As a note, my original sermon appears below; however, our youth and adult mission team had just returned from Clendenin West Virginia and planned to flash mob the worship service. In a "first ever at Grace" moment, they flash mobbed the end of this sermon to Audio Adrenaline's "Get Down." Stay tuned ... video to follow!
The story opens in the Traveling Narrative where Jesus is heading to Jerusalem. He encounters a lawyer whose intention appears to be adversarial – he is going to test Jesus. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Mark and Matthew have a rich young man asking this question – Luke tells us he’s a lawyer. No matter … the question appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus, being a good rabbi, answers the question with a question: “What is in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds with quoting part of the Shema: “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 then he tacks on one of the good parts of Leviticus: “…and your neighbor as yourself.” Good answer! Jesus tells him “do this and you will live.” But the lawyer seems to want to parse words and drills down on who is his neighbor … and Jesus launches into the parable.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” – This literally was a downhill journey. Jerusalem sits at 2,500 feet above sea level and Jericho about 800 feet. It is a descent to an encounter with “robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” Jesus then takes a dig at the temple religious system of the day: a priest and a levite (both who are on their way to perform their temple duties), pass by on the other side. Now to touch a dead body would have been to defile them, so they had their reasons. Then we have the Samaritan comes upon the scene and renders aid in a most extravagant way: he washes the wounds of the half-dead man with wine and dresses them with oil, puts him on his animal, takes him to an inn and pays for absolutely everything (I’ll be his wife was thrilled to get THAT Visa bill!). When rabbi Jesus asks the lawyer who acted like the neighbor, he replies, “The one who showed mercy” and Jesus admonishes him to “Go and do likewise.”
The problem arises when we take that closing line “Go and do likewise” and loop it back to the initial question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We can end up with a troubling conclusion: Just do nice and merciful things and you will inherit eternal life. Whoops! That would be a form of works righteousness – and that’s a big problem because there is no salvation in it! If our good works of mercy could have saved us, we would have been saved about 15 minutes after Moses came down from Sinai. Doing good works and merciful works is not inherently bad – it just won’t save you. Our works need to be understood as an expression of thanksgiving for what God has done for us rather than understood as some “brownie points for God” program where we earn our way into eternal life.
So I want to pick up this parable, shake the dirt off the roots, and look at it from another angle. Let’s just say the priest, the levite and the Samaritan are not the central focus of this story. Instead, the focus, the Christ figure in this text, is the half-dead guy on the side of the road. Now admittedly, this is not a sexy way to market the story! We’d rather it be about a Good Samaritan, wouldn’t we? Besides, if you named your hospital “Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital,” who would go there??!! “Yeah, I think I’m having a heart attack. Take me to Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital – stat!” Not going to happen. But I digress…
The reason this is the Christ figure gets more obvious when we think of the story in context. Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem for a showdown. He will be stripped, beaten, flogged and left for half-dead by the political/religious authorities … and then they will finish the job on the cross! The insiders, the priest and levite, want nothing to do with Jesus and they will be part of the power structure that will kill him.
We’re not quite sure of where Jesus is when he tells this story. We know he’s not yet in Jerusalem and, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he is actually in Samaria when he tells this story. That would make it even more juicy! You see good pious Jews consider Samaritans … well … scumbags. Why? Well, the roots go waaaay back … all the way to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE (yeah, these guys know how to hold a long grudge!). When the Northern Kingdom fell, Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser III (what a great name for a king, eh?) deported all of the leadership in the Northern Kingdom to other parts of the Assyrian empire. He then brought foreigners from other conquered lands and Assyria into Israel to run the governmental affairs in Israel and, more importantly, to intermarry with the locals and thus pull off an ethnic and religious genocide. These mixed race people became the Samaritans. Let’s just say, if the TV, and Facebook were around … we’d have a little girl pouring Cheerios on her Samaritan dad and a major flame war online over it!
OK … so the Samaritans are hated by the Jews … but this is why this guy stops and the others don’t. See he’s a loser … big “L” on his forehead. He’s considered scum of the earth and out of his loser-outsider status, he can connect with the half-dead guy by the side of the road. He has compassion because HE is the half-dead guy too! He gets it … from one loser to another.
You see salvation, real salvation, isn’t about how many good works we do, or how gifted we are, or having the right connections, or living in the “right” neighborhood, or driving the “right” car, or having professional success, or anything else this world tries to tell you matters. It … does … not … matter!! What matters is being last, lost, little, least and lifeless … and reaching others who are last, lost, little, least and lifeless too. The saving grace is our Savior took on “loser status” by dying on a cross so that we might inherit eternal life.
This is good news because you and I don’t have to have our act together … not at all. We reach each other out of our loser-ness – not out of our strength. We die, and rise, and die, and rise … and Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, is the one who showed us how. He showed us that we can trust that when things look like they are going down the toilet and we are falling apart and messed up, that God’s economy will use it for God’s glory and that nothing, absolutely nothing, is wasted and it will all be made new.
So fellow losers – welcome to what it means to bear the cross of Christ. Take it up and carry it in your bodies and souls – out those doors into your community. Be the half-dead guys and gals for all the other half-dead guys and gals who need to hear the words of life Christ offers us and them.