One of the highlights of my ministry has been to go to the Holy Land. I’ve gone twice now either with the encouragement of the church, or this last time, with 20 people from my previous church and community.
Each trip has been holy and have included some breathtaking moments. They have included teaching adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, preaching sermons in Israel, and offering communion to pilgrims in Jerusalem. They have also included some hilarity in what I call my classic “Clark Griswald” moments. I had a stress fracture during my first trip for stepping off the bus wrong. In February, I spent the entire trip with both food poisoning and asthma issues.
And I want to go back. I want to go back, because every time I have gone it has opened my eyes more to the life within Scripture. The pages are no longer just words, but are lived out places of life, hope, and struggle. My preaching is better because of my experiences in Israel.
Our passage today, from Luke 10:25-37, is among those that I have a different appreciation for after visiting the Holy Land. The story takes place somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho. This is same area Jesus would travel throughout the majority of Luke’s gospel on his way to the passion. These two historic cities are separated by almost 20 miles and a vast arid desert.
That desert includes the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The same valley cemented in our minds through the words of Psalm 23. It is a rocky and desolate place, but also features several meandering roads. Those roads were regularly traversed by people wanting to go between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was a dangerous road, because robbers and bandits would hide in between the valley’s ridges waiting to attack unsuspecting travelers. It would not be uncommon to see someone lying on the road left for dead.
So, with all of that, and knowing all of that, what would you do?
That question comes to us as Jesus engages lawyer of the time. Jesus has been talking with the 70 disciples after they returned from their mission experience. A lawyer in Jesus’ time is not the same as a lawyer today. The lawyer of Jesus’ time would be something like a theologian today. He would be someone who was concerned with the right interpretation of Scripture and the law.
This particular lawyer approaches Jesus to ask about eternal life. In other accounts for this interaction, the focus is upon what is the great commandment. Here, though, the question amounts to this: How does one become listed among the blessed for eternity? This is what the lawyer wants to know from Jesus.
Jesus’ response is not to answer him directly, but to ask him to consider what Scripture says. The lawyer responds with a combination of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Already by Jesus’ time these two passages had been combined as a way to sum up the whole of Scripture and the whole of the 600-plus commandments found in the Old Testament. If you want to know what faith is all about it is about this: Loving God and loving your neighbor. To respond to God’s grace and love for us with a complete and devoted life to the Lord and, then, to share that love with our neighbors.
The lawyer, though, follows it up with a question that we may have reflected upon before. Who is our neighbor? When we think of a neighbor we think of our neighbor as the person who lives next door to us that we look upon from time to time. Perhaps, even, a situation like what I had growing up with my grandparents next door. We look upon neighbor in familial terms of those with whom we share commonality with.
In doing so, we’re not far from the way the priest, Levite, and, even, the Samaritan viewed neighbors in the parable Jesus shares. A neighbor was someone you had commonality with, especially within the community of faith. The Israelite and Samaritan were at odds with one another due to their religious practices. They considered each other outsiders to the other and would do everything they could to ignore each other, which included traveling around each other’s lands.
This act of only seeing neighbor in a limited view would extend to a person in need lying on the side of the road. In the story, we see a priest and a Levite – a member of the priestly order – ignoring the hurting man in front of them. They passed on by going to the other side of the road. Even though they knew God desired mercy and grace, they walked on to the other side and refused to offer help to this person in need. It was an act that would have been seen as appropriate in Jesus’ time, because of both self-protection and concern of whether this person was truly an Israelite.
The Samaritan, though, would have been just as tempted to walk on by, and yet something moves him to stop. He is filled with compassion for this hurting and dying person. Instead of moving on, he gets off his ride, and takes on the actions of Jesus who routinely stopped what he was doing to offer grace and healing to people in need. The Samaritan didn’t just offer first aid, but takes him to the nearest inn and provides for the man’s provisions so he could recover. He took care of him. The Samaritan was not concerned about himself or his life. He wanted to extend the arms of grace towards this hurting person, who he saw as his neighbor – someone worthy of care and love.
After telling the story, Jesus looks to the lawyer and asks who among the three acted as a neighbor. Who among the three showed mercy? Who among the three took care of someone in need? Who among the three worshiped God by showing mercy? The lawyer said it was the one who showed mercy. It was the Samaritan.
Notice how Jesus responds to this affirmation. He says, “go and do likewise.” This is a clue for us to pay attention. Jesus does not play around with those words. They are words of sending and mission. Words that call us to go and take on the life and actions that were just described. Jesus calls all who would seek to follow him to go and show mercy to all people. He gives us all a calling to love God and love your neighbor by being compassionate and to meet the needs of the people around you.
Jesus calls us to a living faith where the Great Commandment isn’t just words we say, but a life that calls us to be a living witness of Christ by our words and actions. To love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is to be completely devoted to God in such a way that everything about us is defined by our faith in God. To love our neighbor as ourselves in such a way as to respond to God’s grace and love by extending compassion and mercy to all people.
This is the life Jesus calls us to claim. This is our calling as the church today. As a pastor, one of my fervent beliefs is how we are called to offer hope in places of brokenness that exist all around us. We are called to offer the love of Christ to broken people, places, and communities so that all people may experience the hope and mercy of God’s love. This is our work and mission as we seek to love God and love others. We are to be Christ’s hands and feet by being compassionate towards all people and sharing expressions of hope and love wherever the need might come before us.
As a people of God, we are called to live in such a way that we cannot pass by and ignore those who are hurting around us. What does that look like around us today?
This week, I’ve taken time to contemplate upon where we are and what faces us as a community. I am mindful of the fact that when I left West Virginia in 2003 the state and Huntington, itself, were in a different place. I’ve purposefully reached out to leaders and spent time learning, because I want to know what faces us and the challenges before us.
We know there are needs all around us and there are people who are hurting. Huntington has experienced population loss of more than 3,000 people since the 2010 Census. That is a trend that does not seem to be ending soon. We’ve seen industries close and businesses shut down. There is a sense of hopelessness that comes with that. As well, there is no bigger issue that faces us than the opioid crisis that meets us head on just on the other side of the hill.
There are needs all around us and it is within these places where we are called to offer expressions of God’s love. We are planted, as a church, in this place, in this community, and in this city to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken and hurting world. Together, we have the blessings, talents, gifts, care, and love to share God’s hope with broken and hurting people, so they may know the compassion of Christ.
So, what will we do? It is possible we may feel overwhelmed by the challenges that are around us. We may be tempted, or even encouraged, to pass along the other side and say, “that’s someone else’s problem.” That is how I viewed the last 16 years of my life, even as I looked back upon the state, my home, with a deep love in my heart. I was the priest and Levite. I looked for opportunities not to come back, even though I knew God’s call to come, to be, to lead, and to serve among the hills where I was baptized, educated, and have loved. I am here, today, because I could no longer pass along to the other side and ignore the hurting people in front of me.
The Great Commandment calls us to love God and to extend the arms of welcome, and to show mercy to our neighbors, to all people. To the hurting. To the broken. To the struggling. To the unloved. To the neighbors all around us.
This is what the Samaritan did. My friends, what will we do? My prayer is that we will show Christ’s love by offering acts of compassion and mercy to all the people we encounter.