July 2010 Sermons:
“The Good Samaritan.” We’ve heard those words many times. But for the people who first listened to Jesus’ parable, the combination of the words, “good,” and “Samaritan,” was shocking. For us it would be like hearing someone talk about a “kind-hearted murderer.” To the people of ancient Jerusalem, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.
There was a great deal of national and racial prejudice between the Jews and the Samaritans. Samaritans were social outcasts to the Jews of Jesus’ time. They had split off from the sons of Abraham and intermarried with pagans, and they had even built a temple of their own to compete with the one in Jerusalem. We aren’t surprised by this story because it’s so familiar. We’d only be surprised if a Samaritan turned out to be nasty. But Jesus’ listeners were horrified by His parable. A Samaritan couldn’t be good!
Why are parables so shocking? You’ll be hearing many sermons this summer about the parables of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. When Jesus speaks of the coming kingdom of heaven, He wants people to pay attention. Their salvation matters to Him. He’s seen their prejudice against Samaritans. So He puts a Samaritan into His story. It’s shocking, but it gets their attention. Our challenge, this morning, is to hear this story in the way they heard it.
Like other parables, this story takes place in a rural setting in Israel. An attack on a traveler on the Jericho road, wouldn’t surprise any of Jesus’ listeners. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous highway. Everyone avoided that route, even if it meant taking a longer way instead. Robbers hid behind almost every tree on the Jericho road. Sometimes, these scoundrels posed as wounded or dead people! Nobody traveled that road, if they could help it. There are places we avoid in the same way. For example, we’d never drive through the South Bronx at night in order to get to Connecticut, even though it’s a more direct route than the Tappan Zee Bridge.
This traveler, whom we know nothing about, sets out on the Jericho Road! Sure enough, someone attacks him, takes off all his clothes, and leaves him unconscious by the side of the road. But now there’s some good news. A priest happens by. He sees the victim, helpless and bleeding. Of course, the priest will cross to the other side to help.
But the priest doesn’t cross the road to help the victim. How can that be? This priest is supposed to love his neighbor as himself. That’s the great commandment from Leviticus 19:18. But the priest still doesn’t help. And so the story moves from the predictable to the surprising.
The priest continues on his journey. We don’t know what he is thinking, but here’s a guess—something along the lines of, “I had better be careful. This could be a trick. Robbers might be hiding in the bushes, waiting for me to stop so they can attack me. And if this man is really dead, I can’t touch him or I’ll be unclean for days. Then I’d have to take a leave of absence from serving as a priest. No, someone else will have to help this poor fellow.”
Does this priest’s conduct shock you? He has enough faith to walk alone on the Jericho road. He has enough faith to lead temple worship. But he doesn’t have enough faith to reach out to a man in need! He sticks to his own side of the road and picks up his pace. He can’t love God with all his mind. It’s too filled with other matters.
Are you like that priest sometimes? I am! Getting involved would complicate my life too much. My mind is filled with other matters. I have a schedule to keep. People in my congregation have needs. Surely someone else will help this man. No one will know I ignored him. No one but me!
After the priest has moved on down the road, the Levite comes along. Levites were the priest’s assistants. They set up the Temple in Jerusalem for worship services. Levites were assigned to shifts that might last for a month or more. The Levite has less to lose than the priest, but he’s afraid of becoming unclean, too. The laws in the Torah are strict about contact with injured people. If the Levite touches this man and becomes unclean, he’ll miss his chance to finish his job at the Temple. Better not to risk that!
Things are not looking good for our traveler by the side of the road. Now, a Samaritan happens by. For Jesus’ listeners, things have gone from bad to worse for the traveler in the ditch. No way will this Samaritan cross the road to help. Every Samaritan is worthless scum, Jesus’ listeners are probably thinking.
But the Samaritan stops! He does what the priest and the Levite should have done. Now, this is the point in the story when the listeners start walking away from Jesus in disgust. “This is ludicrous!” they mumble to each other. “A good-for-nothing Samaritan, turning out to be a hero! What a story!”
