Text: Luke 10:25-37
Those of you who don’t leave your computers on all day, or even better, who aren’t checking your computers at all will have missed out on the exchanges I’ve been monitoring this week on the Logan Square community listserv. A listserv is like a mass mailing list, except that it’s all done by email. The Logan Square listserv has 748 members who compose and respond to messages every day in such volume that the daily digest I receive often has ten to fourteen postings.
The topic generating the most controversy this week involves the issue of prostitution along Kimball between Milwaukee and Wrightwood. Neighbors of ours commenting on the situation are divided in their feelings toward those who are involved in and being used by prostitution. Judging by the reports I’ve been reading those involved are young women, many Latina, around the age of seventeen or eighteen.
As the conversation developed online this week, some began to advocate for services to assist these young women, girls really, with job training, self-esteem building, anything that might build in opportunities for them to find a better life. Others disparaged those ideas as naïve and demanded increased police presence to drive the problem out of the neighborhood.
Reading along from the sidelines I was reminded of a story Jesus once told.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” (Luke 10:30-34)
A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The priest being a figure for someone concerned with holiness, the Levite being a figure for someone concerned with the law, and the Samaritan being a figure of one who is himself despised yet who cares for the neighbor.
The priest understands holiness as being primarily a question of purity. He does not come into contact with that which is unclean, and so when he sees the man laying half-dead next to the road he crosses to the other side. We may not like the character in the story, but surely we have all felt the desire to keep our lives neat and clean, to not get our hands messy with the troubles and concerns of others, not when it is easier to assume that someone else will take care of it for us. “Call the police and let them handle it,” says the priest, “that’s what we have them for.”
The Levite is, as his name suggests, concerned with the law. The book of Leviticus outlined for devout Jews the mandates of the law and faith was understood mainly in terms of keeping the law. We may not like the Levite in this story, but surely we have all tried to live lives that keep us from running afoul of the law. We each know, I assume, what it feels like to pass judgment on others whose lives look chaotic and disordered and to wonder why they can’t get it together. “It just goes to show,” says the Levite, “people get what’s coming to them.”
Then we have the Samaritan. The Samaritan, because he was a Samaritan, was not respected by the priest or the Levite because the Samaritan came from the wrong country, worshipped in the wrong way, spoke a little different… you get the picture. The Samaritan was from the region of Samaria, a nation of people who traced their lineage back to the old Northern Kingdom from before the people of Israel were carried off into exile. In the eyes of the Jews of Jesus’ day the Samaritans were neither Jews nor Gentiles and they were treated with contempt.
Listening to our neighbors carry on their argument online I caught myself sorting the different voices into these categories: priests, Levites and Samaritans. Pretty soon I’d narrowed it down into just two categories: people who help and people who don’t. After I’d done that it was hard not to start feeling bitter and resentful of those folks who I’d decided were the problem.
One of our neighbors wrote:
“I do not care how miserable and sorrowful their self-directed lives are. I do not need them to prove themselves worthy of human compassion… I just need the prostitutes, and their pimps, and the gangs and criminal enterprises they support, and the criminals who buy the ass and the drugs they sell to go to hell, or at least find some other place to infect. And I always do what I can to help them relocate to either.”
To which another replied:
“If you don’t feel for them, that explains why you are nothing in their eyes as well. So, if you catch a stray bullet – then we waste no tears for you.”
Hearing the anger and violence of these words I got a new mental picture. It wasn’t just the girls who were getting beat up and left for dead, it was these two as well. They were, with their words, beating each other up with contempt and little regard for the other’s dignity or humanity.
The way the parable of the good Samaritan is read, we usually assume it’s a lesson in good Christian living. Jesus instructing us on how to behave. A lesson with an easy moral: stop asking who your neighbor is and start asking how you can help. But to read the parable in that way assumes that we’re capable of being good.
Later in the gospel of Luke Jesus will push this point more clearly with the rich young ruler who comes to him asking, “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus will reply, “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18:18-30) But here, when he is asked the same question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “what is written in the law?” That’s the Levite’s question, “what is written in the law?”
Those of you who were at this morning’s adult bible study should be finding some of this familiar by now since we spent this morning thinking about the distinction Lutherans make between law and gospel. The law is that which convicts us of our own sin. That is the purpose of laws after all – to tell us what is and what isn’t acceptable. And the law, in every case, tells us that we are not acceptable. In fact, it tells us of our unacceptability so convincingly that we often internalize the voice of the law and start telling ourselves how unacceptable we are. That generally makes us miserable and so, since misery loves company, we begin to tell each other how unacceptable everyone else is. And then we are all miserable.
The gospel, on the other hand, is the good news that we are actually loved and accepted by God just as we are. Not because we are good, but because we are God’s. Not because we keep the law, but because we are kept by God. The gospel is a gift – the gift of love which cannot be earned, only received by faith in the graciousness of God.
Who are you in the parable of the good Samaritan? Are you the priest? Are you the Levite? Or are you the Samaritan… if you answered “yes” to any of the above – you are wrong.
You are the man beaten up and left for dead on the side of the road. So am I. So are the girls being used up in prostitution on Kimball, and so are the neighbors posting their invectives on the listserv. We are a beaten up, left for dead people. We are beating each other up with wars, with gossip, with greed that drives neighborhood redevelopment without regard for low wage earners, with a healthcare system that fails the poorest among us, with feuds and grudges and unforgiving hearts. We are one laying in the ditch group of people, all of us.
And the good Samaritan ? That would be God, coming to us in the least likely of guises: as a foreigner, as one despised, on a cross. Can God use each of us to carry healing to the world? Of course! Can God use us to bring an end to wars? Of course! Can God use us to confront the desperation of the street that sucks our children into prostitution? Of course! Can God use us to mend a community broken apart by harsh words and unforgiving hearts? Of course… but we do these things as a part of God’s work in the world, not as ways of justifying ourselves.
We don’t need to justify ourselves. Friends, we are loved by God. We are loved unconditionally. Please believe that. Please believe that you are loved unconditionally by God. Feel that love flow over you like oil and wine. You are the anointed people of God. You eat and drink at the table of the Lord. There is not one thing about you that is not seen by God, and yet still not one thing that can separate you from God’s love. No ditch you can lie in that will conceal you from God’s healing power. This is true for you, and for me, and for each and every one of our neighbors.
What a gift that is. What would you like to do with it?