Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another perspective on the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan was offered by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue in his July 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Rev. Brennan Blue
Westminster Presbyterian Church

 

 

 

The Holy Scripture

The Parable itself is expressed in Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSV) as follows:

  • “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] answered, ‘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] said to [the lawyer], ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’”
  • “But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’” [The lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

The Sermon

 In “the parable of the Good Samaritan, why it is that even the most well-trained priest or Levite may walk on by a neighbor in need?”

“On the one hand, this parable reminds us that we are called to put our faith and love into action, plain and simple. Yet this parable occurs in a vacuum. There is one person of need, one act of love to counter the one great injustice at hand.” (Emphasis added.)

 “But what happens when there’s another neighbor in need along the way? Do you set aside the first to help the second? What if each step brings another worry or need, bigger and more complex than the one before it?”

“Perhaps you know the feeling. Confronted with a complex constellation of needs and problems surrounding our lives and communities, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Another election argument, another policy change, another broken relationship. Another act of hate and discrimination, another single parent facing another night on the street with her family, another police shooting in our city. Another setback, another neighbor in need.”

“How can you or I keep up with it all, let alone make a difference? Maybe it’s best to just take a break from the headlines, find a new game on our smartphone and just sort of take our mind off of things.”

Apathy subdues our action. Despair clouds our hope. Distraction does exactly what it describes – it dis-tractions us and robs us of a way forward. These invasive influences make it easier to check out than dig in.” (Emphasis added.)

“I’ve always sort of assumed that the young lawyer in this parable is asking the question ‘who is my neighbor’ from a relatively blank slate. But it’s clear that this young lawyer knows his stuff. Remember, Jesus asks him what is written in the Scriptures regarding eternal life, and that beautifully succinct response of ‘you shall all love God, and love your neighbor as yourself’ comes from him.”

“So what if his follow-up question – who is my neighbor? – is coming less from a place of innocence or ignorance and more from a place of knowing exhaustion? What if this young lawyer has eyes to see the many people around him who represent his neighbor and with a dizzying head is simply trying to figure out where to even begin?” [2]

“I found help and hope for this very question on the second workday of our high school ]mission] trip while building new trails at Young Gulch, a beloved national forest area now closed to the public due to past fire and flooding damage. With hardhats, picks, shovels, ropes and rock bars, we hiked a mile and half up and into our new worksite carrying the hope of a new day. It was there, while shoveling, sawing, lifting and hauling, that we were introduced to the art of trail building and the important work of finding the critical edge.” (Emphasis added.)

“In terms of trail building, the critical edge forms the crucial guiding line from which you begin and orient your work. It is the marker between path and planet, trail and wilderness. Your footing and direction are both determined from there, and though countless shrubs and boulders may lie ahead and around, the critical edge marks where you will carve out your 30” wide path, and that is what makes the work doable. So for our team of 30 students and 6 adults, this critical edge became our path by which to walk and work. And work we did! It was like being blessed with the gift of traction. Our critical edge to guide us, we literally dug in and blazed new trails that others, we hope, may follow and enjoy for years to come.” (Emphases added.)

“This process of finding traction for our work was brought home in a new workshop that we incorporated into our mission trips this year. A workshop called ‘Mission Possible.’

“Essentially, Mission Possible is an exercise that challenges multiple groups to take on a complex and often overwhelming social problem using a very limited set of ‘dealt resources.’ The creative challenge is to find which crucial slice of the problem your team wants to focus on and then leverage your limited resources to make the greatest possible impact.” (Emphases added.)

“Middle schoolers using glass jars to build empathy. High school students using wooden baskets to raise awareness via social media. Neither of these ideas will knock out the layered, complex problems of bullying and climate change, but they do provide a way forward, a critical edge to ward off apathy and dig into action. The goal here is to root out those invasive influences of distraction and despair, and then live out our calling by putting our faith into action. We don’t have to move every boulder, but we do need to discern and then do our part.” (Emphasis added.)

