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Jericho Road

July 15, 2013

“Jericho Road” Luke 10:25-37 © 7.14.13 Ordinary 15C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On July 4th, Susan and I were awakened by a phone call from our friend Buren, who lives at the end of our cul-de-sac. He told us there was a huge limb from one of our Bradford pears that had snapped off and was almost completely blocking the street.

We saw as soon as we went out that we couldn’t handle the clean-up by ourselves, since we don’t own a chain saw. We would need help. Fortunately, Buren came down without being asked, as did Mark next door, and another neighbor, Todd, who works with the Forestry Service. He had a big chain saw, and with all of us working, the job was finished in a relatively short time.

All these men were just doing the neighborly thing. They were good Samaritans, helping those with an unexpected problem or need.

So, too, were those folks who tried to comfort the badly injured in the recent Asiana 777 crash. They were passengers as well and thus traumatized, but they did not leave the runway. Instead, they lent their aid until qualified medical personnel arrived. We would also term “good Samaritans” anyone who works in a food pantry or helps install a clean water project or stops at the scene of a car wreck or a crime to render aid. The “Good Samaritan” has lent his name to hospitals, community funds, and even laws requiring people to give assistance. As someone has said, he has become a secular saint.

How different is the way we think of him from the attitude of those who first heard Jesus’ story! They would have been stunned, shocked, angered. Imagine if I stood here and intentionally used an example that made a hero out of someone I knew was despised, hated, an enemy, the very opposite of everything considered decent, attractive, worthy, and honorable. And suppose I did this over and over, in sermon after sermon, and in a time of controversy in the church, after having tense discussions with church leaders and religious scholars.

That would not be smart or helpful, but that’s exactly what Jesus did! In the text for the morning, he has had a conversation with an expert in the Jewish law. It starts out civil and courteous enough, with agreement and commendation. But then the lawyer becomes uncomfortable or wants to deflect attention from himself. So he asks a question which had been the subject of debate in his circles for a long time. There was no agreed-on answer, so the scholar expected this conversation would let him off the hook of action. It would be a nice academic discussion, and that would be that.

But Jesus doesn’t debate. He tells a story drawn from the real world which invites the listener to enter in imaginatively and draw a conclusion that impacts his or her life. It’s not an ivory tower dialogue, but a consideration of how someone should live under the rule of God.

The main character of our Lord’s tale is “a certain man.” He could be anybody. We don’t know why he’s on the road, what business he had in Jerusalem, what his nationality is, whether he has family waiting for him somewhere, what his occupation is, what he looks like. In short, nothing. We’re only aware that he has become a victim of crime.

That would not have surprised anyone in Jesus’ day. To get from Jerusalem to Jericho, a traveler had to descent 3300 feet over 17 miles through narrow passes and rocky terrain. Bandits hid out easily, then surprised their targets, leaving them to die in the hot sun. This man is left alone without resources. No water. No protective clothing. Beaten and bloody without anyone to tend to his wounds. No way to contact help. He’s a picture of desperate need.

This day, though, our Lord says luck is on the poor traveler’s side. A priest comes by. But he doesn’t stop. So also, a temple assistant. Same refusal to give aid. At this point, anyone hearing the story would expect the next character to be an ordinary Israelite. They’d be saying “Yeah, those preachers. They can tell pretty stories and know all those rituals, but when it comes to really helping people, give me a good ol’ guy with a big heart who really knows what life is about.”

Except the person who stops to help is a Samaritan. Now the audience echoes the complaint of the grandson in The Princess Bride. On hearing that true love doesn’t win, he almost shouts at his grandpa, who’s reading the book to him: “You’re reading it wrong! That’s not how it goes. Now get it right!”

But unlike in the movie, where the marriage of Buttercup to the evil prince turns out to be a dream, the Samaritan really does rescue the man. Jesus isn’t telling it wrong. He’s meant to make a Samaritan the model of a neighbor.

So who were these Samaritans? Why would people be so upset that Jesus made one the hero?

To understand, we have to go way back to the 8th century BC. The Assyrian Empire has overrun the northern kingdom of Israel, where ten of the twelve tribes lived. Judah and Benjamin are in the south and will remain intact until 587 BC. In order to ensure that the Israelites could never again unite as a nation, the Assyrians spread them to the four winds. Then they settled folk from other countries on the Israelites’ land. The Samaritans are the descendants of mixed marriages that followed that conquest. So they are regarded as impure and unclean by the Jews. Plus, when the Jews were trying to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple in the 6th century BC, the Samaritans refused to help. As if in a quid pro quo move, much later, 128 BC, the Jewish high priest had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. Middle Eastern people have even longer memories than Southerners, so the Samaritan would have been a reminder of centuries of conflict, the shame of failure to keep God’s people together, and the grief of losing ten tribes never to be heard from again. To the mind and in the heart of anyone in that day, a Samaritan was anything but a neighbor.

