2 Cor 9:6-11; Luke 10:25-37
Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Gospel begins with a teacher of the Jewish law asking, “What shall I do in order to receive the Life of eternity?” (Luke 10:25).
In two weeks, in the Gospel on Thanksgiving Sunday, another man is going to come asking the same question. (Luke 18:18-27). Folks who grew up in Sunday School know him as the “rich young ruler.” That conversation will go in a very different direction, since the Lord knows the hearts of the people who come to him.
Today, the next verse deserves a sermon of its own: This teacher says he’s been taught, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” And the Lord adds, “Do this and you will live.”
The teacher could have said, “Okay,” gone home, and done that. But instead – and St Luke notes, “wishing to justify himself” – the teacher follows up: “And who is my neighbor?”
So the Lord is going to take advantage of this opportunity to point out among other things the sin of racism. Notice the only Good Guy in his parable is going to be a Samaritan met on the road. Not a priest or a Levite, but the man you wouldn’t have in your house or even talk to if you could help it. This parable scandalizes the hearers by crossing boundaries.
So the Lord tells his parable: A man going up from Jericho to Jerusalem is robbed and almost killed; two men of God cross the street to avoid him, but a heretic halfbreed Samaritan stops, washes and bandages his wounds, and pays for his recovery in a hotel. So who was the wounded man’s neighbor, asks the Lord? The one who showed mercy. Well, go do that.
There’s the literal and moral reading of the text all in one: When you encounter need, respond with acts of mercy.
Incidentally, don’t be too hard on the priest and Levite in this account. They’re on their way up to Jerusalem to serve their assigned week at the Temple. Remember the woman with the issue of blood, two weeks ago? Touching blood or dead bodies made a person ritually impure so that they couldn’t enter the Temple. The priest and Levite here are following the Law of Moses. They’re keeping a promise, fulfilling an obligation.
But the Lord says in another place, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin” – you tithe even on your kitchen herbs – “yet you have omitted the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith: these ye ought to have done, while not leaving the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).
The priest and Levite in this parable give us a rule of thumb that might be useful.
Ask: what has eternal value? If someone needs mercy – they need someone to cry with for a little while, or a housebound person needs someone to make a grocery run, or their WiFi is messed up and they can’t get it running, then stop a second and decide whether what you have scheduled matters more. Maybe it does. If I’m that priest, and I’m going to be serving the Liturgy at 9:00, and at 8:00 somebody needs help, it would take a pretty major emergency to make me leave a church full of people disappointed – though it’s happened. But often with a moment’s perspective we can decide to be late to something, accept some embarrassment at a promise delayed, or just cancel something we meant to do, in order to “Go and do likewise” to the person who needs mercy right now.
How many times have we seen moms do that on Sunday morning? Somebody is melting down or throwing up, so Mom makes the decision to stay home from the Liturgy. She’s giving up spiritual refreshing, and grown-up time, to do costly mercy.
That person you haven’t seen in church for a week or two might be the one lying beat-up on the way and in need of a Samaritan to stop, come over and show mercy. Or just have a grown-up conversation.
* * *
Let’s pause and take a step back to look at this parable in context. What came before this text, and what comes after? We’re almost always reading the middle of a chapter or the middle of a conversation.
Luke begins chapter 10 with the Lord sending out the seventy apostles. “He sent them two by two before his face into every city and place where he himself was about to go… ‘into whatsoever house ye enter, first give Peace to the house… And heal the sick, and say to them: The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you’” (Luke 10:1-9). Then he goes on to lament the destruction of people who won’t receive the Gospel of the Kingdom (v. 10-6). Finally, when the seventy apostles return, he rejoices that the Father has revealed such wonders to his disciples. “For I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which you see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which you hear, and have not heard them” (v. 24).
Now while the Lord is publicly welcoming back his returning disciples who have been preaching the Kingdom of God, behold, a certain teacher of the Law asked him, Master, what shall I do to inherit the Life of eternity?” (v. 25). How do I live the life of the age to come?
This parable is not a segue away from the theme of the Kingdom of God invading the here-and-now. This is Christ’s answer to How do I live the life of the age to come?
And what comes after our parable? Immediately in verse 39 we’re with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s house in Bethany. Martha is busy, doing all the things, and Mary “has chosen the good part,” sitting at Jesus’s feet, and what she receives there “will not be taken from her” (10:39-42).
I don’t think I am forcing a parallel when I see Saint Luke’s choice to put Mary and Martha immediately after the Good Samaritan. Both are about choosing the thing that matters for eternity over the merely urgent.
