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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 8, 2017

 The Good Samaritan

Genesis 4:1-12; Luke 10:25-37

            The cover of Time Magazine this week says it all.  On a black background, the word at the top is “Columbine,” and working down the page, “Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Orlando and, of course, Las Vegas.”  Underneath, the simple statement: “America’s Nightmare.”  Our own city was rocked by an act of gun violence just two weeks ago; a woman in her thirties was shot and killed for reasons that we still cannot fathom as she was walking out of church.  Since 1968, a period of less than fifty years, more Americans have been violently murdered, 1.5 million to be precise, than have died in all the wars our nation has ever fought since the Revolutionary War.  (That number is 1.2 million, with the American Civil War the bloodiest in our two-hundred-forty-year history, with 498,000 casualties.)  Tragically, most of these 1.5 million murders have been committed by Americans against Americans, and over seventy percent have been shootings.

            We have a moral problem that is only growing worse, and it is a problem that threatens our future as a society.  It is America’s Nightmare.

            The question, “Who is my neighbor?” may be a more important question to ask today than it has ever been.  The question, raised by a lawyer, is what occasions Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It is one of the most powerful ethical stories ever told, and probably one of the most influential stories that belong to the human family.  You will recall the lawyer began his conversation with Jesus by asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  I like the word “inherit” in the question, for it suggests our dependence upon what is passed down to us by those who have gone before us.  Jesus asks what is written in the law of Moses.  The lawyer quotes from the Torah – Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It is the Judeo-Christian ethic, an all-consuming love for God that leads to a passionate, considerate, even sacrificial, or costly, love for neighbor.

            “Do this, and you shall live,” Jesus says.  Christian faith is never only about right beliefs; it also is finally about right-living.  (Jesus would say, “abundant living.”)  Only being good will enable you to do good.  The lawyer knows how radical Jesus’ reading of the Torah is.  So he asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

            Jesus responds with a story, because we all understand and respond to stories.  We all have a story.  And Jesus tells a story about a “certain man” who was on a journey, because all of us are on journeys.

            You all know the story Jesus tells, it might be His best known parable.  I doubt I can tell you anything new about it.  The story has lived, though, because there is so much in it, and so much to it!  Douglas John Hall is a Canadian-born Christian theologian who I have known for many years.  Hall says if someone were to ask you, “What is the essence of Christianity?” you could do worse than to tell them this story of Jesus!

            So let me mention quickly three things about this parable that might be helpful.  First off, Jesus did not tell the story for the purpose of making you feel guilty every time you pass a homeless person or someone in obvious trouble.  I say this because Jesus does not dwell on either the priest or the Levite in the story except to say that “they passed by on the other side.”  He really focuses most of His attention on the Samaritan.  (By the way, Jesus never calls him “good” in the parable – it is Jesus’ followers who attached that word over the centuries.)  Everyone who heard this parable would have known the danger on the road Jesus described.  And Jesus heaps up nine verbs to describe how the Samaritan (a people Jews looked down upon, even despised) responded to the man left “half dead.”  He saw him, had compassion, was moved with pity, went to him, bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine on his wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and gave money to the innkeeper for his care.

            The man shows us how human beings can act toward others.  This Samaritan defines for Jesus what it means to be a neighbor.  In such a world, human flourishing becomes a wonderful possibility.  Has anyone ever been kind to you when you were hurting, or helped you when you were in deep trouble?  You know how powerful such humane moments can be!

            Secondly, Saint Augustine famously interpreted this parable using analogy as a tool.  I learned in seminary that this was often a bad way to approach Biblical texts.  But I am glad no one told this to Augustine!  The victim for Augustine was Adam – any or all of us who share the human lot.  All of us are wounded on life’s road.  The inn for Augustine was the church.  The church exists to care for the hurting.  Tragically, too often, the church has caused the hurt.  But I like Augustine’s reminder to us of who we are meant to be!  And the Samaritan, the outsider greeted with hostility, was Jesus, the One who extravagantly, sacrificially gave Himself to heal and to save the poor man, a victim of a violent, greedy world.

            I think Augustine realized how much Jesus had done for him, how far Jesus had gone to offer Himself to the human family, and how Jesus modeled for us what it means to be truly, fully human.

            But all analogies finally break down.  I thought this years ago when I walked into the Fellowship Hall of First Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, the oldest church in what is the most Presbyterian city in America.  Ben Long is a highly regarded North Carolina artist who apprenticed in Italy with fresco painters, and has spent his life perfecting the art of painting with plaster.  In his fresco of the Good Samaritan, when you look at the face of the man left half-dead on the road, you realize it is the face of Jesus, “who was bruised for our iniquities, wounded for our transgressions, and by whose stripes we are healed.”

            Jesus is offering us in this parable a way to be human, and a way for the human family to flourish.  It is not the way of violence or greed; it is surely not the way of indifference to human pain; it is the way of costly grace, of human compassion for the other, no matter who that other may be.

            A generation ago Glenn Tinder, a philosopher on the faculty of Notre Dame at the time, though he was a Protestant, wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled, “Can we be good without God?”  That is, can we find a universal ethic to enable us to live together, that is humanly derived, based upon human reason?  Tinder concluded that it is possible, but that it has never been done in all of human history.  Great societies have believed in ethical standards and sacred texts that come from God, revealed to us by Divine sources, carrying authority more than simply our best thinking.

            I am reading a biography on a humble, quiet, great American, Calvin Coolidge.  His biographer, Amity Shlaes, describes the New England of the late nineteenth century where Cal was shaped.  “Church and church meetings filled any time that remained in their days after long hours of work.  And the Bible was the village’s ‘basic text’….”

            I think this is a huge part of what we are lacking in America today – there is no “basic text,” and many of the texts we read are destructive, filled with violence, dark and void of hope and kindness.  So I am doubling down on the one text I believe is large enough, deep enough, true enough, beautiful enough, complex enough and hopeful enough for the whole human family.  I am more committed to the Biblical story as the only story that can save us than I have ever been.

            With a tip of the hat to the iconic rocker we lost this past week, Tom Petty, I’ll close with these words:

Well, I won’t back down

No, I won’t back down

You can stand me up at the gates of hell

But I won’t back down


No, I’ll stand my ground

Won’t be turned around

And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down

Gonna stand my ground

 Well, I know what’s right

I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground

And I won’t back down.


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