Have you ever noticed that in today’s scripture, Luke 10:25-37, Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s original question? The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told a parable that answered a different question: “Who proved to be a neighbor to this injured victim?” This sermon explores the meaning of this difference. I also relate this scripture to tragic events in Paris last Friday.
Sermon Text: Luke 10:25-37
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Last Friday night at 9:30, in Paris, several terrorists entered a popular concert venue where an American rock band was playing, and they began shooting. At least eighty people were killed. Shortly after that, more terrorists entered a nearby Paris restaurant and killed at least 18. Shortly after that, still more terrorists entered another nearby restaurant and killed at least 14 more. Several other Parisians were killed in the streets. Across town, at least two bombs exploded near a soccer stadium, during a match between Germany and France—which the president of France was attending. The stadium was evacuated.
When we hear about this kind of deadly violence, it’s very easy to identify with its victims—because they’re like us in so many ways. Just in the past week, literally the last nine days, I’ve been to a rock concert with my son. Just last Thursday night, I went to a sporting event at a large stadium in a big city with two of my children. On a few occasions over the past week, I’ve been to restaurants with my family or my wife, Lisa. To think that we could just be going about our business—our normal routines—and have our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, come to a sudden, violent end—just like that… We are so vulnerable. There is so much evil in the world.
What can we do as Christians?
First, we can pray. Pray for the victims’ families. Pray for the safety and security of innocent people in France. Pray for the French government, its law enforcement agencies, and its military—that they would use their God-ordained power, as Paul describes in Romans 13, to root out this evil and punish evil-doers. Pray that all nations of good will, including our own, will be successful in their fight against the evil of terrorism. Pray for peace-loving Muslims in France and elsewhere who abhor the kind of violence that’s done in the name of their religion yet who suffer because they’re caught in the crossfire; they’re “guilty by association.” Pray that Muslims around the world will come to know the Prince of Peace, their true Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. We can even do that uniquely Christian thing and pray for our enemies: We can pray that the hardened hearts of Muslim men and women who want to kill Christians and other non-Muslims will be softened by the miraculous grace of the one true God, that they will repent and find salvation in his Son Jesus.
Second, we can remember and hold fast to our Christian hope. In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, back in 2012, one pastor posted something on Facebook that I’ll never forget. He wrote, “The first five seconds in heaven will more than compensate for the suffering that these children and their teachers endured on that terrible day.” And that’s exactly right! We Christians rightly grieve in the face of a tragedy like this, but, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We believe in a Savior who conquered death—who defeated Satan and the spiritual forces of sin, evil, and death on the cross and through his resurrection. And we also remember that even though we live in a world in which human justice, at best, can never be done perfectly—and often not done at all—we remember, as Paul reminds us in Romans 12, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Evil-doers may never be brought to justice on this side of eternity, but they all face the death penalty: when they die a natural death. And after that, we can be assured they’ll answer for their sins. And for those who never repented and received the mercy and grace of our Lord, they’ll pay for their sins in hell.
Third, we can remember that life is fleeting and fragile for all of us. None of us is ultimately safe in this world. Nothing is guaranteed. There was a belief in ancient Judaism that if something bad happened to you, it was because God was punishing you. The Book of Job should have put this idea to rest once and for all, but it kept on popping up, including among Jesus’ disciples in Luke chapter 13. Luke writes,
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
So Jesus was asked about a couple of events in the news of his day: In one case, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, not a nice guy, had massacred some Jews from Galilee in the Temple in Jerusalem. And in another case, in a very freakish accident, a tower fell and killed 18 people. In both cases, the disciples wondered, were these people victims of these terrible events because they were worse sinners than other people? And Jesus said no. Awful, horrifying things can happen to any of us, no matter how good or bad we happen to be.
And Jesus uses these events to remind his listeners that in light of the fact that our lives can be snuffed out without warning, we need to be ready! All of us are sinners; all of us need to repent, he says, “or you will all likewise perish”—by which he means perish eternally, in hell. Or think of the paralyzed man that Jesus heals in John chapter 5. After giving this man the ability to walk again after 38 years of being paralyzed, Jesus tells him, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” That “worse thing” wasn’t that the man may get yet another crippling disease, but that the man would die and find himself in hell.
