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Heaven Help Us All: Love in Action

Sermon - August 13, 2023
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I love a good story, and I highly admire good storytellers. You may be surprised, but I find comedians and musicians to be some of the best storytellers out there. When they exercise their craft well, these folks not only capture our attention, but through their gift, they can take us on a journey—that often leads to unexpected places. Listening to a good song, a good story, or a good joke is like journeying into an unknown world and somehow seeing yourself there as a part of the story. Good stories capture our attention and can lead us to examine our lives. In our text today, Jesus takes the expert in the law on a journey of self-discovery, where the truth of the Scripture meets the realities of life. Jesus causes this individual to re-examine his prejudices and then sends him forth to live life in a new way. This is a reality of love.

There is no question that Jesus is a master storyteller. For even now, when we hear his words saying, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” we can picture ourselves there, even if we have never been to the Holy Land. There is something so unique about the way Jesus dialogues with others and his general approach to conversation that draws us in and invites genuine response. In our politically charged times, where many tend to stick to talking points and side with political allegiances good conversational skills are rare. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we might admit that we are unwilling or unable to have meaningful conversations with those who hold different views from our own. We may even hold those individuals at a distance and absolve ourselves from any responsibility of being in relationship with them—and if we must talk, we often shout our opinions and hope that something will happen between our mouths and their ears that will lead to transformation. But Jesus takes a different approach. The text tells us that the expert in the law stood up to test Jesus, and still Jesus engaged.

The parable of the Good Samaritan has become so popular in our culture, and so predictable, that often times we stop paying attention because we know what will come next. But despite the popularity of this story or its popular appeal, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches a powerful lesson. This story should cause us to stop in our tracks. As we have heard time and time again when this text is preached, the parable of the Good Samaritan should move us to examine our concept of neighbor, but even more deeply, it should lead us to understand what love calls us to do at all times for all people.

Whether you grew up attending church or whether the journey of faith is new for you, I suspect you are familiar with the concept of the Good Samaritan. This is a story that has traveled far beyond religious circles. You can say the term “Good Samaritan” almost anywhere without offering a context, and people will understand what you mean. Think about it, today, there are “Good Samaritan” laws, “Good Samaritan” hospitals and clinics, and “Good Samaritan” organizations of all sorts—there is even a Good Samaritan Donkey Sanctuary in Australia. People understand that a “Good Samaritan” is a person who extends a helping hand to others. But did Jesus really mean to teach a Jewish scholar such a basic lesson? Do we really believe that Jews and Jewish leaders in times of Jesus had fallen so far beyond the biblical command to love others that Jesus would tell them something the Torah clearly specified? I think not. I believe Jesus was doing something more. I think Jesus was speaking a deeper truth in response to the question asked of him.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? That’s a great question, even when it comes from a not-so-genuine place. As people of faith, our lives should revolve around this same question. We are called to pray and work for the coming of God’s kin-dom among us. We are called to hope and rejoice in the promise of everlasting life. [1] The Gospel of John tells us that this is at the core of God’s love for us—God’s gracious creation. John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” So Jesus, doing what good teachers often do, asked the lawyer a couple of questions “What is written in the Law...How do you read it?” I believe these are two of the most important questions one can encounter relating to the scriptures. It is not enough to know what the Bible says, we also need to know how to interpret and how to apply it. So, the lawyer drawing from his training and knowledge, tells Jesus, “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.” The expert draws from something he learned as a child—a prayer that is said twice a day, when one lays down and when one rises up. We can find it in Deuteronomy 6, beginning with verse 4: “Hear, O Israel” or “Listen, Israel.” Pay close attention… observe diligently… Great emphasis is given here. The writer of Deuteronomy says, “Observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey.” [2] The prayer continues, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This is something every Jewish child would have known by heart. This confession says that no area of one’s life falls beyond God’s domain. Our heart—the center of our passions and emotions, our soul—the core of our lives and what gives us our individual identity, our strength—which is our energy and resolve, and our mind—which is our intellectual capacity. All these things belong to God and should be employed to love the God who created us. [3]

