Sermon for july 14, 2013

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A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Those where the three travelers who came upon a wounded man in the story that we just heard (Luke 10:25-37). It’s a story that should be unsettling to all of us, but especially to me. After all, I am a priest—well, sort of—and in the story of the Good Samaritan we priests come off badly. But then, so does the Levite; and he, too, was supposed to be an especially religious person (maybe like someone who would attend church on a summer Sunday morning). To all our shame, in the story of the Good Samaritan it is the religious people who are shown to be wrong, while the every-day foreigner, a Samaritan, turns out to be right.
Now the problem with the priest and Levite isn’t that they were religious and played important rolls in the Jewish religion of their day. The problem is that there was no integrity in their lives. They did the religious things that were supposed to take care of their own positions and salvation, but they ignored even the most basic needs of another human being. They thought that they could have spirituality without morality. But they couldn’t. They were false, a sham, a failure at being a genuine person in tune with God.
Now what were their real issues? Why didn’t the priests and Levite stop to help?
I was recently in a conversation in which the two of us were recounting accidents that we witnessed. For example, I saw one while on a youth trip to Arizona and New Mexico. In this case we witnessed a car crash. A young man was coming towards us on a perfectly straight desert road in Colorado when he suddenly drove his car off the road and into a fence. He was probably driving 70 miles an hour when he suddenly went off the road, slightly, to his right. That set off a small cloud of dust. He immediately overcorrected, thereby shooting across the road in front of us. Fortunately, there was still enough space between us so that he didn’t slam into the side of our van. Then he went off the road to my right, now making a huge cloud of dust and finally coming to rest at a fence. By that time, I had stopped, too.
At that point I was faced with the question, What will we do? It was a fairly deserted road; no one else was there to help. Obviously, I would need to go back—because he was now behind us—to find out how he was and offer him help. The Parable of the Good Samaritan would allow me to do nothing else. But what would I find? A bleeding, mutilated man? Someone already dead? Those thoughts went through my mind, and I certainly didn’t relish the thought of going back. And yet I knew that I had to. So was I ever glad when I saw the man get out of his car and walk towards me, asking me, “Are you alright?” Fortunately, we all were fine. Only his car was broken.
That is one example. I also witnessed a huge truck overturn and go down a bank in North Carolina, disappearing completely from view. Then, too, there was a tired nurse who fell asleep in front of us in Louisiana and went off the road into a swamp. Fortunately, every time the people were OK.
But getting back to the young man in Colorado, in that case I didn’t want to stop because of the blood and gore that I thought I might find. Other people might not want to stop out of fear of “getting involved” and needing to testify to the police, or because of the inconvenience to their own travel plans, or because this accident might remind them of a tragic accident in their own lives. We can easily imagine reasons for not wanting to stop.
But I doubt that you would come up with the reasons that probably went through the heads of the priest and the Levite in today’s Bible story. From the point of view of their religion, they had religious reasons for not stopping. You see, they were part of a religious world that considered some things and ways of life as “clean”—as acceptable to God—and other things and ways of life as “unclean”—as unacceptable to God. Those two men were religiously clean and wanted to stay that way. But to touch a corpse would make them unclean, would at least temporarily jeopardize their religious standing. And who knows, that robbed and beaten man might well be dead. No point in stopping here and risk contamination for nothing.
That kind of concern would have been especially important for a Levite. Levites played important roles in the Jewish Temple and its sacrificial system. They were people charged with administering and teaching the Law, that is, the Jewish religious law found in such books as Exodus and Leviticus. The Levites had an impressive history; back in earlier times they alone were allowed to carry the Ark of the Covenant.
The same was true for priests, who carried out the sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. They also would want to be ritually clean, pure, uncontaminated. For example, Leviticus 21:11-12 says of the High Priest, “He has been dedicated to me [the Lord] and is not to make himself ritually unclean nor is he to defile my sacred Tent by leaving it and entering a house where there is a dead person, even if it is his own father or mother.”
The Levite and the priest, therefore, could point to religious reasons for their not stopping to help the injured man. But what was the value of that religion? Of their selfish spirituality? As David Tiede writes in his commentary on the book of Luke, “The point is simple enough for a child to see. Compared to the Samaritan, the ‘righteous’ and observant religious leaders of Israel fail to love a neighbor. . . “ (209). And loving a neighbor, ironically, is also part of the Law that the Levite and priest were supposed to uphold. After all, the lawyer whose conversation with Jesus began today’s lesson was correct when he quoted the Law, which said, “You shall love . . . your neighbor as yourself,” a quotation of Leviticus 19:18.
“The point is simple enough for a child to see.”

+ You can’t ask, “Who is my neighbor?” the way the lawyer did as he sought to justify himself, because anyone in need is your neighbor.

+ You can’t judge people by their status and ethnic group. The exalted priest and Levite were wrong and the Samaritan—a member of an outcast sect—was right.

+ You can’t separate spirituality from morality: your true standing with God cannot be healthy, clean, and pure if you act in an immoral way that is indifferent to God’s true wishes.

+ You can’t give half measures: the Samaritan took risks, gave personal time and care, and shelled out two days’ wages for the care of a man he didn’t even know.
There is a lot here that a child can understand. And we can, too, if we want to. But the lessons contained in this parable are not easy ones to follow.
It would have been that way for Jesus’ first audience, too. They would have needed to question the whole nature of their religious lives. They would have needed to question their assumptions about other people: a wounded Jew was helped by a despised Samaritan, and that Samaritan was now being held up as a role model for Jesus’ Jewish audience! That audience would have recognized the importance of Jesus’ own deeds of care when he made himself unclean to help others, such as the times when he associated with prostitutes and lepers. But could they even imagine the time to come when Jesus would die on a cross, something that was also religiously taboo and yet necessary for the salvation of the world?
For the last several weeks up until last Sunday we heard lessons from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, known to us as the book of Galatians, where the big issue was what Christians should do with the ancient Jewish Law. That was a big issue back then, something that Saint Paul wrote about in his letter to the confused congregation in Galatia. It is also something that Jesus Christ himself needed to deal with as time and again he confronted people who claimed that they were following the Law and yet who complained when something good was being done.
In our day, the issue of what we should do with the Jewish religious laws of the Old Testament may seem like long dead issues. But the basic human tendency to insist on trivialities that are important to us and which give us status continues to exist, while we can at the same time ignore God’s true wishes.
In my first congregation there was a woman who rarely came to church. But when she did come for several weeks, she saw two young women who were ushers and did not approve of their attire. As far as those young women were concerned, they were wearing their best clothing. To this woman, they were indecent. For my part, I was delighted that those two young women had come to church and were taking part, because they hadn’t come for a long time. But this woman was appalled instead of glad. And so the woman complained and then stopped coming again. Apparently it was OK for her, in her twisted mind, to ignore the really major issue of worshipping God while finding fault with someone else who was there. She was the priest, or the Levite, or—depending on the story Jesus was telling—the Pharisee.
As I said, Jesus had to go to the cross—and break the Old Testament Law in the process—in order to demonstrate what love truly is. Love for the man in the ditch, and for the commendable Samaritan, and for the religiously messed up Levite and priest who also needed Jesus to save them from their narrowness and self-centeredness. Amen
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