Unexpected Grace – March 4, 2007

Leviticus 19:15-18, Luke 10:25-37

March 4, 2007

We continue today along “the road to Jerusalem.” As I said last week, we’re using this time of Lent to look at this journey Jesus was on after he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” As we go through this season, we’re remembering some of the stories and events that took place between that turning point in Jesus’ life and Palm Sunday.

There are many stories and events that took place along that road. Today I’d like us to think about this time when Jesus had this encounter with a Lawyer. During that encounter, the Lawyer asked this question, “Who is my neighbor?” And in response, Jesus tells this story about a man who was on his own “Jerusalem road.” And in telling that unbelievable story, he redefined for his listeners – and us – the whole idea “neighborliness” and compassion. And he gave us a wonderful glimpse into the Grace of God.

This story today is the parable that we know as “The Good Samaritan.” It is one of the most famous of all Jesus parables, and I think one of his most masterful. And that’s saying a lot! Because Jesus was the master story teller. But this is one that has stood the test of time, and is part of our culture. When we hear of a person helping a stranger in need, we might well say, “That person is a Good Samaritan.” (We even find it referenced in today’s culture when we hear about “Good Samaritan Laws.” Those are laws that have to do with expectations for people to give help strangers in distress.)

Well, the more I read this story the more amazing it is. If we dig into this a little bit, we’ll find that Jesus “turns around” the people’s expectations and assumptions as they’re hearing this story! And I think he is very clever in “disarming” them. And getting around their preconceived notions.

First of all, think about this. If Jesus were trying to teach us something about who was our neighbor, wouldn’t we expect him to start talking about someone we might not consider to be our neighbor? And wouldn’t we then imagine him setting about trying to convince us how that person was our neighbor? Think about that. We might expect Jesus to start by telling these people about a Samaritan who was in trouble and needed help. Then we might hear him tell about “the good and noble Jewish man who stopped and helped him, and proved to be neighbor.” But no. Jesus does the opposite. He says nothing about the background of the man who was attacked, and I think letting the people imagine he was one of them. And then he turns it all around and makes this man who had compassion to be the Samaritan! He knew the feelings those people had against Samaritans!

I think that’s masterful! In turning it around that way, Jesus didn’t make the question of “neighborliness” incumbent on the people he was talking to, and then trying to convince them of such. By their identifying with the hurt man in the story, he made them his listeners, the recipients of that “neighborliness.” He made them the recipients of this “unexpected favor,” or in other words, this “Grace.” That’s what that word means.

Wouldn’t that have been wonderfully “disarming” for the people listening? I think so! And I think so especially considering the second “turn around” that Jesus puts in this story. Because the second thing Jesus did as he “made up” this story was that he did not make the neighborly action of this Samaritan incumbent upon his understanding of the man’s suffering. Let me explain what I mean by that.

We humans are funny about this whole “question of suffering.” We really don’t have a problem with it. We think we do. But what we really have a problem with is not the questions of suffering, but the question of “undeserved suffering.” We wonder “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That’s the question we’re interested in. That title of that book spoke to us, didn’t it? We really don’t have much of a concern about “Why do bad things happen to bad people?” We’re sort of fine with that. A book with that title wouldn’t have sold many copies at all! And the interesting twist of this story is that this man may well have been seen as “deserving” what he got. Let me explain that!

When Jesus started this story saying, “A man went up from Jerusalem to Jericho…” I think the crowd would have rolled their eyes! He was saying, “A man” – singular – went up from Jerusalem to Jericho – by himself! That was a dumb thing to do! That was a dangerous road. It was full of twists and turns where robbers would often lie in wait and ambush travelers. And everybody knew it! No one in his right mind would take that road alone! When Jesus said, “A man went up from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell among robbers…” Jesus’ audience would have said, “Duh!” “Of course he did!” “He got what he deserved!”

This man would have been seen instantly as someone who brought his suffering upon himself! And yet the picture of compassion and neighborliness that Jesus is painting in this story goes beyond the reasons for the suffering! He takes “neighborliness” “up a notch!” (“Bam!”) He said that compassion was above the deserved-ness or undeserved-ness of others. He said you are to be “neighbor” to others – even others who bring their troubles on themselves! I don’t know about you. But that’s not easy!

While you’re thinking about that, consider this. The man had probably been laying there for some time before this Samaritan happened upon him. Remember, a Priest and a Levite had already come upon him, seen him, and passed by on the other side of the road. He had been laying there long enough that the Samaritan may not have known anything about him at all, except perhaps that he was traveling alone! He probably wouldn’t even have known which direction the man was going. And that’s important because ordinarily, Samaritans would not have helped Jews if they were on the way to Jerusalem! They disagreed on the place to worship God. We talked about that last week when the people in the Samaritan village wouldn’t receive Jesus and his followers. Now this is a little bit different, but still, none of those religious differences or disagreements played into this in any way!

Jesus was turning their idea of neighborliness “upside-down” And I’m sure it was very uncomfortable for some of his listeners to hear. Remember that the Jews had made their religion very exclusive by this point in their history. You were either a Jew or a Gentile. If you weren’t a Jew, you didn’t have the same kind of status or even worth. After all you were not one of the “Chosen People.” And they were very proud of that. Just imagine how they felt when John said, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our Father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!” (Luke 3:8) Sometimes we read such passages in our “Bible Voice.” And we don’t get the full impact!

The good news here is that Jesus is painting for them a picture of God’s amazing love, love that would soon go beyond the notion of chosen-ness. He’s showing them that, all along, the understanding of God is different when it comes to who’s “in” and who’s “out.” In doing so, he’s trying to tell these people about this thing called “Grace.” Again, Grace is the “un-deserved favor of God.”

There was undeserved and unexpected Grace on that road to Jerusalem that day in this story! Those people might have been thinking, “Oh yeah Jesus. Like that’s going to happen. No Samaritan is going to be like that!” But that’s another great thing about this story. Jesus wasn’t trying to define behavior, or change cultural understanding. He was simply answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But in doing so, he blew apart cultural and religious “norms.” He challenged people’s thinking – as he always did. And I believe he challenges us today – through these ancient words, and through his Spirit, through which he teaches us all things and brings all things to our remembrance.

God wants his people to be people of Grace. And Grace is not always easy. It’s always easier to slip back into those norms and assumptions about others. And so one of the challenges to us this Lenten season is to be people of Grace. Let us seek to be people who love liked Jesus loves. Let us be people who seek to know the mind of God. Let us strive to think of those who we might have otherwise seen as “undeserving” or “unlovable.” And may we reach out to them with new understandings of “neighborliness” and compassion.

Who is our neighbor? I Jesus would ask us, “Is there anyone who is not our neighbor!”

Prayer.

Eternal God, help us in our search for your grace, and in our determination to be people of Grace. We know that’s not easy. We know it calls for us to step out of old stereotypes and comfortable understandings. That’s hard, God. But if you will help us to be open to your strength and your will, we will be able to become more gracious people. We thank you for the work we know you are going to do in and through us. We pray these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Posted in Sermons