This is the time of year when many of us will be going somewhere on vacation. Travel by car is the most common in America for family vacation time. Most of us will take time to plan our vacation, to make reservations, and to map out where we are going. With today’s technology, mapping is little more than typing in the address of your destination and waiting a few milliseconds while Google Maps or Siri plans your route for you and displays it on the screen. It’s pretty simple these days to get good directions and stay on course.
All of us are also on another journey; the journey that began when we were born and will not end, only transition, as we move from earthly living to eternal living and become transformed as God’s children. There is no Google Maps app to keep us headed in the right direction on this particular journey. There are few road signs and many obstacles. It can be a real challenge for us to maintain the right direction and there are plenty of places where we’d just as soon give up and stop. The good news of the gospel is that God has a plan for our journey and can find all sorts of ways to adapt when we stray off course and lose our way. It is as if God is forever whispering in our ears, “re-calculating” and helping us figure out where we are in relationship to where we want to go.
This morning, let’s take a look at a story that Jesus told about a particular journey and see if we can get a clue for the direction we might take.
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a familiar story to many of us. We’ve all heard lots of sermons and Sunday school lessons taught about this story. We all know what Jesus is trying to tell us here, right? Of course, right! First there’s the priest, who represents the religious authorities; for us, The Church. He passes by and does nothing. Then we meet the Levite, who represents the good people who go to church. He passes by and does nothing. Finally we meet the Samaritan, who represents all the “other folks” – the outcasts, the people we don’t like or agree with – This guy steps up and does the right thing; the rest of the story is history. Well that all seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?
The thing is that everyone in this story is on some kind of a journey; each character, even the robbers, is going someplace. The gospel points out that, no matter where we are going, we are likely to encounter the unexpected in a dangerous world. The people in this story altered their course as they each reacted to the unexpected. Maybe they lost their sense of direction; they could have used a little help from God’s G.P.S.
Let us pray…Lord, we are all on a journey today and we come to you seeking direction. Send your Holy Spirit to help us as we encounter your good news, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Because this story is so familiar, we have a hard time hearing any fresh good news here. We commonly recognize this as calling us to help anyone in need – defining “neighbor” in very broad terms. It is often used to make us feel guilty when we ignore a homeless person standing at an intersection with a sign or when we don’t put some change in the Salvation Army Kettle. Certainly, a “good Samaritan” is widely recognized today as anyone who comes to the aid of another. It is important that we learn to offer help to people who depend on the kindness of strangers. But, is that all there is for us in this parable?
This is a story for people who realize they are on a journey. This is not just a journey from birth to death, but from birth to re-birth. It’s about moving from partial life to abundant life. It is a journey of transformation, made possible by what God pours into the hearts of all those who journey in a dangerous world. Maybe we spend too much time criticizing the priest and the Levite in this story. We may not like their behavior, but we need to at least try to understand their perspective. Why would we expect them to act any differently? They did exactly what any other man in their position, in their context would do.
I read and then shared an article this week from a pastor in Virginia who makes some very interesting points about the way Christians have set themselves up as the “morality police”. I wonder if that attitude might come from our habit of pointing fingers at the perceived bad guys in the Good Samaritan parable. We are quick to judge the priest and the Levite for not helping the man in need. We base our judgement on the fact that they did what their particular culture told them to do. We disagree with them, but maybe we should not fault them as completely as we do.
Consider this: It just may be that Christians are standing for truth without grace. Truth without grace is just cruel; while grace without truth is rather pointless. Tim Keller says it this way: “Truth without grace is not really truth and grace without truth is not really truth.” We can point out “the truth” about sin all day long, but when we forget to include the grace of God, we’re just being mean. You see, the truth about sin is that we all do it and frequently. Also, pointing out sin to people who don’t understand what sin is can really be a problem. We seem so surprised when non-Christians act like non-Christians. We are shocked when those who don’t follow Jesus act like they don’t follow Jesus. Why are we so surprised and why do we think the solution lies in changing their behavior? The problem isn’t their actions; the problem is that they don’t know the love of Jesus. Fixing their actions won’t change anything; introducing them to Jesus will. We need to stop focusing on peoples’ actions and start engaging their hearts. What if we got to know their story, who they are, and why they act the way they do before we ever talk about what we judge to be their sin? The problem isn’t sin, the problem is the heart.
The problem is there are far too many hearts closed to Jesus; too many hearts that have been hardened, scared, and cut-off from Jesus. Jesus’ ultimate goal was to bring people into relationship with him. He met with sinners, ate with sinners, and walked around with sinners…In fact, when you think about it – everyone Jesus interacted with was a sinner because they were all human beings. Jesus built relationships with people by seeking their hearts, not by judging their bad behavior. We need to take a lesson from Jesus and admit that people are not our projects, they’re people. It’s not our job to convert people and convict people…That’s God’s job. Our job is to go show the love of Christ to the world. That’s the journey we are on and the direction we are headed has been mapped out by Jesus.
I recently read a story about a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy, Ahmed Khatib, who had been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during street fighting near his house in Jenin, the West Bank. The boy had been holding a toy gun. He was taken to an Israeli hospital, where he died after two days. His parents made the decision to allow his organs to be harvested for transplant to Israelis. Six people received his heart, lungs, and kidneys, including a two-month-old infant. His mother said, “My son has died. Maybe he can give life to others.” These parents made their own journey into the compassion of God and were living eternal life. The truth is that this boy’s death is a terrible tragedy. The truth is that these parents have every reason to be bitter and angry. The grace of God allowed them to get past the obvious and move toward an expression of love. The combination of truth and grace in equal measure made the difference. Jesus acted out of 100% grace and 100% truth; we must go and do likewise.
It is interesting whenever we examine Scripture to try to extract as much as we can from the text. When you look at the lawyer’s answer in verse 27, you find that different translations use punctuation differently. It may seem like an insignificant thing, but to a grammar geek, the use of a comma instead of a semicolon can make a big difference in the meaning of a sentence. We find here that some translations place a semicolon before the phrase: “and your neighbor as yourself,” while others use a simple comma. Using the simple comma in this case leads us to a wonderful ongoing chain of action and reaction. “To love God is to love neighbor is to love God.” This is a beautiful flow of love that allows eternal life to begin even now. “The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story for travelers on the road, a scriptural GPS, routing us in the only direction God desires – the way of love and compassion for others. This is more than a parable about a helpful stranger; it is about the transforming power of God at work in those who travel the dangerous roads in our world, moving us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now.” [i] In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Wallace, James A., Feasting on the Word, Y-C, V-3, P-243