Sermon 03-26-17: “Jesus Loves First Responders”

Last Sunday, our church celebrated first responders in our community with a free breakfast. For my sermon, I preached on the most famous “first responder” in scripture: the Good Samaritan. What’s the “moral” of this parable? To do what the Good Samaritan does? To love our enemies as much as we love our friends? As I explain in this sermon, I hope not! The parable isn’t mostly about doing something; it’s about being something—which can only happen once we’ve been rescued by our real-life Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text: Luke 10:25-37

What is your policy on giving money to panhandlers? Do you give money to them and under what circumstances?

Earlier this month, in an interview with an Italian magazine, Pope Francis gave some advice to his flock about how to deal with panhandlers. It’s very simple: When a panhandler approaches you and asks for a handout, he said, “Give them the money, and don’t worry about it.”

If you’re like me, you probably hear these words and want to say, “Yes, but…” You can think of perfectly good reasons for not giving money to just any panhandler that approaches you. “What if this person plans on taking the money and buying drugs or booze?” The pope says, Just give and don’t worry about it. “What if they’re lying about being homeless or in need?” The pope says, Just give the money and don’t worry about it. “What if they’re running a scam, and they’re making more money panhandling than an average person makes by earning an honest wage?” The pope says, Just give the money and don’t worry about it.

Whether we agree with the pope’s words or not, let’s give him credit: his policy on giving to panhandlers is likely more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ words in today’s scripture than our policy of not giving. Why? Because his policy says, “I will give you this gift, whether you deserve it or not.” Our policy says, “I will give you this gift, but only if I think you deserve it; only if I think you’re worthy of it.”

If the Good Samaritan had a policy like ours, he never would have stopped to help this injured victim on the side of the road. Keep in mind: People in the first century were not individualistic like we are today. People thought in terms of groups. They stereotyped people based on the tribe, or the family, or the nation they belonged to. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on this parable, you’ve probably heard it said that, from an ancient Jewish perspective, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. To refer to someone as a good Samaritan was an oxymoron—like saying “jumbo shrimp,” “open secret,” or “deafening silence.” Ancient Jews and Samaritans were hated enemies. They caused a lot of harm to one another. No ancient Jew would have said, “In general, Samaritans are horrible people, but this one individual Samaritan is all right.” Or vice versa. They didn’t make exceptions for individuals.

My point is, if the Samaritan in today’s parable had a policy of only helping those he deemed “worthy,” he certainly wouldn’t have helped this injured man—because, from his perspective, since the injured man was Jewish, he would have deserved what happened to him.

No, the Samaritan helps the injured victim without giving a thought about who he is, or the nation he belongs to, or how his people have mistreated the Samaritan people. He also helps without giving a thought for his own safety. Jesus sets the parable on the notoriously dangerous road between Jerusalem, 2,500 feet above sea level, down to Jericho, which, at 850 feet below sea level. Jericho is literally the lowest-lying city in the world. And the road is full of twists and turns down craggy mountain passes and caves—so there were lots of places for bandits to hide—and ambush people traveling on the road. For people who were traveling alone—like the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan—this stretch of road was especially risky.

By the way, this probably explains why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop to help the man. They were afraid for their safety. What if, in stopping to help, the priest or the Levite became the next victim?

So I hope you can see why I’ve titled this sermon, “Jesus Loves First Responders.” The Good Samaritan was literally a “first responder.” And like so many of the first responders whom our church honors today, the Good Samaritan does so with little regard for his own wellbeing. Like first responders that we honor today, the Good Samaritan puts the wellbeing of another person ahead of his own. And like so many of the first responders we honor today he does so without a thought for his own reputation or standing in his community; he does so with little recognition or applause; when he performs this self-sacrificial act of mercy and love, the spotlight couldn’t be farther away from him. And he does so at great personal expense—just like first responders we know, who—let’s face it—aren’t usually well-compensated for the sacrifices we ask them to make.

So we honor our first responders. Whether we realize it or not, when we see your service and your sacrifice, we are seeing at least a glimpse of Christ-like love in action—the kind of love that all of us are supposed to demonstrate. So thank you! And thank God for calling you and empowering you to do this great work!

So is that what Jesus is trying to teach us through this parable? Be like the Good Samaritan? Do the things that the Good Samaritan does? Love your enemies every bit as much as you love your neighbors?

I hope not… I hope not. Why do I say that? Because I stink at it. I’m lousy at being like the Good Samaritan. Honestly… Even going back to the panhandler situation: You know the main reason I don’t often give money to panhandlers? Because like the priest and Levite, I’m afraid. But I’m not afraid for my personal safety. I’m afraid for my personal pride. See, I don’t want someone to see me giving money to a panhandler. Because they might judge me: “Look at the rube! Look at that sucker! That panhandler was looking for a ‘mark’ to take advantage of, and he spotted this guy coming from a hundred yards away!” The main reason I often fail to give money is my sinful pride.

