The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, July 11, 2010.  The text for this week’s message is Luke 10:25-37.
We are starting a new series this week, entitled “Essentials.”  We are going to be in the Gospel of Luke for the next three weeks.  During this series, we are going to look at a few basics that we need to nail down as followers of Christ.  If we can’t get these three things right, we are going to have a hard time being faithful and obedient followers of Christ.  To do that, we are going to look at three stories that are relatively familiar.  This week, we are going to look at the story of the Good Samaritan.  Next week, we’ll be exploring Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha.  And in our final week, we’ll look at Luke’s passage on the Lord’s Prayer.
The story of the Good Samaritan is one that people hear all the time, and because of that, we have to be careful that we don’t tune it out when we come to the story again.  No matter how many times we hear or read a story from Scripture, we have to remember that it is the living Word of God.  What we hear from one reading may be totally different from what we hear from another reading.  God speaks to us in different ways at different times in our lives.
There’s an old saying that you can never step into the same river twice.  You can step in the same spot of the same river, but the waters are different each time.  In the same way, we never approach Scripture the same way twice.  Time and our experience change us, the words may be the same, but how it speaks to us at this particular time in our lives will be different because we are different.  And so it is with today’s passage.  It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan, we are different people now than we were then, and God may have something new to teach us.
The story of the Good Samaritan begins with a simple question.  That question is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  We are told that the source of this question is a lawyer, who is testing Jesus.  A little bit gets lost in translation here, so let’s clarify a couple of things.  When Luke says that a lawyer asked the question, we need to get out of our minds the image of a lawyer, as we understand them.  This was not a prosecutor, or a criminal defense lawyer, or anybody of that sort.  A lawyer in the first century was somebody who was an expert in the Torah, or the Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Lawyers spent their lives asking and answering questions about the Torah.  They would pass the time by debating certain points of the law.  This guy is probably pretty happy that there’s a new rabbi in town, so he can test his knowledge of the Torah.
The question itself is also an unusual one.  An inheritance is in the control of the giver, not the recipient.  An inheritance is a gift.  It is entirely possible for a person to lose an inheritance by offending the benefactor.  Likewise, it is possible for a person to gain an inheritance by making an impression on the benefactor.  Essentially, what is going on here is that the lawyer is asking what it is that he needs to do to impress God and gain eternal life.
It sounds kind of crazy to look at the question that way, but in reality, we do it all the time.  We want to know all the “do’s and do not’s” to the Christian faith so that we know what it is we need to do in order to get into heaven.  But let me ask you something that may shake your foundations.  What if being a follower of Christ isn’t about getting into heaven?
Being a follower of Christ isn’t about the final destination; it’s about what we do along the way.  It’s about what we do in the here and now.  It’s about living our lives in relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  
Heaven is real.  Our eternity spent in the presence of God is definitely something we can look forward to, but if we do it at the expense of fulfilling the call God has for us right now, I have a feeling that we are going to be pretty disappointed.  We read in Scripture about Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  We don’t read about him saying, “You’re finally done with that mess; welcome to your real life.”  “How do we live out our faith?” is the real question that we need to be asking.
There are a couple of other times in the New Testament when someone asks what must they do to inherit eternal life, and the answer is always, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”  But that’s not the answer that Jesus gives.  His answer is actually much more involved, and it goes right to the heart of what was behind the lawyer’s question.
Jesus flips the question on the lawyer.  The lawyer was an expert on the Torah, he knew what it was that the Torah said, so why was he asking Jesus?  The only explanation that really hold ups is that the lawyer wasn’t looking for an answer; he was looking for a debate, and we see that on display when the discussion continues after Jesus responds to his answer.
Often, when we are sharing our faith with people who don’t believe, we get put on the spot with a handful of questions.  Questions like: “If God is good, why is there suffering in the world?  Where did the Bible come from?  Why aren’t dinosaurs mentioned in the Bible?  What about the Da Vinci Code?”  Sometimes, these questions are legitimate.  People honestly want to know the answers.  But, sometimes, they are just a smokescreen to get out of the conversation.  Their experience has been that if they can frustrate us with peripheral questions, then we get thrown off of the main topic, and the conversation goes nowhere.  Both parties end up leaving no better off from the conversation.
Eventually, after this happens so many times, we start to buy into the lie that we have to know the answers to all the potential questions that people could come up with.  But, brace yourselves, we don’t have to know all the answers.  What we have to know is that Jesus Christ is Lord, and through his life, death and resurrection we have the opportunity to restore our relationship with God.  The other questions don’t matter as much.  When we put our faith in Jesus, the peripheral questions suddenly become less important.  I’m not saying that we don’t have them, but they become less of a priority and less of a barrier to faith.
Our faith is not about intellectual debate.  I have never heard of anybody ever being “reasoned” into the kingdom of God.  Our faith is about how we live it out in the real world, and that’s why the parable of the Good Samaritan is so important in the broader scope to what Jesus is saying to the lawyer here.
The lawyer correctly answers that in order to inherit eternal life, you must “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”  Both of these are commands that are found in the Torah, so it is no surprise that the lawyer got the answer right, but notice Jesus’ response to him.  “Do this, and you will live.”  You see, it’s not just enough to know what it takes to inherit eternal life.  One must be willing to live it out in practical ways as well.  Just like how we aren’t going to reason people into the kingdom, we can’t get in ourselves if we are simply concerned about “cramming for the final,” if you will.  It’s not about knowing the right answers.  It’s about living a right life, a life dependent on the grace of God.
