A sermon delivered by, Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on March 27, 2011.
Our Father, you have loved us with a love through Christ that we do not understand and love that we certainly do not deserve. You know our inward thoughts and you know the inconsistencies of our morals yet you did send your son to die for our sins. You are the author of all goodness and the giver of all grace. You are worthy of a greater love than we can offer. We pray today that your spirit would fill us with love toward you, a love that seems too hard for us on our own. We pray that because of this love no task would be too difficult, that no obedience would seem beyond our reach, and that no demand that you place upon our soul would appear undesirable. Fill us with your love so that we might love you with all of our hearts, with all of our minds, and with all of our very souls. Grant that in loving you we might become more like you, that our hearts might look upon our neighbors with grace, whether we feel that we deserve it or not. Grant that, in loving you, we might speak peace and give out kindness to all. As you have loved beyond the barriers that we have erected with our sin, teach us to love beyond the barriers of class, beyond the barriers of skin color, beyond language, even beyond our theology of who is worthy or who is moral enough to receive our love. Teach us to love in all of these ways so that, when we enter into your promised rest, we are surprised by the blessings known by the compassion and that we might obtain the crown of life that you have promised to all those who follow your son. In his name we pray. Amen.
It costs much to love any human being to the bitter end; and on every plane a total generosity, a love that includes pain and embraces it, is the price of all genuine achievement.
—Evelyn Underhill in The School of Charity
It is just an educated guess but I would assume that the two most well-known stories in the Bible are probably David and Goliath and the Good Samaritan. If you were to stop a random group of people on the street and ask them to explain to you what a Good Samaritan is, probably most of them could tell you that it is a person who helps someone else. They might even be able to tell you that it is a person who helps a stranger. They may not be able to tell you if it is in the New Testament or in the Old Testament, they may not be able to tell you that it is in the Gospel of Luke, but everyone knows the idea of a Good Samaritan.
There are Good Samaritan laws, laws that protect people that stop along the highway to help someone in need from being prosecuted. There are Good Samaritan clubs where people practice doing good deeds. The Good Samaritan is a very familiar image to us, so much so that we often find it difficult to listen with new ears or to read with fresh eyes what is really in this story. It is very easy to keep the surface idea of help somebody who is in need. If you are a good person, you will do this.
If we look closely, we find there are three questions that carry the framework of the story. There are three questions that carry the freight to get the message through and to lead us to what Jesus wants us to know.
The first question comes from an expert in Jewish scriptures. This is really a trick question. He is hoping that somehow he can bait Jesus into saying something controversial or something for which they can later accuse him of heresy and hang him or, more appropriately, crucify him. So the expert in Jewish law asks Jesus the question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
To us, it does not sound much like a trick question. The expert is hoping Jesus will say the wrong thing. If you were to line up all of us here today and say, “Why have you come today? What is important about worshiping here today?” I would think it would not take too long until somebody brought up the idea of eternal life. That’s why we believe in Christ. That’s why we trust God. We say we have faith in God. It is, hopefully, why we have been forgiven of our sins so that we might join with Christ in glory forever. Sooner or later, one of us is going to say, “We are here and follow Christ because of eternal and everlasting life.”
We think of that phrase that we often hear at funerals when Jesus says, “Those who believe in me shall never die.” We are hoping, trusting, believing, and living as if that is going to be true for us. We would like to know the one who trumps death. We would like to believe in the one who guarantees us that the grave is not the final word. I would like to know the answer. What must I do to inherit eternal life?
To get to the answer, I am going to take a detour. This is going to sound like it doesn’t relate but it does. In January, when we had the big snow, everything was closed. The streets were closed, and only the bravest of stores were open. Nobody had to go to work and the kids were at home from school. How did you handle that? Did you go crazy after a day or two?
Viktor Frankl, one of the great psychiatrists of the 20th Century, wrote a book entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning, and in one of his other books, he talks about Sunday neurosis. He writes in a day and time when places of business were not open on Sunday. He said that Sunday neurosis is that sense of boredom, the sense of anxiety, the sense of fretfulness and worry, when we have a Sunday and we don’t have anything to do and we cannot figure out what to do with our lives. That Sunday neurosis reveals the emptiness of our spirits.
In today’s society, we can do just about anything that we want to on Sunday. There are very few things that are closed, so the closest thing I can think of is a snow day. What do you do on a snow day? With 300 channels on your TV, with 1,000 songs on your IPod, with 6,000 programs on demand as the advertisements tell us, unlimited broadband, did you go a little nuts? Did you hear anyone use, or did you use, the expression cabin fever?
Cabin fever was originally coined for pioneers who were in a one-room cabin and snowed in for weeks, but yet, we have one day where we cannot get out and we are talking about cabin fever. How did you handle the snow day? Did you think, If this goes on for another day, I will go stark raving nuts? And we ask the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Is this the kind of life we want to live forever, the kind of life where we become so out of sorts and so at odds with ourselves and with whomever we happen to be trapped in the house with? This is why when we go on vacation everybody has to go shopping, etc. We can hardly stand the week without doing more. Is this the life we want to live forever?
The purpose of this question is to reveal that when we talk about eternal life in the context of scripture and faith, we are not simply talking about the length of life. We are talking about the quality of life. Jesus in the Gospel of John speaks of abundant life: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life and eternal life are the same thing. What would it take to have a life that is worth living forever? What must I do to inherit the kind of life that would be satisfying and fulfilling, the kind of life that would indeed bless eternity. Now, we have a different question, don’t we?
