a sermon by the Rev. Matthew Brench for Grace Anglican Church upon 30 August 2015
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a tricky story to deal with. it is so well known that we very easily gloss over it, speed through it, and miss the depth of its teachings about God and the Christian life.
The Good Samaritan Parable is not a legalistic or moralistic story. It is bigger than that. Too easily and too often, people reduce Christianity to a lame half-breed of its true self. This happens in one of two ways: first is the legalistic/moralistic vision of the faith where everything is about rules: do this, don’t do that, or Jesus will be unhappy with you. Second is the “antinomian” view, which rejects the “nomos” (the Law, the rules) and over-emphasizes grace and freedom to the point where sin is no longer talked about and repentance becomes meaningless. True Christianity holds both of these opposites – law & gospel, rules & grace – in perfect harmony.
Law & Rules
The best place to go to understand the concept of Law in the Bible is the books of Moses. Our reading from Leviticus is a perfect example of Law, setting out rules from God about how to treat other people. Don’t oppress people, don’t rob people, don’t withhold your employee’s paycheck, don’t take advantage of the weakness of others like cursing at deaf people or putting obstacles in front of blind people. Don’t lie in court, don’t play favorites when making decisions, be righteous when you judge and discern. Don’t slander or attack other followers of God. Don’t hate people, but be honest with them, otherwise that hatred will lead to more sin. Don’t pursue revenge or hold grudges, especially against your fellow believers. Most of all, love your neighbor as yourself. These are rules that God gave to the ancient Israelites, and to this day they show us what it means to be just, righteous, and loving toward God and his people.
But even though this is God’s Word, it’s just a list of rules. It doesn’t have any power to make you a better person. It can’t change you. It can only tell you what to do and what not to do. At the end of the day, it does just as much harm as it does good: because while it does show you the right way to live, it also convicts you of the fact that you don’t actually live that way. So the Law is a gift of grace, because God has revealed the way of righteousness, but it’s also a curse, because it reveals that we cannot actually follow that way of righteousness. So we need something more than just the Law, the rules.
Gospel & Grace
That something we need is Gospel. Not just the four books that we call Gospels, but the actual Gospel message – the good news in Christ of God’s grace being poured out upon his people. While we find this gospel most clearly in the New Testament, it is also present in the Old as well. What we read from Galatians this morning is part of a larger argument about how the Gospel of salvation actually pre-dates the Law of Moses. St. Paul observes that “if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” There is a promise of grace that God made, before he even gave the Law.
That promise is declared most clearly to Abraham in the book of Genesis. That promise, as Paul describes, was made to Abraham and his offspring. Not to his offspring in the plural, referring to the people of Israel descended from him, but rather, offspring in the singular: only one descendent of Abraham is being identified in this promise. The promise of the blessing of righteousness was not to be given through the Law, or through the peoples’ good works, but through one offspring, one descendant of Abraham: Jesus Christ. The Law is a kind of a place-holder until Jesus arrives to usher in the Gospel in its fullness: now we know that we can turn to him for salvation. Now we know that righteousness and holiness are not the results of our own efforts, by following the rules, but instead come to us as gifts freely given through Jesus.
The Context of the Parable
Let’s bring this back to the Parable of the Good Samaritan now. It starts with Jesus telling his disciples that they are seeing and hearing what all the old Prophets and Kings were waiting for. He’s telling that them they’re watching the Gospel unfold and Christ is walking among them, and preparing to make his ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world. But then an expert in the Law of Moses comes up and asks how to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus tests this expert’s understanding of the Law, and he replies with a very Christian-like summary of the Law: the command to love your neighbor as yourself, which we’ve already heard from Leviticus. Jesus is pleased with this answer: “do this and you will live” he tells him. So far, so good: the Gospel is the center of attention, the Law is made secondary to the Gospel by being a response to it.
But then the Lawyer goes and messes it all up. Desiring to “justify himself” according to the Law rather than allow God be the one to justify him by his own grace, he asks a legalistic question: “who is my neighbor?” To this, Jesus gives the famous parable which is an excellent description of what it looks like to love your neighbor, while at the same time rebuking people who trust in the Law, showing them that they cannot rely upon the Law for their own salvation. Let’s walk through this Parable now, with this context in mind.
A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho and is attacked by bandits and left half-dead on the side of the road. This is a made-up story, so Jesus doesn’t need to give starting and ending locations for this man’s journey, but he does anyway. There is a reason for this: Jerusalem is the holy city where the dwelling place of God was found. It symbolized home and holiness. Jericho was a city notorious for its sinfulness. So this man is traveling “the wrong way,” so to speak; he’s not necessarily a model believer, and so it’s no surprise that he runs into trouble as he goes along this road.
