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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/14/2019

A couple of years before he died, novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book called A Man Without a Country which consisted of some of his reflections on life, something of a memoir you could say. In one of the chapters, he mentions a young man from Pittsburgh who said to him, “Please tell me it will all be okay,” which might be a modern day equivalent of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Vonnegut’s response to the young man from Pittsburgh was, “Welcome to Earth, young man. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: you’ve got to be kind.”

I don’t watch the Ellen show on TV. Maybe you do, and that’s okay, but anyway…back when it was on from 5 to 6 I would often catch the very end of it when I tuned in to watch the 6 o’clock news, so I know she always ends the show saying, “Be kind to one another.”

Is it possible that Kurt Vonnegut and Ellen figured out the secret to life? Just be kind? Is that all that Jesus really wanted to say when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s one of Jesus’ best known parables and it is the subject of extensive analysis and over analysis, but in the end, was it just Jesus’ way of saying “Be kind to one another?”

You could do worse than to draw that conclusion. I could do worse than to just say “Be kind to one another,” and leave it at that, thus resisting the temptation to join in the over analysis of the parable. But, while the call to be kind is certainly there and part of what Jesus was getting at, by nature, a parable includes an invitation to go deeper, an invitation to think about the questions and possibilities that it raises.

In thinking about the Good Samaritan, first of all, we remember that Jesus was on the road, having set his face to go to Jerusalem. Earlier in this chapter he had sent out an advance team of 70 others, in pairs, into the cities and towns where he intended to go so you would assume that the word about him was out. One wonders then about the lawyer who stands up to test Jesus. What’s he up to with this test? When I talk to confirmation students about the difference between testing and tempting I say that that with a test, you want the person to do well, you want them to pass. When you tempt someone though, you want them to fail. The Greek word translated here as “test” can go either way, test or tempt, but one gets the idea that this lawyer was leaning toward tempt, looking to match wits with Jesus hoping to trap him on some point of the law.

So he asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Being a good teacher, Jesus knows that you never answer a question that the student can answer for him or herself so he turns it around, essentially saying, “You know the law; what does it say?” and the lawyer answers correctly, quoting from a combination of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength and, love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Good for you; go and do that.”

At that point the lawyer might have been smart to stop, but instead he continued to push, asking, “And who is my neighbor?” In typical Jesus fashion, rather than give anything resembling a straight answer, he then tells a story and so we get what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

You know the story; pretty much everyone does at least to some extent. A man is beaten and left for dead; a priest comes along and passes by on the other side of the road, providing no assistance, likewise a Levite, both of them being people thought to be good. Then comes a Samaritan and everyone knows that for the people of Israel, Samaritans are bad, not good, but it’s the Samaritan who tends to the beaten man’s wounds and then arranges for him to be cared for at a nearby inn.

This is where I think over analysis starts to kick in. You get questions about the motives of the priest and the Levite. Were they afraid of ritual defilement? Were they so concerned about getting to where they were going that they didn’t want to take time to stop and help the guy? Was it about fear? Were they afraid that whoever beat him up and robbed him might still be lurking so they might be the next victim? Was Jesus using this to take a shot at the religious establishment making them out to be hard hearted legalists?

All of those might be interesting questions on which to speculate and parables do invite such speculation, but in this case the speculation might mostly serve as a distraction. The question posed by the lawyer was, “Who is my neighbor?” In responding to that question, as he tells the parable, Jesus doesn’t assign motives to the robbers who beat up the man in the ditch or to the priest or to the Levite. The only one to whom a motive is assigned is the Samaritan, the Samaritan who is moved with pity; that’s his motive.

The bottom line then, is that two people who are thought to be good, two people you might expect to have compassion and be moved with pity, for whatever reason don’t respond and someone not consider good, does respond with compassion. So Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these do you think was a neighbor to the man?” and he responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Much is made of that too, that the lawyer can’t bring himself to say “the Samaritan” because of his prejudice against Samaritans, so instead he says “the one who showed him mercy.” I think though, that Jesus’ primary concern here isn’t so much about prejudice, not that that’s not an important issue, but here it seems that Jesus’ concern is about compassion and mercy as a defining characteristic of the kingdom he envisioned.

What I think we get here is Jesus in the role of a prophet. Today’s First Reading was from the prophet Amos and we’ll have readings from the prophets every Sunday from now until the end of the year. It’s hard for us to get away from thinking about prophets as those who predict the future but while they do some of that, mostly what they do is to comment on what is going on around them in the present, often with cautions concerning the consequences of failing to follow the way of the Lord. What they also do though, when it’s appropriate, is to speak words of hope into situations that seem to be without hope; they create images of new possibilities when change seems to be impossible.

That’s a way to think about what Jesus does with this parable. He provides an image of a world where Samaritans aren’t the bad guys but are fellow travelers on the journey, fellow travelers blessed with the gift of compassion. He creates an image of a neighborhood that isn’t limited by the usual boundaries of judgment and division. It’s an image where everyone is viewed as a neighbor and everyone is called to be a neighbor. Jesus proposes an alternative where indifference to the needs of others, whoever they are, is replaced by compassion. “Go and do likewise,” he says to the lawyer and to us.

Clearly there is a call to action here, a call to action that can raise the old “deeds vs. creeds” question; is what you do more important than what you believe? Does it matter if you’re Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or nothing at all as long as you practice kindness? You probably know that I’m not exactly going to give you a straight answer on that. I may not be like Jesus in a lot of ways but I can be like him in not giving straight answers. Parables though, are not intended as comprehensive theological statements that cover everything so the Good Samaritan parable isn’t intended to address the deeds vs. creeds question. Jesus was responding to the “Who is my neighbor?” question.

Note though, that the lawyer’s initial response to his own question about “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” wasn’t just “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That would be the Kurt Vonnegut or Ellen “Just be kind” response. The first part of the lawyer’s response was “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength.” In Judaism that’s about as close as it gets to a creed.

The lawyer didn’t question Jesus about that part of his response but what it is, is a statement about a relationship with God and we would say that what we believe about that God and that relationship forms who we are. Knowing of God’s kindness and grace toward us, we respond in kind and gracious ways toward others. Knowing of God’s kindness and grace toward us we experience what Martin Luther called The Freedom of a Christian. He defined that freedom with one of his most brilliant, paradoxical statements: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” He goes on to say, “Christians live not in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor. Otherwise they are not Christians. They live in Christ through faith, in their neighbor through love.”

I can’t argue with Kurt Vonnegut or Ellen in their call to kindness. They are correct in telling us what to do. Martin Luther though, as he reflects on a gracious God, adds to the call to kindness, and begins to tell us why.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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