To make matters worse, even when I do stop and help, I usually do so not because I want to, but because I feel like I ought to—I feel guilty. Or I might think, “I don’t want God to judge me for not being generous. I don’t want him to punish me for it. So I give.”

But when I do give, it’s often with a grudging, reluctant, and resentful spirit.

I am, even at my best, a bundle of mixed motives. I’m not saying my motives are always wrong; but they are almost always partly wrong. Not because I’m a bad person; but because I’m a sinner. And so are you. So if the point of this parable is, “Do what the Good Samaritan does,” we are doomed! In fact, we are damned. Literally. Look at verse 25: what ultimately gives rise to this parable is the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” So what’s at stake here, Jesus says, is salvation or damnation, heaven or hell!

So the point of the parable better not be, “Do the things that Good Samaritan does.” And it’s not. In fact, the key to unlocking this parable is found in verse 33: “when he saw [the injured victim], he was moved with compassion.” The first and most important sin of the priest and Levite wasn’t that they didn’t stop to help the injured man; the first and most important sin is that they saw him and were unmoved by the man’s plight. They saw him and they didn’t have compassion. They saw him and they didn’t feel love. True, godly compassion comes from a place of love. And everything that the Good Samaritan does for this victim springs from this place of love; everything he does is motivated by this love.

In other words, as is always the case, Jesus’ main concern is not what we do, but why we do it. He cares most about what’s in our hearts.

We’ve studied the Sermon on the Mount recently. In Matthew 5, there’s the part of the sermon known as the “Seven Antitheses”: These begin, “You’ve heard it said”—and then he would give some commandment or teaching from scripture—“but I say to you.” “You’ve heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Anyone who looks at someone lustfully has already committed adultery in their heart.” See, we haven’t kept the sixth commandment against adultery by merely avoiding sleeping with someone who isn’t our spouse. Why? Because the same impulse that causes us to lust is the same impulse that causes us to act on that lust by having an affair. Likewise, Jesus says, we’ve failed to keep the fifth commandment against murder when we verbally abuse someone. Why? Because the same impulse that causes us to call our brother or sister a fool, or worse, is the same impulse that causes us to commit murder.

Elsewhere Jesus says we can pray, but if our heart’s not right, even praying is a sin We can give money to the poor, but if our heart’s not right, our giving money is a sin. We can fast, but if our heart’s not right, our fasting is a sin.

Pastor Tim Keller was talking about what he calls “moralistic religion”—this is religion that’s all about changing or controlling our behavior. He said, “Moralistic religion tends to adopt very specific rules and regulations for dress and daily behavior.” And this is what the lawyer who comes to Jesus in verse 25 is looking for: what specific rules do I need to follow to be saved? I need to be clear on who my ‘neighbor’ is so that I can make sure I’m loving him or her.” Why this emphasis on rules? Well, Keller says, “[I]f your salvation depends upon obeying the rules, then you want your rules to be very specific, do-able, and clear. You don’t want: Love your neighbor as yourself, because that’s an impossibly high standard which has endless implications! You want: Don’t go to movies or Don’t drink alcohol or Don’t eat this type of food.[1]

Keller isn’t exaggerating: I’ve told you before that I grew up with some friends down the street, Wes and Tim, who did not have a TV in their house—because they weren’t allowed to watch TV. TV was bad. Their parents wouldn’t let them listen to any music that had drums in it. Because drums were of the devil. Naturally, when they came to my house, all they wanted to do was watch The Dukes of Hazzard and listen to 96 Rock!

So even the two rules they were supposed to follow—Don’t watch TV and Don’t listen to rock and roll—my friends Wes and Tim ended up breaking… frequently. Even those rules proved difficult. But as difficult as they were, they were infinitely easier to obey than Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. Or Love your neighbor as yourself. 

In so many words, Jesus tells the lawyer, “If you want to be saved, here’s what God requires of you: love God perfectly. And love your neighbor perfectly. And by the way, your ‘neighbor’ includes even your enemies. Love like that,” Jesus says, “and do so perfectly, and you’ll have eternal life.”

But wait… that’s impossible! 

And you’re right: it is impossible. Because of our sins, we are in the same position as that helpless, injured, dying victim on the side of the road in today’s parable. We are as good as dead, unless someone comes by who will—at great personal cost, even at the risk of death—rescue us, care for us, heal us.

The good news is this: Jesus is our Good Samaritan. He saw that we were dying in our sins, and he had compassion on us. Even though, as the Bible says, our sins had made us enemies of God. He loved us anyway. And out of this great love, he came into this world to rescue us. Just as the Good Samaritan told the innkeeper, “I will pay whatever it costs to save this person,” so Jesus said, “I will pay whatever it costs to save sinners” like you and me—even though that cost included dying on the cross.

Another pastor said this, and he’s exactly right: “Real love is impossible until you realize that real love is impossible.”[2] Because when we realize real love is impossible for us—and yet without it we won’t be saved—that drives us to the cross of God’s Son Jesus where we fall on our knees and say, “We can’t love the way we need to, Lord, we need you to do it for us.” And he did do it for us. Jesus lived the life of perfect love and perfect obedience that we were unable to live for ourselves, and he died the death we deserved to die and suffered the hell we deserved to suffer. And he did this out of love. “God proves his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[3]

If you want to begin to love like the Good Samaritan, let that message penetrate your heart; let that message melt your heart; let that message transform your heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the only way to learn how to love.

Once when Jesus was having dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee, the dinner was interrupted by a woman who had been a prostitute; but she repented of her sins and placed her faith in Jesus. And she was so grateful to Jesus for forgiving her that she fell at his feet and anointed them with her tears and with expensive perfume. Jesus told Simon that this woman loves much because she’s been forgiven much.[4]

There’s a direct correlation between the extent to which we love and the extent to which we’ve experienced the forgiveness of our sins through Christ!

If you’re having trouble loving, is it because, A, you haven’t yet experienced Christ’s forgiveness? What are you waiting for. You can do that today! Go to the cross and see the price that Jesus Christ our Good Samaritan paid in order to save you. Or, B, did you experience this forgiveness a long time ago, but somewhere along the way, in the busy-ness of life, the busy-ness of being a grown-up, of making ends meet,of  trying to succeed in business, of earning a paycheck, of making a marriage work, of raising a family, of paying bills, of paying mortgages—and just trying your best to survive as an adult, have you forgotten just how much you’ve been forgiven? Go to the cross again and be reminded of the price that Jesus Christ our Good Samaritan paid to save you.

And then you’ll begin to love like the Good Samaritan!

1. Timothy Keller, Galatians for You (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2013), 42.

2. Timothy Keller, “The Good Samaritan; On Love.” Accessed 25 March 2017.

3. Romans 5:8

4. Paraphrase of Luke 7:47.

3 thoughts on “Sermon 03-26-17: “Jesus Loves First Responders””

  1. Truly we cannot love as fully as the Good Samaritan, and certainly not as Jesus did/does. But I don’t think this gets us “off the hook” (as I imagine you agree). I believe Jesus said at the end, “Go and do likewise.” Thus, while as a batter in baseball cannot “bat 1.000,” he still better be TRYING to get a hit each time he is up to bat, or he will be sitting on the bench! As far as “what we are” as distinguished from “what we do,” I think this can be somewhat misleading, if we are not careful. “If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus says. He even then says, “He who keeps my commandments will I love, and my Father will love.” True love always manifests itself in actions, so if we see we are not doing any loving actions, we need to wonder if we have a “loving heart.” “Test yourselves, whether you are in the faith.” “Faith without works is dead.” Peter says, “Add this to that.” So, we cannot “do all,” but, as I see it, we definitely have to “do something,” or “do what we can.” We are not saved by the works we do, but still if we do no works, we are likely not saved.

  2. The worthiness of the recipient shouldn’t be a factor, but the effectiveness of our giving should matter.

    I knew a woman in great need when I first became a Christian. She worked with me, and I noticed that she was always waiting in her car before work for the doors to be unlocked. I asked her why she was there so early, and she said that she had recently lost her home and was living in her car.

    I was on fire for Jesus, and I wanted to help her more than anything. My wife and I talked and prayed about it, and we decided to spend my next paycheck on getting her into a home. I found a little furnished trailer near our work, and my paycheck covered a month’s rent, utilities, the security deposit and a little extra for groceries. I took the woman to look at the place, and she seemed very excited about what was about to happen as soon as I got paid that Friday.

    And here’s where I messed up. I gave the money to her instead of to the landlord. I didn’t know it, but she had a drug problem. The money was too great a temptation, and she ended up using all of it on drugs. The next Monday, she was caught at work stealing from the cash register because she had started using again. She went to jail, and I never saw her again.

    My compassion was there. But I had no wisdom yet. My giving hurt her.

    A first responder shouldn’t be celebrated if he were to give adult CPR to an infant, even if his heart is in the right place. And maybe the Pope should be a little more concerned about the wisdom and usefulness of indiscriminate charity as well.

    Yet there’s still a problem. I can use my wariness of harming through giving to justify my lack of giving. I can rationalize my distaste from the unworthiness of the recipient and call it prudence. I must stay close to Jesus so the compassion that he gave me doesn’t die.

    And Brent, I love your blog. I check it every day!

    1. Thanks, Brad! Your point is well taken, which is why I didn’t say I necessarily agreed with the pope. The only solution is to have genuine love in our hearts for people, in which case we won’t want to help them destroy themselves—and in whatever form our giving takes, we won’t feel morally superior, either. What a seemingly impossible balance!

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