So in the face of last week’s tragedy, I’m telling you, and I want to tell the world, “Unless we repent and find Jesus and get our lives right with God while we still have time, nothing in this world—nothing that any mere man can do—will be nearly as tragic and awful as what will face on Judgment Day.”
We’re all facing a crisis, but it’s a much larger crisis than Islamic terrorism. And we all have something to fear, but it isn’t being shot or blown up by wild-eyed Islamic fundamentalists. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
The lawyer in today’s scripture is beginning to realize that he’s facing a crisis. And he’s beginning to be afraid. And that’s why Jesus tells him this famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Now, this man is not a lawyer as we know them today. Today a lawyer might be an expert in the U.S. Constitution, for example, but this lawyer was an expert in the law found in the Old Testament, specifically the first five books, the Torah. It was commonly agreed that there are 613 commandments found there—and this lawyer would know all about what they meant and how to apply them to everyday life.
And he’s heard things about Jesus that he doesn’t like—things that went against his understanding of God’s law. I mean, Jesus was telling the Pharisees—the most religious people around—that, far from being righteous and having eternal life, that they were actually in danger of going to hell! Meanwhile, he was saying that the tax collectors and the prostitutes—and all the well-known “sinners” of the day that the Pharisees and the lawyers looked down upon with scorn—he was saying that these sinners were entering the kingdom of God ahead of all these religious people.
This didn’t make sense to the lawyer, so he wanted to make sure that Jesus knew what he was talking about. He asks, in so many words, “What do I have to do to go to heaven when I die?”
Which is really an excellent question! In light of what happened on Friday, there’s no more relevant, pertinent, important question that anyone can ask! But instead of answering the question, Jesus asks him what he thinks. And the lawyer gives the answer that, in his opinion, summarizes all 613 commandments in the Old Testament. They all boil down to these two commandments, he says. And these commandments come from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus says, that’s exactly right! “Do this,” he tells the lawyer, “and you will live.”
Well, that was easy! Just love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. We all do that all the time, right? Of course not. But you see, like most Americans, even those who call themselves Christians, and like most religious people in the world who aren’t Christian, this lawyer has lived his life believing that in order to be saved, he has to do what?… He has to obey these commandments, do these good deeds, follow God’s law, earn his salvation by being good. If he’s a good person, he’ll go to heaven. That’s what most Americans believe—and maybe a few of you in church this morning.
But this worries the lawyer. He thought he was doing O.K., loving God and neighbor until he saw Jesus. I mean, Jesus was loving everybody. Jesus was treating everyone like they were his neighbor. And this lawyer, meanwhile, was very selective about who his neighbor was. If Jesus was right about what it meant to love your neighbor, then that meant this lawyer was in trouble, that he may not be such a good person after all, that his own salvation may be in doubt—that he may not make it into heaven after all. So verse 29 says, “But he [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
One preacher pointed out that this question is the equivalent of asking, “What do I have to do to make a ‘C’? In other words, what’s the bare minimum amount of love required of me to pass this course so that I can get into heaven?”
I took a class at Georgia Tech once called Thermodynamics. The class was very hard—and mostly over my head. And I decided early on that I would have to spend a lot of time—I would have to invest a lot of time—in order to make an ‘A’—and when I got back my first test, it was clear that that was not going to happen anyway. In fact a ‘B’ would be pushing it. So I thought, “What do I have to do make a ‘C’? What’s the bare minimum I have to do to pass this class and never have to give another thought to this thing called Thermodynamics.” And that’s how I approached it!
And I got that ‘C,’ and believe me, I was happy about it! Because that class was hard. And getting an A or B was next to impossible!
And that’s what’s going on with this lawyer! He just wants to pass. What’s the bare minimum that I have to do, Jesus? Who do I have to love in order to be saved? Who is my neighbor?
Instead of answering the question directly, Jesus tells a story. But notice that the story that Jesus tells him doesn’t quite answer the lawyer’s question.
