Thompson’s Sermon from July 11, 2010

July 15, 2010

How to Act
Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “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.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The phrase Good Samaritan has become a part of our vocabulary. People who’ve never been to church know what it means to be a good Samaritan – at least in it’s watered down form. Which is the way in which people who often go to church generally think of this story. We use it to describe people who are particularly helpful in a somewhat unpredictable manner.

But if you really look at this story, and if you think about what Jesus was doing when he told this story you realize that Jesus wasn’t giving a little lesson on the importance of being helpful. He told a story that was designed to disrupt a time honored sacred tradition. This story was more along the lines of a ghost story than a quaint moralism. It’s important for us to keep in mind the nature of this relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans during Jesus’ day.

It wasn’t that the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t really like each other. It’s more like a Jew would rather have his finger nails removed than to be taken care of by a Samaritan. Simply hearing this story would have been a bad experience for this well trained and disciplined Jewish man, but as we all know, sometimes it’s good to have a bad time.

Jesus created an image that redefined reality — which isn’t an easy thing for us to experience. We’re so used to hearing this story it’s hard for us to feel the discomfort in the room that Jesus created when he told this parable, but it’s not hard to see that Jesus was trying to expand this religious expert’s concept of the Kingdom of God.

This Mosaic scholar approached Jesus with the intention of putting him to the test, but he found himself on the ropes so to speak. He entered this conversation feeling as if he was as righteous as he needed to be, but I don’t think that’s how he felt when the conversation was over. He had created a system of measuring righteousness that he was comfortable with, and he made the mistake of thinking that his measuring stick was perfectly calibrated.

The fact that this man asked Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life indicated that he wasn’t totally clueless about the work of Jesus. The notion of eternal or abundant life was more of a Christian concept than a Jewish idea, so he revealed a somewhat informed perspective on what Jesus was teaching, but he assumed he could obtain that higher state of being by adhering to a traditional and flawed notion of righteousness. He was right about the most important commandments. He knew that the most important thing for us to do is to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, but this didn’t satisfy Jesus because he knew what he thought about some of his neighbors.

The traditional concept of the neighbor within the Jewish community was that their neighbors were their fellow Jews. They felt that they should love the other members of their community as they loved God, which is not a bad idea until it becomes such an exclusive thing — and that is what had happened. This religious expert liked the idea of having a closer relationship with God — he grasped the concept of obtaining abundant life, but he didn’t realize that it would require him to live in a whole new world. He thought he could just tweak his old one.

While the focus of this story is the redefining of an old relationship, the real purpose of this story was to call into question the manner in which this highly regarded man measured righteousness. This is what this legalist was used to doing, and Jesus was intent on showing him what was wrong with that. When you like the idea of keeping score on yourself and other people you are going to get burned.

This story is instructive about how we should treat all other people, but it’s more of a warning not to think too highly of the manner in which we’re living our lives. I’m not saying that we’re all miserable failures at practicing divine hospitality and we should live our lives in a perpetual state of groveling for forgiveness, but I do think it’s spiritually dangerous to think we have arrived. And just when you think you’ve become a proper example of redeemed living – somebody like Jesus will come along and tell a story or do something that will put a crack right in the center of your façade.

I guess spiritual development always comes down to how we treat one another, but this story of the Good Samaritan isn’t just about seeing the humanity of traditional enemies. It’s about the danger of thinking that we see the whole picture and becoming too satisfied with where we see ourselves in that picture. This poor lawyer liked the way he had defined reality, and because of that he pushed Jesus to give him some credit. I don’t know how this guy responded to what he heard Jesus say, but I don’t think he was comforted by the conclusion he was forced to draw.

It’s never a bad thing to fall off a pedestal into the arms of reality, but if you are like me you prefer to learn from the mistakes of other people than to be the example for others.

Unfortunately I haven’t always learned from others. I’ve been the example more often than I prefer, but those are the lessons you remember most clearly.

I’ve previously told you of my appreciation for bicycles, but the truth is I love cars as well – Chevrolet’s in particular. My great-grandfather was a railroad man, and that’s what moved him to Wynne, but his son, my grandfather, made the transition to the automobile business, and in 1926 he opened Murray Chevrolet Company. My father took over the business, and he had what you would call true love for Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles.

So when I turned 16, my parents gave me one of the more unique models that Chevrolet produced — a 1964 Corvair. This was in 1974, so it wasn’t a new car, but Daddy thought Corvairs were undeservedly maligned. It was an interesting little car with the engine in the rear and a suspension system that Ralph Nader considered to be unsafe at any speed.

It was a novel vehicle, and I enjoyed the notoriety it gave me. So one night there was this gathering of teenagers at somebody’s house, and this fellow wanted to go for a ride in my car. I pulled out on the main drag through town talking about my car and I’m going on about its various qualities when suddenly those dreaded blue lights came on behind me. I stopped and soon I was sitting in the squad car answering various questions from officer Curtner. After a minute or two he told me that he stopped me because he thought I may have been drinking.

Of course the truth of the matter was that the car had sort of a natural weaving pattern to it, and of course I was talking which contributed to that subtle wandering from one side of the lane to the other, but I hadn’t been drinking and he figured that out. So he let me get back in my car, but he didn’t let me go. He sat in his car for a few minutes and when he emerged he handed me a ticket for driving with a fictitious license plate.

It looked real to me, but apparently the credit manager at my father’s car business (who happened to be Officer Curtner’s uncle) had taken an unexpired tag off another car and put it on my Corvair. Well, I had nothing to do with that so I didn’t feel convicted of anything, but I did feel targeted by officer Curtner. I felt like he was looking for some reason to give me trouble, and it made me want to give him some trouble. Unfortunately the opportunity arose.

I was mowing my great aunt’s yard one afternoon and I could see officer Curtner parked across the street watching for speeders. I noticed that he was in a squad car that didn’t even have a license plate on it. As I rode my lawnmower home I became convinced that I should point this violation out to him, so when I got home I got on my bicycle and rode back down that same street. I stopped by his car, and when he rolled down the window I pointed out to him that he was driving a car without a license plate on it. He explained to me that it was a new car and that there was a legal time limit before a new car had to have a tag. I said O.K. in my most righteous tone, and I was about to leave when he held up this jacket and said, “Isn’t this yours. I think it fell off the back of your lawnmower.”

It was mine, and let me tell you it was terrible to have to admit it. I mean just when you think you know how bad someone is they go and do something nice. This was a terrible experience that has served me well. Just like that self-righteous lawyer that approached Jesus to test him, I discovered the type of trouble you get into when you underestimate the humanity of anyone.

It’s easy to think we share God’s perspective on ourselves and on other people, but that is a dangerous attitude. It’s easy to justify misbehavior toward people that we judge to be misguided, but this is not the way we should behave if we genuinely wish to be filled with a more eternal form of life.

Of course the good news is that it’s hard to maintain blanket judgments about ourselves or other people. By the grace of God we continue to discover the ways in which we are not as gracious as we can be and more judgmental than we are authorized to be. It doesn’t matter where we sit on the political spectrum, it’s easy to find ourselves in the company of this man who thought he knew all he needed to know and was doing all he needed to do – until he met Jesus.

This Jesus is something. He uplifts the lost, exasperates the found, and reminds us just how important it is to be kind – to everyone.


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