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Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
I have an important question for you this morning: what is something that is essential for human life, is highly contagious, yet most of us take it for granted? Any ideas? It’s kindness. You might think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s essential for human life and highly contagious, but I believe I can back that up.
A student once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a society. What separates an uncivilized collection of people from a true civilization? Mead could have mentioned the first signs of tools, like grinding stones or clay pots for holding food and water. She could have mentioned art, like cave paintings or carved statues. Instead, Mead said the first sign of civilization in her opinion was when an ancient skeleton was found with a healed thighbone. Why is that a sign of civilization?
It was Mead’s estimation that in a competitive, primitive culture where people had to hunt and escape predators in order to survive each day, the fact that someone set aside their own work in order to care for another’s injury was a sign of civilization.
As Mead said, “A broken femur that is healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.”
That’s good, isn’t it? “Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.” That’s a great thought for this morning as we study one of Jesus’ most famous stories, the story of the Good Samaritan.
Last year, the British Broadcasting Corp., or the BBC, teamed up with researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK to study the topic of kindness. They published an online questionnaire called the Kindness Test, and asked people all over the world to share their attitudes and experiences on the topic of kindness.
Research on kindness shows that when we experience or witness acts of kindness, we are much more likely to offer kindness to others. This is the contagious aspect of kindness. And when we perform an act of kindness, the reward system in our brain lights up, which gives us pleasure, which causes us to look for more opportunities to be kind. A neuroscientist working on the Kindness Project said, “Kindness can cost us, yet we experience a sense of reward in parts of our brain when we are kind to others, just as we do when we eat yummy food or have a pleasant surprise. These parts of the brain become active and motivate us to do them again and again.” (1)
“Kindness can cost us”—that’s a good point to consider, too, as we look at this morning’s lesson from Luke 10, the story of the Good Samaritan.
Our story begins, “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”
“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”
Have you ever noticed how many times in the Bible Jesus answers a question with a question? Martin Copenhaver has written a book titled Jesus Is the Question. And in this book, he shares the most fascinating fact: “In the Gospels,” he writes, “Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 [questions] of which he only answers 3.” (2)
Jesus, who was the Way, the Truth and the Life, had all the answers in life, yet he asked far more questions than he answered. Why? Maybe because an answer provides certainty, but a question prompts growth. Which was more important to Jesus? I think we know the answer. Sometimes we get frustrated or disillusioned when we read the Bible or pray or come to church and we’re not finding answers to our questions. We feel like spiritual failures. What am I doing wrong here, Lord? But notice how often Jesus, who could have easily given us all the answers, asked questions instead. Wrestling with your questions does not make you a spiritual failure. It may be God’s greatest tool for forming you into the man or woman God wants you to be.
So let’s get back to our expert in the law. He asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, in turn, asked him, “What is written in the Law?” “How do you read it?”
The expert in the Law answered, “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.”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
So the expert in the law asked a question, and he got an answer. But that’s not the end of the conversation. Maybe the expert in the law wanted to expose Jesus. Or maybe the expert’s next question exposed his own soul-deep need. Because a person can have all the right answers about God and still not know God. So the first question this Bible story raises is, “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be right with God?” This is a common expression, but it’s not a question we ask ourselves enough. Would you rather have all the answers, or would you rather have a relationship with the living God—even if that relationship doesn’t answer all your questions? The expert in the law may have been right, but I think he knew he wasn’t right with God.
Our next verse reads, “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
Neuroscientists from the Paris Brain Institute conducted a fascinating study in which they hooked up volunteers to an electrocardiogram machine and measured their heartbeats as they listened to a story being read aloud. And they found that as volunteers listened to the story, their heartbeats synchronized with one another. Even when the volunteers were physically in separate places, their heartbeats eventually synced up with the heartbeats of the others who were listening to the same story. (3)
I mention this study because Jesus is about to answer this man’s question with a story, one of the most famous stories in the Bible. The expert in the law set out to test Jesus. With this story, Jesus is testing him—and us. With this story, Jesus is trying to synchronize our heartbeats with the heart of God. Because the more you love God, the more your life will be in sync with God’s heart. What does it look like to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love your neighbor as yourself?
Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.”
Dan Dailey, writing in the New York Daily News, tells about overhearing a woman in New York discussing her neighborhood. New Yorkers often divide Manhattan based on the location of Houston Street. If you live south of Houston Street, you live in SoHo; if you live north of Houston Street, you live in NoHo. But this woman lived in a troublesome neighborhood somewhere in between that she called “Uh-Oh.”
Jesus’ listeners would have understood that the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was an “Uh-Oh” kind of neighborhood. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho stretches about 18 miles through desert terrain—hot, dry, rocky and rough. In Jesus’ day, it was common for thieves to hide among the rocks along this road and attack travelers passing through. (4)
This man was caught in a bad neighborhood. Most of us use this information to justify what happened next. But not Jesus. Jesus continued, “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
Lawrence Richards, in his Devotional Commentary, makes a revealing point here. He notes that the priest and the Levite were going away from Jerusalem. This implies that they had just left from serving their religious duties in the temple. If they were going toward Jerusalem, they could claim that their duties to God were more important than their duties to man. Can’t be late to church! But they had no excuse. They represented the first half of Jesus’ teaching: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” But they failed to do the second. And their failure demonstrates their ignorance of the heart of God. Their hearts were out of sync with the heart of God. If they had loved God more, they would have loved the injured man the way God did. (5)
Jesus finishes the story: “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” Let’s stop right there for a moment. The particular word used here for “took pity on him” refers to a heartfelt compassion, a compassion that you feel deep in your gut. Bible scholar A.T. Roberson notes that this word is only used twelve times in the New Testament, and eight of those times refer to Jesus’ sense of compassion for others. (6)
And considering how Jews in Jesus’ day had such contempt for Samaritans, this sense of compassion on the part of the Samaritan seems extraordinary. So let’s continue the story: “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”
And then Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Rear Admiral Thornton Miller a former chief of chaplains many years ago when he spoke to Army Chaplains. After the his speech, Rear Admiral Miller spent some time chatting with the students and answering questions. They all wanted to ask him about his experiences serving in World War II, especially on D-Day in Normandy. Rear Admiral Miller described the firefight that day in vivid terms. As a military chaplain, he had gone up and down the beach, dodging bombs and gunfire while praying with injured soldiers, doing anything he could to help.
A student asked him why he had risked his own life on the beach that day, and Miller simply replied, “I’m a minister.”
So the student tried to re-word his question. He said, “But didn’t you ask if they were Catholic or Protestant or Jew? Did you just . . . I mean, if you’re a minister. . .”
Rear Admiral Miller interrupted him. He said, “If you’re a minister, the only question you ask is, ‘Can I help you?’” (7)It is the same philosophy here in the VA
Did you hear that? “If you’re a minister, the only question you ask is, ‘Can I help you?’” The priest, the Levite, the expert in the law—they all failed to ask the most important question: “Can I help you?” And this failure reveals their lack of love for God.
Because Jesus makes it clear, in this Bible story and in his own life, that the heart of God is a heart of mercy. Jesus doesn’t commend anyone for their religious credentials or their knowledge of the law. He commends the one who puts love for a stranger into action. He commends the one who risks himself on behalf of an enemy. What do John 3: 16-17, the central verses of the New Testament, say? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
In 1992, a man named John Jordan saw a news report on the war between Serbs and Croats in Bosnia. Firefighters in Bosnia had almost no protective equipment, yet they were called upon to fight continuous fires caused by the bombings in their city. Jordan is an ex-Marine and firefighter from Rhode Island, and he felt such compassion for these brave firefighters halfway around the world. So he gathered up donations of equipment and protective gear and moved to Sarajevo to begin a firefighters training program there. He has also recruited experienced firefighters from the U.S. to come to Sarajevo and work in the training program.