But the interesting thing is that the expert links our love for God with love for others. While we find the commandment to love God in Deuteronomy, we must go to Leviticus for the reference to love our neighbors. Leviticus 19:18, 33-34 reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord… When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, Jesus makes this same connection. Love God and love others. That is the heart of the scriptures. That is the lens through which we live our lives and interact with those around us. The lawyer understands it well, and Jesus commands him for it. Jesus said, “You have answered correctly… Do this and you will live.” Practice these things and you are good. This could have been the end of the story, but the lawyer was not satisfied with this answer, so he asks Jesus another question, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus follows a pattern that would have been familiar to the legal expert and has become familiar to many of us. In his parable, he presents a nameless individual in a familiar setting, then presents two characters who should have known better, but still they did not do the right thing. They have followed the LAW, but they failed to love. The way these stories usually go, a third character appears who represents a common individual whose righteousness rises above the previous two. But this story, this parable, takes a very sharp turn that too often we miss. We spend time trying to justify or demonize the Priest and Levite. We create scenarios and wonder why they failed to stop and help the man left for dead. The truth is, they didn’t and no amount of theology or reasoning makes a difference for the person in need. When we begin placing emphasis on the wrong characters, we lose sight of the tragedy at hand and the power of the story. Here we have an unnamed person who was taking a journey. We don’t know anything about who this might be. All we know is that this is an individual in need. His journey was not an uncommon journey, but the road was notoriously dangerous. The terrain, which descended nearly 3,300 feet in 17 miles, offered many hiding places for those determined to do evil. He is beaten and left with nothing. He could be anyone. In our current context today, this is just an innocent victim of random violence. Our road to Jericho could be Nashville, Tullahoma, Jackson, Columbia, Memphis, Mayfield, Paducah, Chicago, Tampa, or anywhere senseless violence happens. The thing that really matters is that this man was in need of help, and two fellow travelers passed him by—ignoring his needs.

But then enters the Samaritan. Like the Priest and the Levite, the Samaritan too followed Torah. The Samaritan, too, would have had restrictions placed on him regarding contact with a dead body. The Samaritan, like other Jews, would not have been immune to fear. So, why does Jesus use this character? Because it’s scandalous. We have lost sight of this significance, but it would be like telling a white supremacist a story where a black guy is the hero. Or telling an African slave a story where the master is the good guy. Or a Democrat a story that praises Trump. Or a Republican, a story where Hillary or Obama saves the day. It is unthinkable. We tend to misunderstand this connection, and unfortunately, preachers don’t always make it easy for us to understand it.

Jesus is not only talking about a good action, he is talking about a new way of life, a reality where our prejudices have no place. He is challenging the expert in the law to dive deep within his soul and see the other—whom he may have hated, as a brother. The moment we gain this understanding, this story is no longer cute. It moves us from our heads to our hearts and places us face-to-face with the realities of life. This is no longer the same story we use to tell children to be nice to others, this is about us and the baggage we carry with ourselves. This is a story about love in action.

Love your neighbor. Love the Central American immigrant, whether they walked through the border or flew in, or came by boat. Love your political opponent, no matter their views. Love the deranged mass murder. Love the internet trolls. Love friends who turned their back on you. Love the people whose misguided actions caused you harm. Love. Love them as you love yourself. Work for their wellbeing. Care for their needs. This is difficult stuff.

And yet, Jesus tells us, “Go and do likewise.” Our love for neighbors cannot be limited to the neighbors we like because God’s love for us is not limited to the moments we do good. We are loved at all times, and God calls us to love others in the same way. This is difficult work, but it is not impossible. The realities of heaven can be manifested on earth through our loving relationship with others. The reality of the love we have received in Christ calls us to share it with others.

What must I do? What must you do? Love God. Love your neighbors.



[1] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016, 50.

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4b

[3] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

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