For several months now I just haven’t been feeling well. My stomach is upset. I have this head and neck pain that just won’t go away. And these three fingers of my right hand are numb. Now before you get worried, yes, I’ve been to the doctor and it’s nothing serious. I’m almost 41 and I have a 25-pound toddler and we’ve been in quarantine for almost a year. And, I don’t work out. Like, ever.
I used to work out. Before I got pregnant, I could run a 5K. All through my pregnancy, right up until the last week, I was walking a couple miles every few days and stretching and doing squats and lifting small weights. And even at the beginning of the pandemic last year, Sam and I were doing yoga almost every day in our living room. But the truth is, right now I’m not doing anything.
Now of course, I don’t want my lack of physical exercise to be the problem. And it’s probably not, at the core. But not working out is not making things better. My doctors have told me, if I were to work out, it would help all of these problems I’m having. But I just don’t. I don’t want to. I don’t really enjoy it. It’s not part of my daily routine and changing routines is hard.
Besides, I can’t be THAT bad, right? This is what I tell myself. I don’t live on fast food. I rarely rarely ever drink soda. We don’t usually keep candy or cookies or cake in our house. I’m almost a vegetarian. I eat kale on a regular basis! I don’t drink caffeine! Shouldn’t that be enough? Isn’t what I’m already doing good enough? Isn’t what I’m already doing good enough?
That’s the key question in the story we are going to read this morning. Isn’t what I’m already doing good enough? Shouldn’t I be given the results I need, can’t I have what I want based on what I’m already doing, without expending any extra effort?
Here at the beginning of Lent, we are going to hear on of Jesus’ most famous stories. This story is so famous that you will know the main character even if you’ve never been to church before in your life. As we read it, I want you to listen especially for two things: 1. What is the question that prompts the story? 2. Does Jesus actually answer the question?
This is Luke chapter 10 verses 25 through 37 from the Common English Bible
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right (many translations say” to justify himself”), so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.
The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’
Then Jesus said, “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
The legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”Luke 10:25-37
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This is the story of the Good Samaritan. And did you notice the things I pointed out?
The question that prompts Jesus to tell the story is the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And that’s the legal expert’s second question. His first question was “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Like any good teacher, Jesus’ responds not with his own answer but by asking the man what he thinks the answer is. The man says: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees. Good. Fine. That’s the answer to the question of what you must do to inherit eternal life. Go for it.
But that’s a pretty tall order. Sounds simple, but not easy to do. And so this legal expert asks a second question: “Who is my neighbor? That’s the question that prompts the story. And why does the legal expert ask this question? Because he wanted to justify himself. Because he knew what was the best thing to do, but he wanted Jesus to say that what he was already doing was good enough. Just like me with the working out. I know working out is best, but at least I’m not living off of fast food. Isn’t that already good enough? This legal expert wanted to justify himself.
The other thing I invited you to listen for was whether Jesus actually answered the legal expert’s question. The man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus responds not with a clear answer that will allow the man to justify himself, no, Jesus responds by telling a story.
This is a parable and Jesus is the master parable teller. Parables are short stories designed to cast additional light on a teaching or a situation. Many of them are familiar to us and so we think they are clear and obvious, but usually they aren’t as obvious as we think. Jesus’ parables usually were confusing or frustrating or just weird because they made unexpected connections for the people hearing them. We just think they are clear because we are used to hearing them and we don’t hear them the way his original audience would. This one is a great example. Let me tell you about it.
Every culture has certain types of stories that it tells. Like, “a priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar.” Now that joke could go a million different ways, but you recognize how it starts, right? This story that Jesus tells has a structure that would have been familiar to his listeners. People were used to hearing stories in which there were three characters who show up and the last one was the hero. So they already knew that whoever showed up last in Jesus’ story would be the good guy, the one who solved the problem.
Jesus also uses a common grouping of people, like the three stooges Larry, Moe and Curly. Or a Cubs fan, a Yankees fan, and a Red Sox fan. Or Harry, Ron and Hermione. The grouping people expected was a priest, a levite, and an Israelite. So you see where people thought this story would go. A priest, a levite, and an Israelite. And the third person would be the hero, so the third person is going to be an Israelite or just an everyday person, and that person is going to be the hero.