But the Samaritan’s fault did not stop with his bearing the brunt of all the hatred of centuries. He was also a heretic. His religion was a mash-up, as we would say today, of different traditions. A little bit of this, a little of that, sort of Jewish, but not quite. He had a different temple and different priests, though he worshipped the God of Israel.

So he was the epitome of everything that was wrong with the world. He was the exact opposite of a decent Jew like the lawyer. And Jesus makes him the hero. Outrageous! Scandalous! Ridiculous!

Were the priest and the temple assistant bad people? No. In fact, they were thinking only of their duty, and no one would have faulted them for erring on the side of caution. They presumed the man dead, and if they touched him, they would not have been able to perform their duties for the many people who depended on them.

We can imagine other reasons for not helping, because we’ve come up with them ourselves when confronted with a stranger in need. You or I might decide it could be a set-up, a trap, and not want to fall victim to the scam. Or we don’t have the necessary skills or enough resources. We could tell ourselves that someone else surely will help. So we can understand passing by.

Indeed, we can relate to this story quite well as a whole, because we travel the Jericho road every day. We all know the metaphor that life is a journey. But this text brings that picture into sharp focus. You and I are the priest and the Levite. We struggle with our obligations, conflicting duties, reasons why or why not, rushing here and there, trying to be good people and sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. We make responsible choices most of the time, and then when we don’t, we resolve to do better. Maybe we get in a hurry and simply don’t or can’t think about anything or anyone but the folks to whom we have given our primary devotion and love. We get scared. We’re cautious. So, we know the two characters are not villains, as they have been made out to be so often, but simply folk who respond in a common way to an unexpected situation.

We also act as the Samaritan did, with extraordinary care and compassion to a stranger or a neighbor, risking our own safety and comfort, giving of our resources to help someone in need. We put aside whatever important and pressing duties we may have and stop to help. Maybe it will be by rendering aid by an actual roadside to a stranded traveler with a flat or helping a neighbor the way those men on our street did. Our ministry may be taking time to learn about an issue and lending our voice and our money to address it. We do indeed seek to “go and do likewise.”

But not only do we identify in some way with the characters in the story. We recognize the terrain they travel as our own. We come and go from Jerusalem to Jericho, from high spiritual experiences to the routine of daily life and back again. We travel this road for different reasons and with varying speeds. Maybe we take in the details of the landscape or perhaps we’re focused on what lies ahead. There are times we travel in silence, alone with our thoughts and others when we need some external stimulation, like conversation or music or the sounds of nature or commerce around us. And of course, as on that highway of old, there are bandits lurking in the rocks, what the hymnwriter termed “dangers, toils, and snares.” They come unexpectedly—some sickness or accident or loss, maybe even actual crime as in the story. Maybe our troubles are those of the spirit, as we look at everything through a glass darkly, wondering if there is a God who speaks or acts anywhere, since we don’t see him in our own lives. It is then that we are vulnerable and beaten down and without necessary resources to cope, to recover. We need help, but it may be unclear where it will come from.

As such a time, it’s not the priest or the Levite or the Samaritan who is most like us. It’s that wounded man in the ditch. Not a place any of us wants to be, not a situation for ourselves we want to imagine. But we’ve all been there, haven’t we? And in such times, does it really matter who stops to help, as long as they are compassionate and caring and willing to provide what we need?

Sometimes we would rather chew broken glass than receive help from some people we know, but then we have to swallow our pride and put aside our prejudice and accept aid from even an unwanted source. We are humbled, and perhaps begin to realize that it is our common need of grace and assistance that unites us more than all those well-known things that constantly divide us. And so we can begin to accept help from neighbors we did not see that way before, and we begin to be neighbors.

Along this Jericho road, our Lord himself is both the one who helps and the one who needs aid. He is both neighbor and victim. He comes to us in grace to bind up our wounds, provide for our needs, and bear all the cost himself. And in that way, he teaches and inspires us to be neighbors to those in our world in whom we see him, who lie by life’s road beaten and battered and needy, just as we have.

In that way, perhaps the kingdom he taught us to pray for comes a little closer, and we experience the life of the world to come.

++++

(For a thought-provoking interpretation of this parable, and the inspiration for the last line, see David Henson, “Jesus Doesn’t Want You to be a Good Samaritan” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2013/07/jesus-doesnt-want-you-to-be-a-good-samaritan-lectionary-reflection-for-proper-10c/.)

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