It takes a tremendous amount of work and energy to set up this training program, train the firefighters, work alongside them in dangerous conditions, and solicit donations to keep these programs going. Why would he put himself in this situation? John Jordan says, “I was at home watching the news about how these guys in T-shirts and jeans with no protection were fighting fires in the middle of sniper and mortar attacks. It’s like coming on a car accident. You either stop and help or you drive by. I stopped.” (8)
What was Jesus’ final question in our Bible story today? “And then Jesus asked the expert in the law, ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
“Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” “Go and do likewise.”
When you stand before God someday, will God care more about your correct theology or your acts of mercy? Look at the life of Jesus and decide which one is more in sync with God’s heart. Then go and do likewise.
1. “What we do and don’t know about kindness” by Claudia Hammond BBC.com, September 21, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210921-what-we-do-and-dont-know-about-kindness.
2. Martin Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2014).
3. “People’s Heartbeats Synchronize When They’re Captivated by The Same Story” by Tessa Koumoundouros, September 15, 2021, ScienceAlert.com, https://www.sciencealert.com/our-heartbeats-synchronize-when-we-re-captivated-by-the-same-story.
4. “Road to Jericho” http://faith.nd.edu/s/1210/faith/interior.aspx?sid=1210&gid=609&pgid=33100.
5. Lawrence O. Richards, The 365 Day Devotional Commentary (Colorado Springs, Colo.: ChariotVictor Publishing, 1990), p. 730.
6. A. T. Robertson https://www.preceptaustin.org/luke-10-commentary.
7. Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001).
Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
“But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
Well, most of us spent a lot of time justifying ourselves, that is, finding ways in which we can make ourselves look good. It’s our most natural impulse because we hate to feel caught or ashamed—and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan can easily make us all feel caught and ashamed.
We use pretexts, euphemisms, deflection, exaggeration—we use any number of strategies to justify ourselves. “Oh, I didn’t know you meant that for me!” Or, “Everyone in my place would do the very same thing.” Or, “It was the other person’s fault.” Or, “They got what they deserved.”
I imagine this scribe figured Jesus would tell him who he neighbor was in some safe, predictable way. The person next-door. The people of your town. All your friends. Nice Jewish people who stick together. These are all ways to think of the word “neighbor”—and they make fulfilling the commandment somewhat easier. We can all feel good loving our own.
So when Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan—the very opposite of the idea of “neighbor” for Jews of that day—he’s pushing the scribe, and pushing us, into new territory. What does that new territory look like? Jesus is saying that we must have compassion for every single human being, just as we expect to receive compassion ourselves. That any of us is no different than any others of us.
But Jesus pushing us even further. He is pushing us to try to grasp the idea of God’s compassion—how God looks upon any of us. Jesus is God’s compassion embodied, made flesh, made the same flesh as you and me, and made the same flesh of every single human being. Jesus shows that we are all God’s neighbors. Until my compassion is stretched to include everyone, I do not understand the God of Jesus, the God Jesus revealed to us.
The reading from Colosians seems like a hymn that early believers would sing about Jesus—that God has invested in Jesus every glory and grace, making Jesus the greatest of all creation. But this greatness of Jesus was not for Jesus to keep to himself. Rather, we ourselves have been made great in Jesus—covered with his glory, a glory that would cover every human being. God shows God’s love for all when he loves and glorifies his Son.
We keep thinking that God’s will is elusive, that God’s mind is inscrutable, that God’s law is inaccessible. Hardly. God’s law is right before us; God’s will surrounds us. We see God law in the struggles of the least of us, in the humiliation others are made to carry, in the people scorned and demonized: we see God’s law, and the face of Jesus, in everyone who calls out compassion from our hearts.
If we believe Jesus has not neglected us, then how can we fool ourselves into neglecting others? “Go and do likewise.”