Except that’s not what Jesus does. Essentially he tells a story where the main characters are Larry, Moe, and Osama Bin Laden, and Bin Laden is the hero. Harry, Ron, and Bellatrix Lestrange, and Bellatrix solves the problem. This is not a familiar story. The Samaritans were not the good guys. They weren’t necessarily terrorists or murderers, but they were not people that the Jews would have put in the “good guy” category. They were outsiders. They were the wrong race and they practiced religion in the wrong way. You with me? Jesus picks as the hero a person with whom his audience would have totally disagreed. Someone who claims the same the same religion but lives it out in a completely different way, and is not your race.
Here’s what I think Jesus does. He doesn’t technically answer the question of who is the legal expert’s neighbor. Instead he answers the question of what it means to be a neighbor. And that difference matters. Jesus knew what this legal expert was doing. He knew the guy asked the question about neighbors because he wanted to justify himself. He wanted Jesus to say that what he was already doing was good enough. But instead Jesus tells a story about what it looks like to be a neighbor, what it means to love God and love others to the fullest extent, without trying to weasel out of it by assuming that you’re already doing enough. And the person who does the best job of loving God and loving others in this story is the person the legal expert will hate the most.
We know the legal expert hates how this story ends because he won’t even say the word “Samaritan.” Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the man in need and instead of saying, “The Samartian,” the legal expert says, “The one who showed mercy.” He can’t even say the word!
Here’s why this is a good story for the beginning of Lent: because we all want to justify ourselves. We all want what we are already doing to be good enough. My example at the beginning was physical but it’s just as true spiritually. We want to feel God’s presence with us in our struggles. We want the peace that passes understanding. We want to experience God’s power as we pray. We want to know what to say when confronted with racist or sexist or homophobic comments from people we love. We want to work for justice, to show up when it counts, to make a difference in the world. We want spiritual maturity. We just want what we are already doing to be good enough. We really don’t want to have to do anything extra.
But friends, it just doesn’t work like that. I hope you know me well enough by now to know that I’m not trying to shame anyone. And I’m not saying that it’s your fault if you don’t feel God. But I am saying that, just like I shouldn’t expect to feel better and lose weight if I don’t exercise, I shouldn’t expect to be growing in my faith if I’m not doing the things that help me grow. That’s all. It is a fact of reality that everything in creation devolves, breaks down, slows down, falls apart— including us. It takes energy to keep going and it’s easier to not expend the energy. Especially if it’s not a habit we already have, and especially if at the beginning we don’t particularly like it.
This is why the season of Lent is a gift. Because it’s a dedicated time in our calendar when we are reminded that it is worth it to expend the energy on doing the things that help us grow. Every year Lent matches up with the story of Jesus as he turns toward Jerusalem and prepares to sacrifice himself for the healing of the world. If we want to grow as Jesus’ disciples, there are things that will help us do that. Our ancestors in the faith have been practicing and experimenting for thousands of years and we know what works.
Confession and repentance clear out the emotional muck of shame and refresh our connection to God. Prayer and studying the scriptures deepen our ability to listen for God’s still-speaking voice. Fasting and charity strengthen our muscles for sacrificial love, which is the foundation for loving our enemies, which the key to the Jesus revolution.
The problem is that all of those things feel a little bit like death to us. They all involve releasing our safety and comfort and power. But Jesus teaches us, particularly in the gospel of Luke, that if we want to be released we have to do some releasing. That’s what Lent is for. And that’s why it begins with a reminder of death on Ash Wednesday. What we see in the story of Jesus is that if we willingly face death, we find new life on the other side. During Lent, we experience the daily deaths that ultimately lead to rebirth in Christ at Easter.
So the question for us this morning is what will we embrace and experience this Lent? Will we release our desire to justify ourselves, our futile wish that what we are already doing is good enough to heal the world? Or will we accept the gift of this season and lean in to some new practices, things we have been wanting to do anyway? In this season of Lent, we can tap into the spiritual energy of knowing that Christians around the world are doing what we are doing. We are all together in our disciplines of repentance, prayer, self-denial, and charity. Now is the time to be who we want to be. Let’s do hard things together. Let’s do great things together. Amen.