Both in worldly common sense and in the laws of the Kingdom of God, we need watchfulness of soul in order not to let urgencies blind us to opportunities to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Mercy and justice aren’t religious vocabulary, they are ways that we are commanded to act. The Lord is coming to judge the earth; more specifically, to judge us for the things we have done. And if we are living by the laws of the Kingdom, then we’re meant to be the people who live mercy and peace, a sacrifice of praise.
When a co-worker is stressed or in fear, who does he seek out? Is your desk a place of peace where he knows he has never heard a scornful or demeaning word spoken against anyone? When a customer or a patient or child is melting down, are you the one who gets thrown under the bus to deal with them, because people know you’re someone who does patience and kindness? Your kids know perfectly well you’re not a saint – but do they know from experience that they can confess their own mistakes and you’ll always have their backs?
In Kingdom-of-God terms, if we’re coming from “How can I live the life of the age to come, here and now,” and we’re going to “Go and do likewise,” the take-away is to be watchful for the opportunities God will put in front of you to do mercy – with a word or a touch, or with a costly decision.
* * *
Sometimes the teaching of the Gospel is not very complicated: Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful (Luke 6:36).
But for those with ears to hear, Saint Augustine puts today’s Gospel reading to use in teaching us about the Church:
He notes that the traveler is going up from Jericho – that ancient pagan city, which stands for the World – and he’s going up to Jerusalem, the city of God. Everyone is walking that road, either to the judgment of eternal fire or to the wedding supper of the Lamb of God. On the way, they are attacked by the passions, wounded, left to die.
It’s the Lord himself who stops and has mercy on the one who is suffering. On the traveler’s wounds, the Lord pours oil and wine – grace, in the sacraments – and he binds up his wounds. He bears the suffering man on his own animal, as the Lord carries our suffering in his own body to the cross.
And the Lord brings the wounded man to the inn, which is the Church. He says “Care for him,” and to the innkeeper, the people of the Church, he gives two coins, the Law and the Prophets, and tells the innkeeper to use these to care for him and make him well “until I return.”
Here’s what interests me about Augustine’s reading of the parable: You and I have heard plenty of sermons saying, “Be like the Samaritan, be merciful.” And that’s absolutely what Christ was telling the teacher of the Law. That’s the moral teaching of the parable. But Augustine, looking at the community of the Church, puts the emphasis on the traveler, being saved by Christ; and on the innkeeper’s calling to care for the traveler and heal him.
You know, “Hotel” and “Hospital” come from the same Latin word – it means a place of care for the poor and weak. Most of us have heard Saint John Chrysostom’s sermon that “The Church is not a courtroom for souls but a hospital. She does not condemn sinners, but grants remission of sins… In the Church, the joyful sustain their joy. In the Church, those worried acquire peace, and those saddened find joy. In the Church, the troubled find relief, and the heavy-laden find rest.”
Into contact with the Church the Lord brings families and individuals who are beat up, they’ve been burned by this culture, by religious authorities and by the people who were supposed to help them. Their own compulsions and the lies they’ve been told have left them for dead. And the Lord leads them to encounter you. Either they come to a service, or they have contact with a member who shows some interest in them, makes eye contact, and crosses boundaries to do kindness to them.
And the Lord says to you and me, “Take care of them till I return, and I’ll reward you.”
But wait: We’re the Church — but aren’t we also the ones on the road, in need of the grace of the sacraments to cleanse our own sins and bind up our own wounds, taking refuge in the safety of the Church?
We’re that, too. It’s not a perfect allegory; every metaphor breaks if you put too much weight on it.
But that’s what the Church is, isn’t it? Here we are in the hospital for souls, bringing our grief and our history, and the sins that so easily entangle us, and receiving grace and life and rest for our souls. And we’re the Prodigal receiving an unconditional welcome, and we’re the servants to whom the Lord calls, “Bring a robe, and put a ring on his hand, and bring the fatted calf and prepare it! For my child has come home!”
What the Lord has done in today’s parable is to bring down the nice, comfortable sentiment “Love God and love your neighbor” into our experience, where it’s got mud and blood and bruises on it.
And you know I do love me a good theological sermon full of patristic quotes and ineffable noetic hesychastic hypotenuses — but today the Lord preached a sermon with a moral, and that’s where we need to land today: Practice watchfulness to see when the Lord has set you up to do mercy to someone. Lazarus may not be starving outside the gate of your mansion, but you’re likely to meet him standing outside Wal-Mart with a sign, on the day when you’ve got a ten or a twenty in your wallet.
Go ahead and cross boundaries, talk to someone strange and untouchable, mess up your day’s schedule, to make a human contact face-to-face with someone who needs some mercy. You don’t need a theology for that; you just need a heart.
To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.