It’s all the more surprising because the Samaritan is far from home; in fact, he’s in enemy territory. It would have been enough for him to cross the road and tend a wounded man back in Samaria. But the Samaritan takes it a step further and carries this victim to an inn, where he can safely recover. Remember, he’s dealing with this situation in a place which is to him like the Camden shipyards or the South Bronx. The Samaritan probably doesn’t speak the same language as the innkeeper! (Or the injured man, either.) He leaves a sum of money to pay for the victim’s care. It’s a generous gift—not quite a blank check, but it amounts to two days’ wages.
You can be sure that the lawyer who has questioned Jesus is squirming now. And that is precisely what Jesus has known would happen. “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer had asked, trying to trick Jesus.
“Who do YOU think?” Jesus answers. He has reminded us that a list of our neighbors includes people we want to find fault with, or ignore, or even despise. It includes people we have never seen before, and won’t ever see for the rest of our lives! Jesus has let the lawyer answer his own question. “Who is my neighbor?” Everyone! People we like, and people we dislike. And who is not our neighbor? No one!
How does this look, in practice? Here’s a newspaper story from a few years back. In the winter of 2007, in New York City, a construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his daughters, ages four and six, waiting for a train. Suddenly another man on the platform, apparently suffering from a seizure, fell off the platform down onto the subway tracks. Just at that moment the headlights of a rapidly approaching train appeared in the tunnel. Wesley Autrey jumped down onto the subway tracks to try to drag the man out of the path of the train. But he immediately realized that the train was coming too fast for him to pull the man up to the platform. So Wesley pressed the man into the hollowed-out space between the rails. He spread his own body over the stranger’s, to protect him as the train passed over the two men. The train cleared Autrey’s body by inches, coming close enough to leave grease marks on his hat. When the train came to a halt, Wesley called up to the frightened onlookers on the platform. "There are two little girls up there. Let them know their Daddy is okay."
When the news media picked up this story, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People marveled at his bravery. He had no obvious reason to help the stricken man. He didn't even know him. He had his young daughters to think about. He risked his own life because another human being was in desperate need. That’s what it looks like, to love God with all your mind and strength. "The Subway Superman"-that's what the press called him. But the headline in the Long Island daily paper, Newsday, described Wesley Autrey in biblical terms. It read, "Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks."
For many of us, life is a long walk on a rough road. For some, it’s been more like a scary ride under a subway train. We’ve experienced rocky footpaths and dangerous spills. The victim on the Jericho Road is our brother. In fact, every helpless person who needs us is our brother or sister. As we continue our journey of life, let’s make the story of the Good Samaritan our scriptural GPS. And even more important, let’s think about the One who walks with us — and what He’d have us do!
God of Compassion, we praise you for giving us life. We would love you with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Other people are so different from us, O God. We pray that you will help us to see, in them, the face of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Luke, “9.52,” footnote from Wayne Meeks, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2003), 1978.
Leander Keck, ed.“Commentary on Luke 10:25-37,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume Nine: Luke and John, (Louisville Abingdon,2003), 229.
Richard Gribble, The Parables of Jesus: Applications for Contemporary Life (Lima, OH: CSS, 2001), 16.
Meeks, “Luke,” 180.
Newsday, January 2, 2007, quoted in a sermon by Thomas Long, “Meeting the Good Samaritan,” Day One, 2007, www.textweek.com, July 11, 2010.
Do you ever stop in the middle of rushing around, and forget where you were going? Do you ever get halfway to the supermarket and notice you left the grocery list on the kitchen table at home? As you drive off to Bible study, do you ever forget your Bible? While getting your child ready for school, have you ever thrown away a field trip permission slip by mistake? And then found out that your child didn’t get to go on the trip because you forgot to sign it?
We make mistakes when we try to do everything perfectly. Then we get more stressed out and make more mistakes. We blame the world for being too complicated. In a way, we’re right.
