Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

 

My brother announced to me that he was going to treat me to a special birthday present when I turned 40. Forty is considered a milestone, I suppose. It’s an age when one crosses the threshold from youth to adulthood, at least according to our reckoning in an age of delayed adolescence.

 

The treat was a motorcycle trip through Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. On the day before my birthday, we flew to Las Vegas, rented two motorcycles, and headed towards the desert.

 

I hadn’t been on a motorcycle since my teen age years in Greenville, and so it was an adjustment, especially to highway driving. But I eventually figured it out, and began to relax and enjoy the experience. 

 

Soon we had to stop for gas. We filled both the main and reserve tanks of the motorcycles, and rode deeper into the desert.

 

Before long, I had to switch to my reserve tank, not realizing that I was burning gas at a faster rate than my brother, because of my heavier weight. We kept going, and my motorcycle’s engine began to bog down and then cut out entirely.

 

I was out of gas in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

 

There was nothing to do except to send my brother to a gas station on what he had left in his reserve tank. He would have to buy a container, fill it with gas, and ride back to refuel me. So he left. And there I was stranded in the hot desert sun.

 

The desert is a tourist attraction, and so it wasn’t long before a car came. The driver saw me, and kept going. This happened a second time. And then a third car came. This time it stopped. The driver, who was a German tourist, rolled down the window, and called out to me. He asked me if I was alright, if I needed help. He even offered to drive me to the nearest hotel, where I could find shelter from the sun and the heat.

 

I thanked him, and told him I was waiting for my brother, who was bringing gas to refill my tank. He asked me if I was sure, to which I nodded.  I then waved him off. My brother finally did come, and rescued me from the desert.

 

What would we call this German tourist? Even though I did not avail myself of his help, we would call him the good Samaritan, right?

 

The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel lesson for today is familiar—to those inside as well as outside the church. The phrase “good Samaritan” has entered into our common, everyday speech. There are even Good Samaritan laws in the US and in other English speaking countries. They offer legal protection to those who dare to stop to help people who are injured, ill or in danger. The protection is intended to reduce their hesitation to assist, out of fear of being sued or prosecuted for unintentional injury or wrongful death.

 

For the lawyer who approaches Jesus, it’s also a legal question. But it concerns Jewish law, to which he devoted himself in the hope of pleasing God and thereby inheriting eternal life from him.

 

But is he really sincere in his approach? Luke tells us that he stood up to test Jesus. That makes us doubt his sincerity. Maybe he was a spy sent from the Jewish religious authorities, who were already plotting against Jesus. Or maybe he was just a brash and ambitious student who wanted to debate the teacher and prove to all the bystanders how brilliant he was.

 

Whatever the case, Jesus must have certainly made an impression on him. He no doubt heard how people were healed at the touch of his hands. He heard how a boundless love irradiated from him, a love that attracted from the shadows people nobody else cared for: people with repulsive diseases, sinners shunned by society, the lonely and the depressed who usually concealed their misery from others.

 

All these people were drawn to Jesus, and into the wreckage of their lives came mysteriously a power that re-created them.

 

Then, too, this Jesus spoke of God as his Father as if he were in intimate relationship with him, as if each day he came anew from his Father’s presence. This Jesus could grip a person with his eyes; he could stir a person with his words. Whether or not the lawyer is sincere about it, he cannot do otherwise than approach. He cannot ignore such a one; he cannot act as if he were not there.

 

So he stands there before Jesus with his question. What is it like to be facing Jesus suddenly and having him look into your eyes?

 

But the test backfires. Jesus responds to the question with a question, forcing him to give the answer that every schoolboy knows. It does make him appear somewhat ridiculous. Jesus does not respond to his challenge, but rather reminds him of a Sunday school lesson from his childhood. And no doubt with some embarrassment, he proceeds to answer like a schoolboy, as if by rote: “”You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

 

Let us pause momentarily to consider this remarkable verse. It is called the twofold commandment, because there are two parts: “Love God, and love your neighbor.”

 

The Bible student Kenneth E. Bailey makes an interesting observation here. “Love your neighbor” appears in Leviticus 19:18, while the command to love God appears in Deuteronomy 6:5. According to Bailey, one would expect the scripture quotes to follow the order of the books in which they appear. Leviticus comes before Deuteronomy, so should not “love your neighbor” come before “love God”?

 

Some may wonder today why there should even be a command to love God at all. Am I not loving God when I am loving my neighbor? Why then the separation between the two? They are not really two distinct things, but one.

 

But Jesus not only preserves the distinction, he also places “love God” before the commandment to “love your neighbor.”

 

The order is important. It’s very hard sometimes to love the often unlovable neighbor. But when the heart is filled with the love of God, it then has the energy and motivation necessary for the difficult task of loving the neighbor.

 

Do you have someone close to you whom you find it difficult to love? Maybe it’s a child or an aging parent or even a spouse. Do they return your love with ingratitude or even hostility? I’ve heard parents say to their children: “All I have done for you, and this is the thanks I get.” If we’re hoping to be supported in our love by their love in return, then we may get discouraged and even give up. But if we extend love to others out of the overflow of God’s love, then we are supported by the unwavering love of God towards us. God’s love never fails.