You would think at this point that the conversation would be over.  The man asked the question, and Jesus confirmed that he was on the right track.  It should be a done deal, right?  Wrong.  It’s not over because the lawyer wasn’t satisfied with the answer.  It was too broad.  He wanted to narrow it down so he could know exactly what it was that he was supposed to do.  So, he asks Jesus another question: “Who is my neighbor?”  Once again, there is more to this question that just what is on the surface.
In asking, “who is my neighbor?” the lawyer is not just asking so that he’ll know who it is that he is supposed to love, but he is also asking so that he knows who he doesn’t have to love.  By knowing who is his neighbor, he will also know who is not his neighbor.  Throughout the Old Testament, there is a clear separation between the people of Israel and the people of the other nations, at least there was supposed to be.  But, in the middle of all this separation, there were also commands to love those who lived among the people, even if they were foreigners.
Instead of simply answering, “Everyone,” Jesus uses the occasion to dig deeper into the concept of what it means to be a neighbor in the first place.  He tells a parable that gets us to stop focusing on the fences that divide us from our neighbors and causes us to focus on the person that is our neighbor instead.
The story begins with a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.  It is a seemingly harmless statement until we start looking at the geography.  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho winds through mostly rocky terrain, and there is approximately an elevation drop of 3,000 feet on the 17-mile trip.  This area gave thieves plenty of opportunities for ambush and easy escape routes.  Most travelers would not make this journey alone because it was pretty dangerous.
The man ends up getting beaten, stripped and left for dead.  Notice another important detail.  Jesus doesn’t tell us where this man is from.  Is he an Israelite?  Is he a Samaritan?  Is he a foreigner traveling from distant lands?  We don’t know.  And, once he is beaten and stripped, his appearance would not give any indication as to where he was from either.  He wouldn’t be wearing the clothes of his homeland because he wasn’t wearing anything at this point.
While this man is laying on the road, three people pass by.  The first is a priest, a member of the clergy, a member of the tribe of Levi and a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron.  Priests served as the mediators between humans and God.  They performed the sacrifices in the Temple, among other rituals for the people.  But the priest doesn’t do anything.  He sees the man laying there, crosses the road and walks away.
The next person that comes along is a Levite.  Like priests, Levites were from the tribe of Levi, but they were not direct descendants of Aaron.  They assisted the priests in carrying out their duties at the Temple.  This Levite, like the priest before him, crosses the road and walks away.
In the storytelling progression of the day, the third person that should have come along would have broken the pattern established by the first two.  The expectation is that the third person would help the man on the road.  It was also expected that the third person would have been an Israelite.  As you know, that was not the case.  The third person did stop to help the man, just like the people would have expected, but what they didn’t expect is that he was a Samaritan.  This would have shocked the people listen to Jesus teach.
Jews and Samaritans did not get along at all.  In 722 B.C. when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, they had a policy of exiling people from the lands and intermingling them with people from all over the empire.  Samaritans were descendants of this policy.  They were Jews who intermarried with other cultures that were brought into the region by the Assyrians.  Centuries later, Jews considered Samaritans to be half-breeds; people of the promise who failed to maintain a pure bloodline.  The Jews avoided contact with the Samaritans as much as they possibly could.  But here, in Jesus’ story, the most hated of social outcasts is the good guy; the one in the story that does the right thing.
The Samaritan, unlike the priest and Levite before him, sees the man on the side of the road and has pity on him.  He then dresses the man’s wounds and takes him to an inn to care for him.  He then leaves the man there with the money to take care of him, and promises to come back in a couple of days.  He saw a man in need and helped him.  We don’t see any kind of debate within the Samaritan, just a desire to care for somebody in need.
In some sense, the man in this story was not doing a very smart thing in making the journey by himself in the first place.  Some people would even say that he brought it upon himself by making the journey alone.  The Samaritan, however, doesn’t ask him why he needed help.  He doesn’t say anything about the victim bringing the trouble upon himself.  He simply helps the man.
We have a tendency to have two categories when it comes to people in need.  We have the people that deserve our help, and those who don’t deserve our help.  There are people who are just in a bad spot, and there are people that put themselves in a bad spot.  The problem is, and we see it here, it doesn’t really matter whether they deserve it or not.  The man who was beaten put himself in a bad position, but he still needed help, and that is what is most important.  There’s a definite analogy to our faith here.  
Christianity is not about just helping those who deserve our help.  It’s about helping those who don’t deserve anything.  Who among us gathered here this morning deserves, or has earned, the grace of God in our lives?  We don’t want what we deserve from God, so why would we separate those around us into categories of deserving and undeserving?  The story of the Good Samaritan shows us that everyone is deserving of our love.
Our faith is shown by the love that we have for those who are least deserving of it.  Our neighbors include the very people that we would place in the “undeserving” category.  When Jesus is done with the story, he asks the lawyer a simple question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  And notice the lawyer’s response.  “The one who showed him mercy.”  He can’t even bring himself to say that the Samaritan was the man’s neighbor.  He didn’t want to admit that even a Samaritan was his neighbor.  He simply says, “the one who showed him mercy.”
In some sense, it is kind of a sad story.  Not the parable itself, but the reaction of the lawyer.  It is clear from his response that he is faced with a reality that he is not ready to embrace.  A world with divisions is a lot easier for us to handle because we can put people into boxes.  We try to compartmentalize our lives, and in the same way, we try to compartmentalize the people we come across each day.  The truth is, we can’t do either.  To love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is to love God with every part of our selves.  And to love our neighbor as ourselves crosses all the boundaries that we put up.  
The lawyer is still trying to look at the fence, but Jesus is saying that there are no fences.  Look around you this week; the people that you see, the ones who are in need, those are your neighbors.  We may not think they deserve our help.  We may think that they brought it on themselves, but regardless, they are still our neighbors.  Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise” applies to us today just as much as it applied to that lawyer so long ago.