“That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at in this parable: connecting exposed belief to explicit action. Even if this young lawyer is asking ‘who is my neighbor’  from a place of overwhelming apathy and despair, there is hope is Jesus’ simple response. Know who you are and who your neighbors are, and even if can only reach out to one, do it. Put your faith into action, even if others are walking by. Be that very inspiration. Host a book read; plant a rain garden; start a justice choir; advocate for mental health programs. Find your critical edge and dig in.” (Emphases added.)

“Friends, this is the work we have been doing together as a community throughout the entire Open Doors, Open Futures process. . . . In fact, in seeking to find our own critical edge, Westminster has set aside serious time . . . to ask of God and one another this young lawyer’s question – “who is our neighbor?” In the midst of our work and worship, we’ve [been] wrestling and discerning questions about our gifts, resources, and partnerships, seeking to understand where God is calling us as a community. “

“By engaging these very questions, we are finding action in place of apathy, hope in the midst of despair, and the blessing of traction for our ministry even in our changing downtown context.”

“That’s what the love of God and neighbor demands of us: find your place of calling, your critical edge, and dig in. It’s as simple as that and as hard as that.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the continuum of apathy and action, where do you fall today? What are your gifts? Who is your neighbor? Have you found your critical edge? May God bless us with traction for lives and ministries.” (Emphasis added.)

The Prayer of Confession

Before the reading of the Holy Scripture and the sermon, the congregation joined in the following prayer of confession:

  • “Gracious God, our sins and sorrows are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name and what our hearts can no longer bear. Set us free from a past that we cannot change and open to us a future in which we can be changed. May the light of your love open our eyes to the grace that is already calling us home. By your grace, may we grow ever more in your way of justice, mercy, and peace.”

Conclusion

Another frequent, and appropriate, interpretation of this parable emphasizes that the Levite and the priest who passed by the injured man were of higher status in Israel at the time whereas the Samaritans were not well-regarded. Thus, one’s status in the community is not the mark of a good neighbor. Instead, what counts is what one does to help the injured man. In this instance, the Samaritan is clearly a good neighbor.

However, the overall message of Jesus, for me, is that anyone and everyone is my neighbor. Thus, the question arises as to whether and how any individual can help everyone. The answer to this question is clearly “No,” and the result of such reflection, as the sermon suggests, can be incapacitation of the individual and failure to be kind to a neighbor, failure to provide help to a neighbor.

That leads to the second foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31).

But Jesus is not calling each of us to try to do everything that needs doing in the world.

Important in my own struggles with this dilemma is the following homily often attributed to my personal saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero, but actually written in November 1979 by Kenneth Edward Untener, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, for a memorial mass for deceased priests:[3]

  • “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”
  • “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”
  • “No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.”
  • “That is what we are all about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.”
  • “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
  • “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a  future that is not our own.”

Rev. Blue’s questions at the end of his sermon are very helpful. Find your place of calling or critical edge. Then, dig in and do what you can to help your neighbor, knowing and accepting that it may not be perfect or complete.

Another Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way. Each of us needs to find his or her vocation which “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[4]

Vocation, for me, implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.[5]

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Another interpretation of this Parable does not see the lawyer as honestly seeking guidance from Jesus. Instead the lawyer is seen as cleverly asking trick questions to elicit answers from Jesus that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus, however, more cleverly declines to answer the questions and instead induces the lawyer to answer his own questions, the second  after Jesus tells a story. (My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).)

[3] Ken Untener, The Practical Prophet : Pastoral Writings at iii (Paulist Press; New York 2007) (Untener called this prayer “Reflection on Ministry”).

[4] See My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014).

[5] See My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

Does the Church Control Salvation?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster               Presbyterian Church

This was the title of the November 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by our Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Scripture passages for the day were Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46.