 

But I doubt that these thoughts are going through the lawyer’s head at this moment. He feels humiliated. He wants to save what’s left of his pride and so re-enters the arena. He tests Jesus with the second question: “Who is my neighbor?”

 

It seems to be a good test, doesn’t it? If Jesus defines “neighbor” too narrowly, then the lawyer can charge him with a lack of generosity in his love. Do we love only those closest to us? On the other hand, if he defines “neighbor” too broadly, then the lawyer can charge him with unreasonable expectations. How can we take on the burden of loving so many people?

 

The lawyer looks at Jesus in eager expectation. Will he be ensnared in the trap laid for him? But this test fails too. Jesus refuses to engage him in debate, which leads nowhere, as we so often experience in our culture wars in the United States today. Besides, the lawyer is really missing the point. The point about love is not to discuss it, but to practice it. The question gives Jesus the occasion to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan.

 

There’s a man who’s in trouble. He’s been robbed and beaten. He lies in a ditch, helpless, bruised and broken. Fortunately, for him it is a well-traveled road. Sooner or later, there’s bound to be someone who will pass by and notice and help him.

 

Here is a priest coming down the road. He must be coming from the temple. Maybe he just heard or even preached a sermon on loving God and loving neighbor. Surely, this man will help!

 

But at the same moment the man sees the priest, the priest sees him too. And he seems to have drawn a different conclusion to the question about who is his neighbor. Maybe he thought to himself: “The poor man! This is a dangerous road. Lucky it didn’t happen to me.” Maybe, since he is a religious man, he even thanked God for protecting him from robbers and harm. Perhaps the robbers are still nearby. He crosses the road for his own safety.

 

But that is an act of cowardice. Now the priest faces a dilemma. Is it not the case that to be fainthearted is to deny God and his law?

 

But then that same law intervenes and saves him out of his dilemma. You see, the law obligated him to reach out and help his fellow Jew—that’s indisputable. But how can one be sure the beaten man is a fellow Jew? One cannot ask him. He is stripped and unconscious, after all.

 

And what if he is dead? Under the law, to come into contact with the dead is to become ceremonially defiled. Then, when he got back to Jerusalem, he would have to undergo a week-long process of ceremonial purification. How inconvenient for him and for his family!

 

Furthermore, he would not be able to collect the tithes and eat from them. This would apply to his family and his servants too. Didn’t he have an obligation to them too? Family comes first.

 

Perhaps we too can identify with the priest. About the beggar we have seen on the street, we have thought to ourselves. “It is his own fault he turned out this way. I’ve worked hard for every dollar I ever got. Besides, if I give him anything, he will just waste it on alcohol and cigarettes. In the long run, I’m doing him a favor. I must get back to my family now.”

 

And we too cross on the other side—not to avoid ritual defilement, but to avoid looking at him. When I lived in downtown Milwaukee, I saw beggars daily. I reflected on the behavior of others towards them, as well as my own. People don’t really want to look them in the eye. We don’t want to hold their gaze. To look at someone in the eye is the first step to love. Love always mobilizes the eyes first and then the hand. If I close my eyes, then my hands can remain immobile.

 

In this connection, German pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke insightfully points out that at the Last Judgment, it is our eyes that will be judged first. When those at the Last Judgment ask Jesus: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you? he replies to them: Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me (Matt. 25:44).

 

Next the Levite comes down the road. Levites assisted priests in temple duties. Perhaps this one was an assistant to the priest who had gone ahead of him. Should he stop and help the stricken man and thereby upstage the priest? Does the Levite think he knows the law better than the priest does? To stop and help the man would be an insult to the priest.

 

How often have we failed to do the right thing, because we were afraid to go against the group? Think about how many people have suffered in the world because the one man or woman who felt the impulse to help withdrew out of fear of the group. It’s very hard to stand out alone and do the right thing. And unfortunately, for the stricken man, the Levite does not.

 

Stories that have a series of characters also set a direction. For example, if in a story a bishop appears first, and then a priest, the third person in the story is expected to be a deacon. So too in a first century Jewish story. If there is a priest, then a Levite, the third person is expected to be a Jewish layman. But Jesus upsets expectations. He introduces a Samaritan. What an outrage!

 

A Samaritan is the last one expected to help. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They did not have the right religion. What in the world would they know about interpreting the command “love your neighbor” anyway?

 

And if the Jews hated the Samaritans, the feeling was mutual! What if the stricken man was in fact a Jew! Indeed, it was easier for Jesus’ audience to imagine the Samaritan as the robber than as the one who gives help! 

 

Without regard for himself and his own safety, the Samaritan attends to the stricken man, dresses his wounds, bandages him, puts him on his animal, and brings him to the inn. He even makes arrangements with the innkeeper and is prepared to take further responsibility for his care!

 

Do we need to say more? We have already said that the point about love is not to discuss it, but to practice it. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed him mercy.” There’s your answer. “Go and do likewise.”

 

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