See, we often read this parable as if Jesus is teaching the lawyer that he needs to love his enemies, too. The Samaritan is your enemy. You need to love him. ISIS terrorists are your enemy. You need to love them. This is the kind of message that I call a “just try harder” sermon—the “just do better” sermon, the “just do more than you’re currently doing” sermon. And it fills me with guilt, because I know I stink at trying harder and doing better and doing more than I’m currently doing. I mean, I want to. But like Paul in Romans 7, I find myself hitting a brick wall and saying, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
But I promise that Jesus is not telling this lawyer to try harder or to do better or to do more.
Remember I said earlier that when I heard about the Paris attacks, I couldn’t help but identify with the victims—who were doing ordinary things like going to concerts, eating at restaurants, going to watch their favorite sports team? I think, “I do those things, too! That could be me!”
In the same way, when the lawyer hears about an injured victim who is a fellow Jew, he’s going to identify with the victim. He’s going to think, “Gosh, I travel that same dangerous road when I go to and from the Temple. What if that were me? What if I were dying and needed to be rescued—and the only one who could rescue me was this man who I thought of as my enemy? Would I accept his help? Would I accept the salvation that he was offering me?”
Are you starting to see the connection?
The most important meaning of this parable is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is our Good Samaritan. We human beings, the apostle Paul says, have made ourselves God’s enemies because of our sin and rebellion against God. Satan has stripped us, beaten us, and left us for dead on the side of the road. We have no one to save us—until Jesus the Good Samaritan comes to us and offers us salvation.
Now, Samaritans and Jews hated one another. They were enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t have compassion on his enemy, a Jew—any more than we’d have compassion on those terrorists that attacked Paris on Friday. But Jesus the Good Samaritan had compassion on his enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t risk his life on this dangerous road in order to save his enemy, but Jesus the Good Samaritan not only risked his life, he laid down his life to save his enemies. An ordinary Samaritan wouldn’t give his time, his strength, his money, in order to nurse his enemy back to health. But Jesus the Good Samaritan said, “I’ll take the sickness of your sin upon myself, and I’ll suffer your disease for you, even though I’ve done nothing to deserve it; I’ll gladly suffer it”—I’ll take all your bad stuff and give you all my good stuff; I’ll take your sin and unrighteousness and give you my righteousness—so that you will be eternally healed!
So remember the original question the lawyer asked: “Who is my neighbor?” This parable does end up answering that question, but in a surprising way: it says that Jesus Christ the Good Samaritan is this man’s neighbor. Christ had better be, because without Jesus this man was lost and bound for hell. And Jesus is telling us through this scripture that he’s our neighbor too. He is the only one who can save us and give us eternal life.
Have you been saved? Have you received this gift of eternal life? Or are you still trying to earn it. And you’re a little worried. And you’re very guilty because you know what’s in your heart, and you know that despite what our popular culture is always telling you, you’re really not a good person. You’re a sinner who needs the help that only the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus, can offer. I hope that you’ll give him this guilt and fear and anxiety—fall on your knees and say, “Help me, Jesus!”
For the rest of us, we have work to do. Think about this: two weeks ago, during our Fall Festival, we had 750 people from our community come onto this church’s campus. And we shared a little bit of Christ’s love with them, and that’s awesome. But think about this: according to statistics for this area, probably 575 of those people don’t have a church home. Many of them have never experienced God’s gift of salvation. We can’t be satisfied with that. We can’t be satisfied that so few visitors come through our church doors. More than a few people over the years have asked me, “Where are the young people?” And I want to say, “I don’t know. Have you invited any?”
But honestly: How many of you have invited someone to church in the last week? In the last month? In the last year? I feel like we’re all waiting for them to come to us. But we’ve got to imitate Jesus our Good Samaritan—we’ve got to go out and find them! The vast majority of people get started in a church because they’ve been invited by someone they know.
Earlier in this chapter, Jesus has sent out 72 disciples, and they come back amazed and delighted that they’ve had so much success teaching, preaching, healing, driving out demons. He said, “Don’t rejoice in this… Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” If we’re going to be like the Good Samaritan, we will also rejoice that through the work of the Holy Spirit at Hampton United Methodist, our friends, our neighbors, our family, our co-workers, our classmates will also have their names written in heaven. Amen.
 John 5:14 ESV
 Matthew 10:28 ESV