Lectionary 15, Year C, July 14, 2019
Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:25-37
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen
Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The road to Jericho was a dangerous route. Partly that was due to the natural hazards of road travel through the wilderness in an era without heavy equipment to make and maintain high-quality roads. Partly that was due to the natural hazards of wildlife that might attack travelers who would not, after all, be safe in a metal, glass, and fiberglass vehicle. But a lot of it was due to the consequences of human sin, and human choices: bandits.
There were a LOT of bandits in those days. After all, there are always some humans in every group who would rather hurt people and steal than do honest work. But this was more than that. You see, the Roman Empire was very unjust, especially when it came to economics. God created the world to have enough abundance for everyone in it, but the Romans wanted all of that abundance in the hands of the Roman elite. The whole system was set up to divide people into haves and have-nots, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Taxes. Inheritance laws. Labor laws. Everything was set up to enrich those who already had everything, and take from those who had little to nothing. The Roman system preferred landless day-laborers and slaves who could be easily used and abused to prosperous middle and working class people who were harder to push around. In a good year, a poor resident of the Empire barely scraped by. In a bad year, they might find their only legal option to avoid starvation was to sell themselves or their children into slavery. Faced with that horrifying choice, a lot of them turned to banditry as if they were first-century Robin Hoods. Barabbas, the guy the crowd asked Pontius Pilate to release instead of Jesus, was just such a bandit. These bandits mostly focused their attacks on the estates of the wealthy who benefited from the system that had impoverished them, but when it came right down to it they were not above attacking anyone they saw who might have something worth taking.
And the road to Jericho was on a border. No man’s land. Still firmly within the Roman Empire, but not near enough to any rich estates that the Roman Army would bother to clear out the bandits. As long as nobody wealthy enough to matter got hurt, the Romans did not care what happened in the backwaters of their empire. And the locals along one part of the road were Samaritan, and on the other part of the road they were Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Jews and Samaritans did not speak with one another unless they had to. They did not even drink out of the same wells if they could avoid it. So there probably was not much cooperation between the two groups to clear out the bandits.
The road to Jericho was a dangerous one. All of that sin—the sin of the Romans in creating a system that used and abused people until they snapped, the sin of the bandits themselves, the sin of the army that didn’t protect ordinary people, the sin of the local communities too caught up in their mutual dislike to work for the safety of all people in the region. God created the world to be good, and yet, there was so much pain and suffering. This was a huge problem. It probably felt overwhelming and really scary. The Roman Empire had existed for centuries and was really powerful. A handful of local people couldn’t change it much. The systems that created the problem were big and complicated, and there were so many other problems to deal with.
So when Jesus told a story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, it would have come as no surprise to the listeners that he got robbed and beaten and left for dead. It was an all-too-common problem. Someone should do something about that. The exchange that started the parable would also have been no surprise. Judaism has a long and rich history of questioning and debating important religious topics such as which commandments are most important, and Jesus’ answer quoted from Scripture. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength” is from Deuteronomy 6:5, and “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18. Telling a story or parable to help explore an issue would also have been expected.
The shocking thing would have been twofold: first, that in the story, the religious people—the ones who should have been the heroes—walked past and did not help the man beaten and left for dead. God’s people are supposed to help when we see someone who needs help, and that man obviously did. Jesus doesn’t tell us why the characters of the priest and the Levite walked by without helping. Maybe they thought he was dead already. Maybe they were scared the bandits who assaulted him were still in the area and might attack if they stayed too long. Maybe they thought he was a bandit, and his suffering the result of a falling-out among thieves. Maybe they thought that God had allowed him to be assaulted as punishment for some sin or other. Maybe they didn’t want to have to undergo the purification rituals necessary for people who have touched blood. Maybe they’d seen enough people beaten and left for dead over the last few years that they were just overwhelmed and had hardened their hearts. Maybe they didn’t think their first-aid skills were good enough to make a difference. Maybe they couldn’t have carried the guy to safety without putting down their pack and letting robbers steal it, too. Maybe they were on their way to an important meeting of a group trying to figure out how to make the Jericho road safer, and thought preventing future bandit attacks was far more important than helping the current victims of attack.
If you were the priest or the Levite, what would your excuse have been? We human beings sure do make up a lot of excuses to get out of things we don’t want to do. Children do it to get out of chores; adults do it to get out of much greater things. I bet you that priest and Levite had great reasons why they couldn’t possibly have helped. I bet that when they told their story later to their friends, it was a really convincing reason, and I bet most of their friends nodded solemnly and congratulated them for doing the right thing. When we screw up, when we fail to do things we should, we are really good at convincing ourselves and others that we were doing the right thing. It may be a transparent self-serving lie to outsiders, but that doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enough to make us feel better. And religious people are no better about it than anybody else. God sees what we do, and what we fail to do, and knows just how often we fall short of what God wants, but we are experts at using pious phrases to excuse our failures. We think ourselves blameless, but God knows the truth. So do the people we leave bleeding and naked on the road. Can you imagine how the victim felt, in agony and fear and pain, watching those two walk past and not even meet his eyes? Can you imagine how people today feel, when they suffer and need help and the whole community ignores them?
The second thing that would have shocked people would have been that the person who did help was a Samaritan. An enemy. An outsider. One of those people, the people you would cross the street to avoid and not talk to unless you had no choice whatsoever. Jesus doesn’t say whether the victim was Jewish or Samaritan or Gentile, but his listeners would probably have assumed he was Jewish. So the Samaritan would have known he was an enemy, from a rival tribe. He helped anyway. Many of Jesus’ followers would probably have denied that it was possible for a Samaritan to be good. You’ll notice that when Jesus asks the lawyer which one acted as a neighbor, the lawyer can’t quite admit that the hero of the story was a Samaritan. “The one who showed mercy” is true, but it strips away the hero’s identity.
Taken together, it’s a one-two punch. The people who should help don’t; the person you don’t like is the one to do the right thing. Loving God and loving your neighbor aren’t about whether or not you think nice thoughts about them, or pray about them. (Want to bet the priest and the Levite kept the guy in their thoughts and prayers as they walked on by?) I mean, you should think nice thoughts, and you should pray. But for love to mean anything, we have to put it into action. Even when it’s hard. Even when we have every reason not to. Even when it’s easier to walk on by. Even when we’re tired, even when the problem seems so much bigger than we can fix. We may not be able to solve the world’s big problems, but we can help the people in front of us who need help. We can be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. We can love our neighbor as ourselves. And, who knows? If enough people choose to step up instead of walking by on the other side, maybe we’ll even make a dent in the larger problems. May we always follow God’s commands to love God and love one another.