We live in a culture that drives us to distraction. I remember when only doctors wore pagers. It wasn’t so long ago, that the President of the United States was the only person who had a portable telephone. Now, nine-year-olds have cell phones and Facebook accounts. Our sense of urgency rises every time our cell phones ring.
Being able to do three or four things at once, just raises our expectations of ourselves. Go here, go there, send a “text-message” at the next stop sign, put in your contact lenses at the traffic light. The pressure gets to be too much. It’s unsafe. It’s crazy. We need spiritual relief. That’s one of the reasons why it feels so good to sit here and worship God on Sunday morning.
There’s nothing new about distractions. The people who made our nation great didn’t have cell phones or Palm Pilots, but they had other small issues to deal with. When the U.S. first landed on the moon in 1969, astronaut Buzz Aldrin forgot to take his Bible with him into outer space. President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet advisors bickered outside the Oval Office, even as thousands of American boys died on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Pioneers in covered wagons were on the lookout for Indians on the horizon, but they had to keep their children quiet inside the wagons, too. Christopher Columbus probably swatted mosquitoes, as his men anchored the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria in the New World. It’s easy to lose our spiritual perspective. Demanding children and dueling egos and mosquito bites will always be with us. A leader should remind us what really matters. Our leader is Jesus Christ.
Luke draws us a picture of a woman who is “distracted by many things.” That woman, of course, is Martha. Martha and her sister are preparing a formal dinner for Jesus and his twelve disciples. Martha acts the part of the older sibling-- responsible and thorough, and in charge of everything. She’s managing this meal with military precision, checking items off her list. The visitors will need to be fed, provided with drinks, and shown a good time. Martha is nervous. You’d be anxious, if Jesus were coming to your house with a dozen friends. You’d want the crystal to shine and the pot roast to be cooked just right.
Martha’s younger sister, Mary, probably has her own “to-do” list. But she’s not checking it twice, at the moment. Or even once! Instead, Mary is in the living room, sitting at the feet of Jesus. She’s hanging on His every word. Mary isn’t lifting a finger to help in the kitchen. Why doesn’t she realize how much work there is left to do? Why is Mary taking time out to worship? How dare she stop to pray! The table isn’t set yet!
Martha lashes out at her sister in an indirect way—a way that is fair neither to Mary nor to Jesus. She complains to the honored guest! Jesus won’t let Himself get caught in the middle of this conflict. Mary and Martha are His friends, and they’re doing the work of the kingdom. But Martha’s anxiety troubles Him.
Jesus rebukes Martha gently. We feel sorry for this woman. Have you had this happen in your family or your workplace? It’s unfair when Mom or Dad, or the boss, praises a “laid-back” sister or co-worker, as a good example for you to follow. Martha has worked her tail off, and she is furious! We don’t blame her, either. She’s not the whole problem. If Mary had helped set the table or cook the meal, Martha might not have had to be so anxious.
And so, on a day that should have been really special, the sisters from Bethany have a conflict. This story shows how difficult life in the church can be. Doing ministry together presents a challenging new way of living with one another.
We never learn the rest of the story of Mary and Martha. Don’t you wonder if this dinner for Jesus, turns out to be everything Martha has dreamed it would be? But even if Martha burns the pot roast, it doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things. Two milestones are reached in this gospel passage. Jesus preaches in a home in which the head of the household is a woman. That’s Martha. In fact, her house is a church. He teaches another woman the scriptures. That’s Mary. What radical steps Jesus has taken for the kingdom! In Middle Eastern culture, men were supposed to run churches and study the scriptures. At the time of Jesus, it was illegal to teach a woman to read. Women were viewed as property. In the temple, women were excluded from the inner courts. Men didn’t even speak to their wives in public. Jesus has shown the world that He has no problem with women being numbered among His disciples, on a par with men.
There’s a reason why Luke places Mary and Martha’s story after the parable of the Good Samaritan. Last week’s gospel reading reminded us that we have to go and do. This gospel story says it’s okay to step off the treadmill to contemplate and pray. If you think about it, Martha is like the scholar of the law who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” She’s trying to live a faithful life by her own efforts, without God’s help. Let’s imagine she’s heard Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, and she’s decided to pull out all the stops for Jesus-- cook all His favorite dishes, wash his feet with perfume and, in general, make a big fuss. “Go and do,” that story says. But Martha’s going overboard. DOING is keeping her from BEING. She’s angry now, at her Savior and her sister, too.
Steam is coming out of Martha’s ears. Mary had better get to work, or this banquet will be a flop, and whose fault will that be?
On the other hand, Mary is like the poor man in the ditch who needs a neighbor to help her. Mary knows Jesus is that neighbor. How often does Jesus sit with you in your living room? Mary chooses to worship Jesus and ignore her “to-do” list.
Jesus isn’t putting Martha down. He’s freeing her to take “the better part,” as Mary does. According to rabbis, learning the Torah is better than any other activity. That’s where Jesus’ expression, “the better part,” comes from. Now, imagine Jesus, inviting Martha to go and sit with Him and Mary, while He tells them a story. That’s how I’d like to imagine their story ending.
God can’t enter a mind full of trivia. Choosing to stop and talk with God, opens us to the Holy Spirit. Mary is exploring the life of prayer. We are invited to choose that life, as well. Jesus will let us take breaks from answering the cell phone and filling out paperwork and slapping mosquitoes. That’s how we make room for the Spirit.
Martha and Mary can be found within the same person. I’d venture to say we have Martha and Mary within each of us. Our inner conflict between doing and being is powerful. The “better part” isn’t the part of our lives that’s left over after we’ve crossed off items on our to-do lists. Jesus shows us the “better part” in the way He lives—the love that manifests God’s presence.
Are Mary, the worshiper, and Martha, the worker, inside you? Of course they are, and you can celebrate both. But don’t let the good get in the way of the best. Be thankful for your welcome at the feet of Jesus. Rest on the Sabbath and remember that the work you’ve left unfinished will still be there when it’s time to take it up again. Let’s be thankful that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Give thanks for Jesus, who refreshes us and gives us rest. AMEN
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you have chosen to visit us in our time of worship. But we struggle to understand your eternal perspective. We seek to control the here and now, in the ways we see as best—just as Martha did. Help us to trust you and keep working for the kingdom, when around us we can’t see much change in the world except for what we ourselves have accomplished. Help us to stop expecting others to be like us, and to seek you first above all else. AMEN
Brett Younger, Lectionary Homiletics, June/July 2010, 62.
Fred W. Craddock, Luke. Interpretation Series: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: WJK, 1990), 152.
This idea is further explored in the Reverend Dr. Wesley Avram’s sermon, “Digging Ditches,” which he preached on October 22, 2006 at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Craig Evans, Luke: New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 179.
Everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer by heart. Children know it. Non-Christians know it. The Lord’s Prayer is only sixty-four words in length. Jesus’ own personal prayers are much longer and more complex than this one! But He knew enough to keep this one short.
Disciples often asked their teachers for help in praying. Jesus was a good teacher. He knew what all good teachers know — that less is more. Jesus didn’t tell them, “These are the words you must say to God,” because prayer is a personal form of communication. He left His disciples plenty of leeway to pray on their own. So this famous prayer is really an outline. Jesus didn’t expect millions of people to learn it, verbatim. And yet, for better or worse, Christians have said the exact words of His outline for two thousand years.
Not everyone says the Lord’s Prayer in the same way. Even the gospels of Luke and Matthew have different words. This is the shorter version. Why do some people say “trespasses,” and others say, “debts?” “Trespasses” appears in the King James Version of the Bible. The word, “debts” is a more modern translation of Luke’s Greek text. The United Methodist Church is just one of the denominations that says, “trespasses.” I was baptized and confirmed a Methodist, so I sometimes slip and say, “trespasses,” when I am leading worship. It’s embarrassing, but not a big deal. The two old-fashioned words mean the same thing.
Some Presbyterian churches have substituted the word, “sins,” for “trespasses” or “debts.” That’s what both words mean-- “sins.” Small differences like this may confuse us, but I’m glad we have them. This little bit of confusion helps us pay attention to a prayer we might otherwise say automatically. When we stumble over “trespasses” and “debts,” each mistake reminds us that we need to ask God for forgiveness---not just once, but every single time we say the Lord’s Prayer.
Let’s take a closer look at the parable of the neighbor in need—the puzzling story that follows the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus takes the point-of-view of the man who is knocking. This story is easier to understand if you look at it in a different way from the way Jesus tells it. Picture yourself as the homeowner who’s been sleeping. Your next-door neighbor has been knocking on your door at midnight. He’s got a surprise visitor at his house, and there’s nothing in his kitchen to serve the guest for breakfast! Can he borrow three loaves of bread? You hear this request and say to yourself, “Oh, no! This can’t be happening!” You want to roll over and go back to sleep. But you decide to help. Or do you?
After teaching the most famous prayer in the Western world to His disciples, why does Jesus tell such a silly story? We wonder why the friend’s request is a big deal. An interruption to a night’s sleep is annoying, yes, but not an emergency. Doorbells occasionally ring at midnight. Your house may be a mess and you may be in your oldest pajamas. But you can deal with it. Your freezer is well-stocked with bread. Your children can get back to sleep, and so can you. In this day and age, it may even be your own adult children knocking! The garage door won’t open, or they lost a key. In any case, we are slightly annoyed, but we get up and help.
How did people understand this parable in ancient Palestine? Very differently. Hospitality was extremely important in Jesus’ time. Travel was hard, and places of shelter from the desert heat were few and far between. People traveled at midnight to avoid the heat of the day.
When an unexpected guest came to your house, it was shameful not to help that person as much as you could. What’s more, all the women baked bread together in these small Middle Eastern communities. Each family in town knew who was likely to have bread in the house, because they had baked it together. Bread got stale after a day or so. If you had food to spare, you shared it, even with total strangers. If your next door neighbor had run out of food to share with his visitors, and you had even a little bit of bread to give him, you’d have had to share. If you didn’t, the townspeople would hear about it and be horrified at your lack of hospitality. It would be unthinkable to turn a stranger away--- something like closing down all the rest stops on the Turnpike on the day before Thanksgiving. You had to offer the basic comforts to a traveler.
This situation was a tough call for this homeowner. He had legitimate reasons for wanting the neighbor to go away. In a one-room Palestinian home of the time, all the children slept in the same bed with the parents. The whole family would have been awakened by a visitor at midnight. The animals were brought in the house overnight, and they would be mooing and howling and neighing as the neighbor waited at the door. It would take several hours to get them all back to sleep after he left.
The friend won’t go away, in this story. He knocks and knocks. The Greek word for “persistence,” suggests shamelessness. Because the friend is shameless in knocking on the door, the homeowner can’t roll over and go back to sleep. The neighbor shames him into waking his family and his animals. He saves his reputation in the town by handing over the three loaves of bread. How much more, Jesus asks, will God help us, than this grudging homeowner helps his neighbor? Our heavenly Father will do much more, of course, because our He loves us so much. We parents know how much we would be willing to do for our children. God will do even more than that for His children.
God knocks on our door all the time. Why don’t we go down and let him in? God cares enough to keep on knocking, even when we are ashamed. God knocks when we are preoccupied. He knocks when we are feeling full of ourselves. God keeps knocking, even when we want to roll over and go back to sleep. God knows what parts of our lives are a mess. God knows that we have plenty of bread and don’t feel like sharing. He knows we aren’t worthy of His love. But He keeps on knocking. Why don’t we open up?
Some of us do, of course! We have some shameless “pray-ers” in this congregation. In some circles, shameless “pray-ers” are called “prayer warriors.” I prefer to be called a “prayer peacemaker.” If you are a prayer warrior or a prayer peacemaker, you are probably asking, “What about the other way around? What if we pray shamelessly, and it still takes forever to get God’s answer? What if we never seem to get an answer at all? What if we don’t like God’s answer? How, and why, can we keep on knocking? Does prayer really work?
Here’s a true story about persistence in prayer. A man discovered that he had lost his wedding ring. He was beside himself. He searched everywhere—crawling around the woodpile, emptying vacuum bags, taking the seats out of the car, looking under the sofa cushions. Nothing. At every step, he prayed, “Please, God, this is important to me.”
Then, as he was washing his hands in the kitchen sink, the cat jumped up on the counter. The cat’s tail was twitching. It knocked a spoon into the trash can below. Then the man remembered. He had taken off his ring to wash the dishes a couple of hours before, putting it in the same spot where the cat had just landed. The cat had probably knocked the ring into the trash can earlier that day. His wife had just taken a trash bag from that can to the dumpster outside their apartment.
The man raced out to the dumpster, but it had already been emptied. He drove to the trash removal company and explained his problem to the clerk. “Sir,” she said, “I’d like to help you, but we just compacted two tons of trash and put it on the truck to go to the landfill tomorrow.”
The man didn’t give up. Could he go to the dump and look? The clerk got on the phone to the landfill office. She asked, “Could our driver unload the trash tomorrow in an area of the landfill that is flat and clean? We have a man here who wants to find something he’s lost.” The landfill people agreed.
The next day, a rainy November afternoon, the man drove behind the truck to the landfill site. The driver unloaded the trash—a wall of garbage six feet high and seventy feet long. The man was devastated when he saw how much slimy, smelly garbage he would have to look through. But the driver jumped down from the cab and said, “Okay, where do we start?” He was ready to help.
The two men started wading through the trash that had come from the apartment complex, as the freezing rain poured down their necks. “We are never going to find this ring!,” the man shouted. “Don’t say never!” the driver yelled back. “You are going to find it.” The man and the driver plowed through the mountain of garbage. And all the time, the man prayed his prayer, “Please, God, this is so important to me.”
The man spotted a blue-gray circle –the color of paint the man had just used to paint his bedroom wall. It was his own paint can! The two rummaged through one of the bags near his dried-up paint can. The man opened a bag and found an almost-empty egg carton. Almost empty! Nestled in one of the cups of the egg carton was the man’s wedding ring. The man and the driver howled with joy.
That evening, the man and his wife celebrated by going out to dinner. At the table, she put the ring back on his finger. “With this ring,” she said, “I thee wed.” “You know, honey, everybody thought I was nuts for going to all that trouble.” he said to her.
“I didn’t,” she replied and smiled.
Did you notice how God worked through the people in this story? The clerk and the driver had good reasons not to help the man with the lost ring. What if they did all that extra work for every customer? The wife stayed calm and helped her husband figure out where the kitchen garbage had gone. We might even say that the man’s persistent communication with God, had a way of bringing out the best in all three people. That, in itself, is an answer to prayer.
The man himself had better things to do than to wade through seventy square feet of garbage, out in the rain, on a Saturday. And, yet, he followed up every lead and never gave up, and he communicated his heart’s desire to those three people. He kept on praying. And God answered his prayers.
Jesus’ good news for us is this--if we pray shamelessly, persistently, relentlessly, and if we never give up, God will respond. We can count on God’s love. To pray is to fall dependently into the loving embrace of God. To pray is to show our confidence in God’s ability to achieve His will, on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, for your works of compassion and mercy, we give thanks. For all that we can do, here and now, we ask your blessing. Give us the grace not to lose heart. Help us to do what we can, when we can, where we can. Make us signs, signals and witnesses of your coming reign. AMEN
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove,IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003),218.
Robert Funk and R.W. Hoover, The Five Gospels (New York: Scribner, 1993), 543.
Craig A. Evans, New International Biblical Commentary:Luke (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 182.
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 222.
Jay Cormier, Table Talk: Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Luke (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2009), 158-9.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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