Text: Luke 10:26-37
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Jul. 10, 2016
The year Ronald Reagan became President, Asbury Seminary, were I was teaching at the time, also got a new president. The reason these two events are linked in my mind will soon become apparent. David McKenna came to us from a small Christian College in Seattle. When first offered our top job, he had turned us down. Although he could not give the search committee the reason for his decision, it turned out that he was being vetted by the Reagan Administration to be the Secretary of Education. Informed that Reagan planned to announce the decision thee following day, McKenna leaked the news to the Seattle press. The next day while the local citizens read the front-page story that a local college president was to be going to Washington DC, Ronald Reagan announced L. Nelson Bell to be Secretary of Education. Reagan was miffed that McKenna had jumped the gun, and the Mormon Church had been pressuring him, saying their overwhelming support in the run up to the election deserved to be rewarded.
McKenna turned out to be the best president Asbury ever had, but he never missed an opportunity to let us know that he was made for bigger things. He was a man in a hurry, always flying off somewhere in the world to some important conference to “represent our seminary.” We used to have a saying. “What is the difference between God and McKenna?” The answer was: “God is everywhere; McKenna is everywhere but at Asbury!” However, he always made it a point to preach in Chapel once a semester. I will always remember the time he chose today’s Gospel as his text. In the sermon, he told how he was able to serve the role of the Good Samaritan. He said: “Last month, I was driving to the airport on my way to Singapore to represent Asbury at the United Methodist World Conference. I was about five miles down the road when I saw a car spin off the road and flip over into the ditch. I wanted to stop and see if the person needed help. But if I did, I knew I would miss my plane. As I passed by I prayed that God would send someone in my place to be his “Good Samaritan.” I almost fell off my pew to keep from laughing. I could fully understand the decision that he made. But only a man with his ego would be sufficiently blind to see himself playing the central role of our Lord’s most famous parable.
Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He is on a pilgrimage to celebrate the Passover that I mentioned two weeks ago. As he moves along, more and more people join the procession and are asking him questions. In today’s Gospel it is a lawyer who puts a question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life.?
This is the second time this question is put to Jesus in Luke’s gospel. The first time, the question was posed by the rich young ruler. Jesus responded by referring to the Old Testament book of Exodus reminding the young man to keep the ten commandments. But he replied in protest, I have kept all those, but I still feel something is lacking. My life doesn’t seem to be complete. Jesus put his finger on the matter. “Go, sell everything that you own, give the money to the poor and then follow me.” The man went away in sadness for he was very wealthy.
In today’s Gospel it is a lawyer that poses the question. Instead of giving him an answer as he did the rich young ruler, Jesus asks: “What do the Scriptures tell us?” Instead of reciting the 10 commandments from the book of Exodus, the lawyer quotes the summary of the law found in the book of Deuteronomy. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus was pleased with his response and said, “Do this and you will live.” But the lawyer gave a typical lawyer’s response. “Who is my neighbor?” Actually, it was not just lawyer who asked this question. Moses had not defined who was a neighbor and who was not. For centuries their leaders had sought a definition. Surely Moses did not mean the heathen who worshiped false gods. Certainly, their neighbors were not their enemies who when to war against them. Above all their neighbors could not be the Samaritans who had corrupted the true faith.
The lawyer wants to press for some definition. Where within the community was the limits of love to be drawn? He is attempting to drag Jesus into a legal dispute over the extent in which the commandment to love your neighbor applies.
Instead of answering directly, Jesus tells a story. A man, a Jewish man, a man strong in faith, went on a trip. One the way he is assaulted by bandits, robbed, beaten and left in a ditch for dead. Just moments before he was a person who had everything to live for, he was self-sufficient, fully capable of tending to his own needs. Suddenly he is totally helpless, stripped of all that was his, cut off from all that had given him his identity. He was abandoned, lost, alone.
Close your eyes for a moment, and put yourself in his shoes. Lying in the ditch, we are unable to move or cry out. All we can do is pray that God will someone to stop and help us. We are amazed, no sooner has this prayer passed our lips when we sense someone coming down the road. It turns out to be the Priest from the Temple in Jerusalem. We are not surprised. After all, we knew he was on to trip to Singapore! Soon after, a Levite, the Jewish equivalent of our deacons, passes by. We are not surprised that he did not stop to help either, after all he was too busy taking care of the widows and the orphans.
But we become more desperate and specific in our prayer asking that God would send a God-fearing layman. To our utter amazement sense that the next person is actually stopping. But then we are horrified, instead of a pious Jewish layman, it turns out to be a hated enemy: a heretic, a half-breed, a perverter of true religion, a thorn in side to any self-respecting Jew. In our helplessness when we are powerless to stop him when he turns aside and begins to minister to us.
And while we are still paralyzed beyond resistance, while we are still in inner turmoil over this sudden and unexpected turn of events, we are suddenly jerked from the story back into our present day reality. It is not just the lawyer, but you and me to whom Jesus addresses his next question – Which of these three proved to be a neighbor?” Jesus has turned the lawyer’s question upside down. Rather than “who is my neighbor that I must love?” becomes “who has proven to be my neighbor who has loved me?”
Looking at this famous parable from the question stated this way, a much more compelling contemporary story comes to my mind that my opening illustration. Do you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? They were a couple of kids who went to my former denomination’s Bible College a few years after I graduated. The met at the school, married and left after a year, anxious to begin their ministry. Their hopes and dreams succeeded beyond their wildest expectations as they built a TV ministry and Theme Park that, for a while, seemed destined to eventually rival Disney Land. In the process of gaining such success and notoriety lost their way.
In the midst of the scandal Tammy Faye was stripped of everything: fame, reputation, family, and financial security. When it seemed that things could not get worse for her, she learned that she was dying of incurable cancer. There, at rock bottom, she experienced a far more profound level the unfathomable depths of God’s love than she had known before.
The last time I heard her speak was on Larry King’s talk show a few months before she died. She spoke with simple sincere conviction that brought tears to Larry’s eyes and mine. She stated that all her former “Christian friends” had long ago turned their backs on her, rightfully feeling she had betrayed them. But when alone, stripped of everything she had, she rediscovered the depths of God’s love and forgiveness. How did this come about? It came when a group she had always looked down upon and held in contempt. She found she could accept God’s love and forgiveness a gay and lesbian community embraced her and asked her to become their pastor.
Today our Lord’s form of the lawyer’s question continues to confront each of us. “Who is my neighbor who loves me? As we continue to discover the answer to that question, we will experience an ever deeper awareness the unfathomable depths of God’s love for each of us. Amen