbor?
See your sin under commandments 4-10, O ye priests and Levites, and repent! For those who break the Law in any way will not inherit eternal life.
Enter a Samaritan. We moderns can barely imagine the reaction of the lawyer when Jesus introduced a Samaritan as the hero of the story. Recall the Northern Kingdom of the Old Testament, established after the united monarchy of Saul, David, and Solomon. After Solomon, in a dispute over who would be king, the north went its own way, with ten tribes and the capital city of Samaria, from which comes the name “Samaritan.” The south retained two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, and were known as “Jews,” short for “Judahite.” North vs. South. Union vs. Confederacy. Jets vs. Sharks. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Call it what you will. It was a bitter, “in state” rivalry that exists to this very day.
But it was the Samaritan – the half-breed, the impure, the imposter – who did the right thing and loved his neighbor without limit. At the crime scene, we see the Samaritan as an EMT. As I understand their role, emergency medical technicians stabilize the patient and then take him to a hospital. And so the Samaritan had compassion, i.e., his entire being went out to the victim. He went to the victim in compassion, with no trepidation about being a first responder and all the blood and gore that comes with being first on the scene. The Samaritan bound up his wounds to stop the bleeding. After taking a deep breath and mustering all his strength, the Samaritan set the victim on his animal, which was used for bearing burdens. Your bulletin cover, as far as I can tell, shows a horse, but a donkey was much more likely, for it was the beast of burden. The Samaritan poured oil and wine on the wounds of the victim, for they had medicinal power to cleanse and to heal.
At the inn or hospital, we see long-term medical care and rehab. After entering through the ER and eventually getting a regular room for the victim, the Samaritan could be on his way. But what about the HMO’s, socialized health care, and rising costs of medical care? The Samaritan took care of that, too. After seeing some improvement after the victim’s first night at the inn (which doubled as a hospital and even as a community center), the Samaritan took out two denarii, about two day’s pay, and gave them to the innkeeper. “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” It was complete and comprehensive coverage and care, wasn’t it? All is provided, from the first moment the Samaritan had compassion on him to the day the victim finally walked out of the inn on his own two feet, with all expenses paid and all wounds healed.
Who is this Samaritan? Taken together, his work at the crime scene and the long-term care at the inn paint a vivid portrait of Jesus Christ, both in His public ministry and His ongoing work in the church. Regarding His public ministry, Jesus saw us in our need. He looked down from heaven on high and saw that we had been attacked by Satan in the first temptation, condemned to death, and left on the roadside of despair and eternal damnation. The Law passed us by on the other side, for we could not keep God’s Law perfectly. But Jesus showed the ultimate compassion by becoming one of us. He got down on our level by becoming man, like us in every way, except without sin. Jesus left His heavenly throne, gave all for the sake of all, and suffered all that we have suffered, and much more. He healed many people of their diseases and even raised the dead. And, in the ultimate expression of compassion, Christ died our death and took our sin, suffering, and sickness into His own body on the cross.
Risen and ascended, He still cares for us – not directly, as He did when He healed the sick, but through the church and ministry. The church is our inn, the place where we receive long-term care for the soul. As someone said, “[The church is] a hospice of sinners justified for Jesus’ sake” (Cwirla). The pastor is our innkeeper, for he is the one who is called and ordained to give us the oil of baptism and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. And therein is the healing power of forgiveness and eternal salvation for victims of sin and death like you and me. It’s all paid for by the blood of Christ, our Good Samaritan, for He has marked “paid in full” on our account, that we might inherit eternal life.
Who is my neighbor? The answer no doubt shocked the lawyer. See how he could not even say, “The Samaritan,” for it hurt too much to mention Samaritans by their proper name. The lawyer spoke around the direct answer and replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Who is your neighbor? The answer might surprise you as well. Look again at the man in the ditch, the one who fell among thieves. He looks familiar, doesn’t he? He looks like someone you know. This man, beaten and bloody, is your neighbor in need. He is the least, the lowly, the lost, and even the nearly dead. This victim, your neighbor, is the one you help (even sight unseen) by donating to a food pantry, praying for those on our prayer list, and making a phone call to someone who hasn’t been in church for a while. Christ is in you as you love your neighbor. And Christ is in your neighbor, “For as often as you have done [works of compassion] to the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to Me” (Mt 25:40).
+ In Jesus’ Name + Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer