I want to remind us of a few things this morning. Sometimes we need old words to tell an old story in a new way. You need to know what words mean; in the time they were spoken, to understand what they meant then and what they mean today.
A legal expert comes with his question. So what if he’s a lawyer. The question is the important part of the encounter. Don’t get distracted by Luke’s storytelling. Focus on the question. It’s a made up question. I know all questions are made up but this is different. What he’s asking about didn’t exist before his lifetime. No one, until a few years before, talked about eternal life. When you live in a time when the Earth is believed to be flat, the universe is made of up of below, Earth, and sky (see Aristotle) and the Earth is at the center of everything; who knows what anybody is talking about when they use the words eternal life? Clearly, he doesn’t know what eternal life means, because the scriptures he quotes to Jesus, as the requirements for eternal life, are from the Torah, the Law of Moses.
Here’s the problem: Moses never talks about eternal life. The quotes the lawyer repeats to Jesus have nothing to do with eternal life. They have to do with “living a good life” but have nothing to do with guaranteeing one’s place in heaven or condemning yourself to Hell. Whether you go to Leviticus 19:18 or Deuteronomy 5:6, eternal life’s not there. At that ancient point in Jewish history, when the Torah was written: the idea of eternal life (as we conceive of it today) hadn’t been developed. This guy’s answer is not only wrong; it betrays his ignorance of Judaism’s roots. It was only in Jesus’ day that the Rabbis really started to think about the meaning of eternal life or even use the term “eternal life”. If the lawyer misunderstands the concept, when the idea of “eternal life” was fresh and new in Judaism, are we missing something as well? Could we have built our beliefs on the lawyer’s misunderstandings and not Jesus’ answers to his questions? It is “wherefore” and “why” all over again.
Many questions remain unanswered. To do this, Jesus stages a play. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a drama. It has six human characters and a narrator who’s also the director. There is another, unseen character called “eternal life”. One of the main cast members also portrays someone called the “neighbor”. This parable is a set-piece drama, a scene from a play, and one of the most complex stories Jesus told. This play is designed to help the audience see beyond their own reality, to read into their own circumstances and surroundings, and answer this most pressing question, “What is the difference between life and eternal life?”
But, before the curtain rises, did I hear someone utter the word “neighbor”? I thought this story was about another urgent question, “Who is my neighbor?” Yes, you are correct! How do you know your neighbor, as opposed to anyone else? Somehow, someway, Jesus sees a connection we rarely make; one between our relationships with each other and how we live as followers of God. Eternal life is related to living and loving today.
In the compartmentalized world of a 1st century Pharisee, context is removed, blinders are down, and specific boundaries are set. He exists in his box and we exist in our own. His faith and the Biblically quoted love he cites is never anything more than a misunderstood morality.
You know the story; I hesitate to reiterate such well known details. The man, a man, this one man is going down the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Why go such an obviously dangerous route? Didn’t he know the stories of robbers and thieves? Yes, of course he did. He’s not stupid. There was a first century equivalent of Yelp and Trip Advisor: I’m sure the guy had friends. This is the one shortcut between Jerusalem and Jericho. If you don’t go this way, you have to take a long coast road. Evidently, he decided the risk was something with which he could live. His time was more valuable than his life. It’s like thinking those extra seconds it takes to put on a seatbelt will really hold up your entire day. The decision to take this road puts his life in danger. An unawareness of danger, it seems, precedes the awareness of our neighbors. It’s sad, as we know from our own lives; it takes a tragedy for people to become aware of the world around them. This is where Jesus begins.
The man is beaten and left for dead. Dead or half dead doesn’t matter when you’re dealing with Jewish ritual purity. Both seriously inhibit any devout person’s ability to do anything in the temple for a significant period of time. For a person who works at the temple, you’re out of work altogether. These rules, by the way, are specified in the Bible (the same Bible the legal expert quoted). The priest and the Levite live in perpetual religious bind. Personal relationships and compassion will always lose to their interpretation of the law.
The Levite, Priest, and Samaritan each face the same question.
To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Yes, to agree with Hamlet, the question of life or death, being or not being, gives us pause. But this is ultimately not the question faced by the man in the ditch or the Samaritan who helps him. We know how their story ends. This is the dilemma faced by the priest and Levite alone. They will live or die by their actions. Will they know life or death as they face a bloodied “sea of troubles” by a roadside ditch? Each one has a decision to make, a choice that will impact the rest of their days. Choose death and live. Choose their comfortable lives and die. Who will they be? Who do they want to be?
Sometimes, the difference between life and eternal life lies in the hesitation and heartache of the present moment; of countless Thursday nights and Tuesday mornings, when we realize our neighbors lie in ditches, cars, sidewalks, and gas station parking lots waiting to die. In the drama Jesus presents, we can only begin to understand eternal life when we see the world from God’s perspective. God’s perspective, Jesus’ point of view is not that of the well meaning Samaritan. It is that of the broken, beaten man waiting to die. If you want to know this parable, look at it from the view of the man in the ditch. Everything looks different when you’re dying, with people are blaming you for taking this road in the first place, and no one wants to help you or hear your humble cries. The world looks different when you’re the one dying in the ditch.
Invariably, when we witness this drama, we identify with the Samaritan. We want to be the person who helps the person in need. That’s good. But here’s what I need to tell you. When Jesus first told this parable, his audience would have naturally saw themselves not as the Samaritan (for historical and cultural reasons) but as the person in the ditch. So the question, that is normally, asked when someone preaches this sermon, “Are you ready to be a Good Samaritan?” isn’t accurate. I ought to ask what Jesus asked, “Are you ready to be rescued?”
You, me, America, we’re all in the ditch. Do we want to be rescued by someone who might not be like us? When the world was in a ditch, when we took refuge in unbridled expressions of rage, conspiracy theories, and salvation in anything but love, who did God send to rescue us, someone who looked and acted like everyone else? He sent a poor child in a manger who became this crucified teller of tales.
To the ordinary layperson (walking the Jericho Road), now half dead in the ditch, Jesus asks the question, “Are you willing to concede that after you’ve seen everything within your own tradition refuse to get you out of the ditch, perhaps someone completely unlike you (a Samaritan) might offer you an opportunity to live?”