The Sermon

“The newest members of our Congregation [who were welcomed that day] . . [are] a slice of 21st century American religious reality. Gay, straight, married, single, partnered, and divorced. People at the top of their profession and others who have been homeless or are without work. Former Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians from other congregations, immigrants and long-time Minnesotans. People who come with questions and doubts, others very much at home in Christian tradition. One has practiced Buddhism. Several were raised in non-Christian households. Two are becoming Christians today and will be baptized.”

“They’re here because their journey in faith brought them. For some the work of this church in the city drew them in, for others the desire to belong to a community, for others the education offered. For all of them worshipping God in this setting and with this people has given them a new spiritual home. This is the church in our time. Our journey now joins with theirs.”

“If the question is, ‘Does the Church control salvation?’ the answer needs to be offered carefully. We don’t want to try to deny other religious traditions their meaning, but at the same time we don’t want to water down our own convictions, especially on this final Sunday before Advent, when we celebrate Christ the King, the one who, in the words of Ephesians, is ‘above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)”

“Long ago it was a basic article of faith that the Church did, in fact, control salvation. It was common knowledge that to gain God’s favor one had to be on good terms with the Church, because the saving work of Jesus Christ came through the Church. This gave the Church a lot of power over the spiritual lives of people. As in any situation with an imbalance of power, the temptation for abuse always hovered nearby.”

“The 16th century Protestant Reformation, we like to say, developed as an uprising against the abuse of power of the Roman clergy. They controlled access to God so tightly believers felt trapped on this side of heaven until they met the demands of the church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: no salvation outside the Church. The priest in every parish was a spiritual power-broker.”

“Lest we be too quick to speak ill of our Roman Catholic siblings, we should note that Protestant history is salted with similar declarations about who controls the gates of heaven. While Catholics placed that control in the hands of Rome and its priests, the Reformers used theological conformity as a way to maintain control over things divine. One passed heavenly muster only if one’s statement of faith met certain theological standards. It was a litmus test and we can still see it in use today in some churches.”

“That’s a Protestant version of no salvation outside the church. The continuing existence of so many Protestant denominations today is an ecclesiastical hangover from over indulgence in theological conformity among those convinced they have a lock on the truth.”

“Christians have always wanted to say who’s ‘in’ and who’s not, who’s ‘been saved’ and who has not. We would like the Church to be able to control salvation.”

“Then along comes the Final Judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel, and things take on a different hue. Jesus says,‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

“There’s nothing in there about following a particular theological roadmap; nothing in the text about staying in the church’s good graces in order to curry favor with the Almighty. In fact, neither church nor theology is mentioned.”

“It turns out salvation belongs to God alone and has nothing to do with the exercise of ecclesiastical authority or with meeting a theological litmus test, and everything to do with how we treat the poor and those deemed unworthy by the world.”

“Jesus had said that love of God and love of neighbor are the greatest commandments, when asked what we must do to inherit eternal life. Now we see what that looks like on Judgment Day: ‘Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

“All the theological grandstanding and all the church authority we can summon will not stand up to the clarity and power and simplicity of those words: as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. It’s not what the Church thought long ago, not what it thought in the Reformation, and not what a lot of us in the Church think today, but this is what the reign of God looks like: loving others.”

“The Church does not control salvation; God does, which is a good thing, because the Almighty surely has a broader vision than any of us.”

“You and I will need to find ways to hold fast to Jesus Christ even as we respect the traditions of our neighbors, including those who have no faith at all.”

“And as far as the business of salvation, we can leave that to God.”

Conclusion

As I said in an earlier post, the first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer, who asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replied, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that. (Luke 10:25-37)

The passage from Matthew that was one of the texts for this sermon makes the same point.

I agree that this is the greatest commandment. It clearly is difficult, if not impossible, to follow this commandment all the time. But Jesus tells us in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15: 11-31) that God forgives us, time and time again, for our failure to do what we should do and doing what we should not.

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[1] Westminster’s website has links for an audio recording of the sermon and the church bulletin for the day.