If you read the New Testament from beginning to end, there are two answers to the question. One is faith and a relationship with God. That is good because if we are going to live eternally, we plan to live in the presence of God. The second thing that qualifies us for eternal life is love. God is love and we love, too.
The lawyer or the expert in Jewish scripture who was asked the question knows the answer. Jesus turns the question back on him. Jesus says, “What do you read?”
“You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength” –love God with every ounce of being—“and love your neighbor as yourself.”
I think he realizes now that he looks a little foolish. The lawyer already knew the answer. In an effort not to make it look like he was asking something trivial or not to look like a buffoon, he asks a second question. He is trying to think of something very deep and very philosophical and says, “Jesus, who is my neighbor?” I imagine Jesus giving him a sideways look and looking straight into his heart to see the motive for asking this question. I imagine Jesus pausing and saying, “Let me tell you a story. There was a man who was going down to Jerusalem from Jericho. . . .”
We know the story. It just takes a little bit of Bible history to know some of these things about the story. We know that the Samaritan was an outcast. We know that Samaritans were not loved by Jews. Have you noticed have quickly we can divide the world into us and them? Everybody who looks like me is with me and everybody else is on the outs.
In the ancient world, Greeks thought everybody who spoke Greek was good and everybody who did not was described as a barbarian. In the First Century Jewish world, everybody was either Jewish or Gentile. Samaritans were a particular class of sub-Gentiles. These were the people that were the most hated. These were the people who were probably the butt of every ethnic joke you have ever heard in your life. Did you hear the one about the three Samaritans. . . ? Jewish people did not like Samaritans. Jesus throws a curveball.
Simple stories have what we call the rule of three. Three Billy goats gruff, three little pigs, the three bears and Goldilocks, etc. A joke often has three something. There was a Georgia student, an Alabama student, and an Auburn student. You figure out which order gets the punch line there. In Jesus’ story, there was a priest, a Levite, and . . . and what we would expect is a rabbi. A rabbi is different from a priest and a Levite. We would expect three of the same kind, but Jesus throws a curve. There was a priest, a Levite, and . . . .a Samaritan. That would be a little bit like if we were going to tell a joke and we said, There was a doctor, a lawyer, and a . . . . Muslim. There was a doctor, a lawyer, and a . . . . Mexican. All of a sudden, Jesus has their attention. This is not the third person expected in the order of a story like this.
It turns out, obviously, that the priest and the Levite walk on the other side of the road and don’t do anything, but it is the Samaritan who stops and cares. Is this man who was robbed and beaten dead or alive? Probably the Samaritan felt the same as the Jewish representative of the story that to touch a dead body would make him unclean. Do you want to touch a stranger’s dead body to see if that person is alive? But it did not matter to the Samaritan.
Who is he? All of his clothes have been stolen. He has been left there naked and for dead in the ditch. There was no way to tell if he buys his clothes at Nordstrom or Dollar General. There are no clues to tell us what class he is or what ethnic group he is, but it did not matter to the Samaritan.
How much time is this going to take? What shape is the man going to be in when he turns him over and tries to get him up on his donkey and take him someplace where someone will care for him? It does not matter to the Samaritan.
What is this going to cost? We know it is going to cost two days’ wages and he is going to repay everything it costs when he gets back. The Good Samaritan does not know, but it really does not matter.
Is this man going to appreciate fully what has been done for him? Maybe he is going to turn out to be a Jew who doesn’t care that he got help because it was from a Samaritan? Will he fully appreciate the magnitude of what this person has done? The Samaritan does not know, but it doesn’t matter.
Really the Samaritan who would be the anti-hero, the last person anybody would expect to be the hero in this story, is the one who recognizes his neighbor and he is the one whose actions show that he loved his neighbor.
Now we come to the third question. The expert in the law has asked the first two questions and Jesus gets to ask the third. I can see Jesus cocking his head, raising his eyebrows, and saying, “And who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” Of course, you can see the distaste from the expert in the law. He can’t even say, “the Samaritan.” He said, “I suppose it was the one who showed kindness to him.” He can’t even say it. He can’t even say, “the Samaritan.”
I have read different things that are the implied lesson here. One, Jesus is saying to him, “The Samaritan could figure this out and you are an expert in scripture and you can’t figure it out! Figure it out.”
I have also heard that the implied lesson is, “Figure out who your neighbor is or you may be the one who winds up left for dead.” There are so many different messages of such a wonderful story that Jesus tells. But if we pay attention to the questions and remember what the first question was: What must I do to inherit eternal life? we follow through because that is what we are working on all the way. What must I do to participate in God’s life? What must I do to lead a life that is worthy of eternity, a life that would be blessed in the presence of God? And the answer is: Lead a life of unlimited love. It doesn’t matter who is in front of you. It doesn’t matter what the cost. Love them. Love does not make us more noble. The reason we inherit eternal life is not because it makes us more moral. It is because it makes us like God.
If we are thinking about eternal life lived in the presence of God forever, what else is there than to reflect the character of God and love like God loves? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself and don’t go around trying to define who your neighbor is. Your neighbor is whoever is in front of you. Your neighbor is whoever God puts in your path. If you start trying to define the limits of God, you miss the point of love.
Leslie Weatherhead, the great British preacher in London during the Blitz in the middle part of the 20th Century, has an easy way to understand this. He says, “If I knew that eternity was going to be a great symphony, I would begin to study music.” He would want to know something about music if eternity was going to be a great symphony. The message is if eternity is a life with God then maybe I should learn something about love. If eternity and eternal life are about a life with a loving God who loves beyond all barriers, with no restrictions, then I might want to learn to start loving now. If the Samaritan knows, then we should know.
There were three questions and a command. Go, and do likewise.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.