Now by chance, both a Priest and Levite some across this man on the side of the road and avoid him. They are very justified in avoiding him: he’s probably a sinner. There’s probably not much that they can do for him. And if he’s already dead, touching his body will make them ceremonially unclean, which meant that they wouldn’t be able to participate in the public worship of God, or even interact with other Jews until they had ceremonially washed themselves at sundown! The inconvenience involved would make it more trouble than it’s worth, as far as they’re concerned. Of course, these are all excuses, and quite selfish and uncaring, and Jesus drives this point home when the third person comes along: a Samaritan.
Christ in the Parable
You may be aware that Jews and Samaritans basically hated each other back then. It’s difficult for us today to understand the tension that they shared, but I’ll try to give some examples. Think of the racial tensions between whites and blacks that have flared up across our country lately, or in the 1960’s, or anytime in between. It’s hard to have the courage to reach out to one another across that barrier. Or think about how you feel about self-proclaimed Christians who think that the Gospel is all about peace and love, Jesus was just a good teacher, and everyone’s going to heaven no matter what they believe. Many of you have left one denomination or another because you felt they’d betrayed their calling to be faithful followers of Christ. That is how the Jews and Samaritans felt about one another: dreadfully misled heretics who were constantly spouting lies.
And so it’s all the more awkward, embarrassing, and shaming that a Samaritan is the one who comes along and helps this poor Jewish guy in Jesus’ parable. What the Priest and Levite failed to do, this hated heretic actually takes the moral high ground. In this parable, God’s people fail to follow the Law, so help had to come from the outside. This is actually a picture of the Gospel! No Israelite or Jew was able to keep the Law of Moses perfectly; salvation had to come from elsewhere. That elsewhere is heaven: Jesus came to earth, born as a man, born under the Law, so that he might keep the Law perfectly and on that basis make a perfect sacrifice for the sins of all. Jesus is the Good Samaritan in this parable. Just as the Samaritan was a hated race, so was Jesus hated by his people. A great hymn of the faith puts it this way:
Hail, Thou once despisèd Jesus! Hail, Thou Galilean King!
Thou didst suffer to release us; Thou didst free salvation bring.
Hail, Thou universal Savior, who hast borne our sin and shame!
By Thy merits we find favor; life is given through Thy Name.
Now, what does this Good Samaritan do? He binds his wounds, gives him oil and wine, carries him on his own animal, and brought him to a safe haven where he could be cared for. That is exactly what Jesus does for sinners. He wraps us up in new garments, clothing us in his righteousness, a picture of Baptism. He gives us oil, a common symbol of the Holy Spirit as in baptism or confirmation or ordination or the anointing of the sick. He gives us wine as his Blood of the New Covenant. He bears our sins on the Cross for us. He brings us into his Body, his Temple, the Church, where he ministers to us through his Word and Sacraments.
Summary & Exhortation
So when you’re thinking about the Parable of the Good Samaritan remember that Grace & love (Gospel) is the context and the lesson, while the Law (and rules) is the content. In the Christian life both work together. Just remember: we follow the rules because they’re an expression of God’s grace in us; we don’t get grace because we follow the rules! So when Jesus says “Go and do likewise,” remember that he’s not just laying down more rules that you need to remember and obey in order to be a “good Christian.” Rather, he was making a point to the man who wanted to justify himself that he can’t justify himself, no matter how much he tries. Yes, by all means, go and do likewise, love your neighbor as yourself, don’t overlook the person in need on the side of the street. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to inconvenience yourself in order to care for others in need. That is what love looks like, and Jesus has told us in no uncertain terms that “the command love your neighbor as yourself” is not limited just to people you like or people you know.
The secret of Christian ministry that transforms “good works” into actual Christian service is love. When we serve others simply because it’s the right thing to do and it makes us feel good, we are doing good works in obedience to the Law. That is a fine thing, but what makes such service truly Christian, truly Christ-like, is when we serve others out of a God-given sense of love and compassion. Sometimes that sense of love is hard to find, and it’s helpful to take a step of obedience to the Law in order to learn how to love. But never let your servitude as a slave of Christ overrule your status as a beloved adopted son or daughter of God Almighty!
Finally, I want to leave you with some encouragements from a former Archbishop Canterbury, the Most Rev. Michael Ramsey. He describes the service and ministry of love that Christians carry out, highlighting especially the value of small acts of service.
Amidst the vast scene of the world’s problems and tragedies you may feel that your own ministry seems so small, so insignificant, so concerned with the trivial. What a tiny difference it can make to the world that you should run a youth club, or preach to a few people in a church, or visit families with seemingly small result. But consider: the glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Let that be your inspiration. Consider the Lord himself. Amidst a vast world with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies our Lord devoted himself to a small country, to small things and to individual men and women, often giving hours of time to the very few or to the one man or woman. In a country where there were movements and causes which excited the allegiance of many – the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, and others – our Lord gives many hours to one woman of Samaria, one Nicodemus, one Martha, one Mary, one Lazarus, one Simon Peter, for the infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many. – “The Priest and Politics” The Christian Priest Today
May God the Holy Spirit so fill our hearts with love overflowing, that we may always abound in grateful and gracious good works. Amen.