Who are you? In the story of the Good Samaritan, I mean? Don’t you do that when you read it or hear it? You begin to identify with one character or the other? You likely don’t say, “Yep. I’m the callous priest…I always pass by those in need.” More likely you say, in a self-deprecating way, “Yep, I’m sometimes like that Levite…I’ve walked on by though I saw someone’s distress.” You might also say, with some humility, “But I do help those in need. Sometimes I’m like the Samaritan.”
That means you’re actually very much like the “expert in the law” and the trouble he had, even though he knew all the right answers. How do I inherit eternal life with God? And Jesus made him answer his own question – what does God say? “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NIV) Correct! Do that, always; and even at the very end, Jesus said, “Go and do…” But we said before, “Well, I’m sometimes like the priest/Levite (supposed to be holy but I’m not) and sometimes like the Samaritan (I do what God loves)…”
This is obviously why the expert asked his final question. He knew himself: one who felt okay about loving God wholly, but one who recognized the whole “neighbor” aspect was hard… Because people are weird and unkind and inconvenient and needy and different, and to love them all as he did love himself, well… Maybe he could cut out some categories of people or certain circumstances and help his chances with doing what he had to do. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked. “Surely some and not others…” was his implication. But he asked because he felt the problem, as Luke said, “He wanted to justify himself.”
That’s very common. You understand it and so do I. It’s like when you don’t complete the homework or you totally forget a part of the work project. Sometimes you make an excuse – you lay out the reasons why, though it’s obvious you’re deficient, in that deficiency you’re actually right and fine. Except there the assignment was “do it all” and God’s demand is the same, “do it all always.”
And so we have a problem: that’s how our selection this morning started – What do I need to do… how it was in the middle – do this and live… and how Jesus ends it too – Go and do the same… So, what do we do? This morning I want to focus on a couple of keywords that help us assess who we are and what we do.
In the story, the man is beaten and robbed and lying half-dead on the road. But that’s not the real problem. Terrible as it is, that’s the setup. The problem is both the priest and the Levite – all excuses aside – they see the man in his condition, yet they pass on by. In V.31 – “A priest happened to be going down that road…” That’s a passing word… It isn’t an important word like “justification” or “salvation”… It’s only used 1x in the New Testament, and it means something like “by chance” or “it just so happened.” But I do think it’s significant: it’s the actual setting, isn’t it, where all your doing happens?
It’s actually part of the temptation that gets us into being sometimes good and sometimes not. If it turns out we’re most like the expert, then we too often focus on “what I must do”, and then, that’s often exactly what I’m doing — focusing on me. I have things I need to accomplish. Goals I must reach. Plans I’ve made. Desires I have. Comforts I want. Discomforts I avoid. And often, anybody else – God included – is part of the “stuff that’s happening” around me, the “by chance” encounters that inconvenience me, “the unexpected conjunction of events” that gum up whatever we’re focused on and need to do. Like the priest or Levite, we are busy with all sorts of things. Or we are worried doing God’s will or helping another might damage or delay all our important designs and destinations. And, in the midst of whatever happens, we become ones who have to justify ourselves, to make excuses because we’re obviously ones who haven’t done what God wants.
And I think that’s related to the other keyword this morning. That’s in v.33 – the Samaritan – the one the Jew would never expect to be moral or upright. He was on a journey and, whatever the circumstance, he too saw the man lying half-dead, but “he took pity on him.”
In the New Testament, that word is all about “the inner parts” – words with the same root are used for the guts of animals in sacrifices; it’s σπλαγχνη, it even sounds like guts – in this kind of a setting, it’s deep feelings. Maybe like how I have a hard time still, 12 years on, walking into the NICU of a hospital – after having a tiny little baby who could have died at any moment and spending weeks and weeks with those beeping monitors and unknown outcomes – I don’t like going there so much – catches me off guard… It’s more than that, though. It’s the kind of thing that gets right around whatever defenses you’ve put up, gets right down to your deepest emotions inside, and moves you. And that’s key because that’s what we’re tempted not to be: moved from whatever position I hold, to disallow the plight of someone else or the demands of God above to penetrate to the depths of me and move me to act or be.
Jesus’ story tells the ideal of what should be. And we could say, “See… be like the Samaritan. Love your neighbor.” Except that’s the problem, not the purpose. The story is told to one who felt okay, who didn’t understand that it was problematic to have to justify himself. It was told to help us see our sometimes sinful misconception – about the importance of all we have to do, of our ability to do at all, and of the self-worship, our doing can create – even to that we neglect God and neighbor, even when it ought to move us. This story is really meant to be the law doing what the law does: show the experts what-all we cannot do.
So, what do we do in whatever happens?
I’d say, remember v.33 and that keyword there? Did you know, in the New Testament, the Samaritan’s action – “he had pity on him” – is used in 3-4 parables like this, but otherwise, every other time is always used by Jesus. It’s always an action he undertakes, which is generally, Biblically appropriate: finally, no one was moved by the plight of sinners like Jesus was. Whether fulfilling Isaiah – becoming one anointed to bring good news to those afflicted by the bad or to bind up the hearts broken or to proclaim liberty from guilt and death (61:1-2)… whether laying down his life for his friends and even enemies and showing love (Jn 15:12-13)… or expressing God’s grace – in his richness becoming poor that we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9)… Jesus had pity or mercy on us. He became a neighbor to you and to me.
And not just in the “Hey, can I borrow a gallon of milk” way. No, in a way that dictates who you are. Use Paul’s words in Galatians, “We…know that a person is not justified by the works [they do], but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works [we do].” That is, by faith in Jesus Christ, we don’t come to this parable like the expert to learn what to do, but to undo the expert in us. Because, the reality is, if we have to justify ourselves, we will always be worried about what is best for me… But that isn’t the case…we know – that Jesus Christ has justified us – by his crucifixion and resurrection – declared us not guilty of our sins and set us free…right where we live…
Which is why I so much like that first keyword we mentioned. I know it’s small – it’s not justification, it’s not salvation, it’s just whatever “happened to be”. If you wanted a big, theological word for it, maybe it’d be concurrence or providence. Which is this: since you have been set free by God’s merciful salvation in Christ, don’t you trust that God is working in all that “happens to be”? Whether it’s Paul in Romans – that “we know that in all things [even the small things] God works for the good of those who love him…” (8:28); or perhaps more personally that, “In [God] we live and move and have our being,” every breath we take, every move we make; or perhaps most acutely spiritually, that we don’t live for ourselves, but we “continue to work out [our] salvation… [because] it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” In all and whoever happens to be around you and me, it’s His good purpose done, and by his grace, he’s using us to do it.
That’s how we “Go and do likewise.” Because we don’t need to justify ourselves, we’re free…to shift our focus away from “me”. Free to love God with our whole…everything. Free to confess we’ve failed again, but to receive forgiveness for everything again and again. Which sets us walking in step with God’s Spirit in love and joy and peace and… All the things that show we’re free – our hearts are not protected, closed off, and for me – but open to show mercy and love and care and concern for all those God puts in our path. The question isn’t so much what you must do, but rather who you are because of the mercy of Jesus Christ – not experts, but neighbors, doing all these things in whatever happens.