Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 5 of 8: Half-Truths
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
April 9th, 2017
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’]”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
I got asked that same question this last week. It was Tuesday morning. It was too early in the morning, but my doorbell rang and there they stood representing some church; I don’t know what. They asked me the same question. The text question is: what must I do to inherit eternal life? The question they asked me is: do you know where you’re going to go when you die? But they didn’t have an answer for me. I said to them: please tell me where am I going to go when I die? [laughter] The answer they offered didn’t sound like this about: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor likewise. No they wanted me to pray a believer’s prayer that someone had made up and make it into all about me. There’s no neighbor in what they were offering. And so it bothered me and it’s been under my skin. It bothers me when people take Scripture — and even with good intentions — pervert it and make it into something it is not. It is not about me.
Our gospel reading this morning is one that is quite familiar to us. It’s one we all recognize. Even the most secular of us know the story of the Good Samaritan. We can surely tell it from memory if you give us just a moment. It is about a man going from Jerusalem down to Jericho who was attacked by robbers who stripped him robbed him of his clothes and beat him, leaving him half dead. There are a couple of highly religious people who pass by. They are absolutely no help whatsoever. Jesus implies they did the wrong thing or perhaps he would say they missed the opportunity to do the right thing. Somehow their inner dialogue told them that fulfilling ceremonies and image — don’t be seen with damaged injured people, don’t be with a beaten man – and being on time was more important to God than compassion. That was their inner dialogue and so they pass by being no help whatsoever. But then along comes a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews were diametrically opposed to each other. This Samaritan who has every reason: political, personal, historical, to walk on by notices this man lying by the road, places him on his own donkey and provides care for him that costs something.
This is the lesson we learned in Sunday school as children. We have a responsibility for injured strangers even when they are foreigners to us. And we are very clear that we are to be the Samaritan in the story; we are to be good neighbors. We are to do what we may not want to do, may not like to do, we are constrained to even do what scares us. The Samaritan is good because he is acting in the ways of God. We are on level one, great insights even small children grasp, like how to be a good neighbor.
Would you believe me if I told you there were two more levels to this text? Ways for us to hear it, ways we must hear it because we are adults. Would you come with me into the elevator? It’s a big elevator. We will go up a level. Now we are on the level of the big picture view, thematic understanding of biblical messages and adult insights; welcome to level two. The story of the Good Samaritan falls toward the middle section of the gospel of Luke. In this section of Luke begins right before the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus sends out in ministry seventy-two people to teach, to heal, to preach. They experienced great success, lives are changed and they come back and they do what we do when everything goes well; they start congratulating themselves. They feel pretty good about themselves and they are in the process of putting together the inner dialogue, the inner narrative, the story that they are going to tell about what happened and why they were so successful. Well it was our good decisions. That’s why God chose us; we are righteous people. We are smart. We are smarter than most. We must be; God chose us. God placed this important ministry in our hands. Lucky for God that God could call on us. We are brave enough to go out and talk. We had the right words that we spoke. We are unique. We are justified in our ministry.
Jesus overhears this formation of their inner dialogue that they are having between themselves and Jesus interjects into the conversation. He says: the great triumph is not your authority over evil but God’s authority over you. It’s not what you do for God that is important here. It is what God does through you. That is the agenda for rejoicing. Be glad your names are written in heaven. While that’s a bringer downer, right? It is no longer all about you.
I’m thinking this lawyer overheard Jesus say: be glad your names are written in heaven and his mind went squirmy. You ever get squirmy minded? Your mind starts squirming and he started wondering how do I get into that club? Maybe for you it happened in junior high and you want to be one of the popular kids. How do I get into that club? What do I have to do? He asks the question of Jesus: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Luke offers a little bit of commentary about this man. Luke says he was trying to justify himself. Wait a minute; if I said that word in Greek, some of you are going to make the connection. He’s trying to justify himself. This is a word we know: justify. Justify in Greek is dikaioó. Is that ringing a bell with anybody? The word for righteousness in Greek is dikaiosuné. The word justify is dikaioó. Dikaiosuné, the word for righteousness — we know — this is the wonderful word from the royal court meaning that you have been gifted with access to the king. We also know from our conversation about the dikaiosuné that you must never presume you have earned access to the king. It is always, always, always a gift.
So this man is trying to justify himself. He’s trying to declare himself as righteous, having earned access to God. Now begins the middle section of the gospel of Luke, from Luke 10, ten chapters all the way through Luke 19 is the theological answer to this squirmy minded question: what must I do to justify myself? Tell me please, I’ll do it. Please, please. You look like you’re familiar with what I was just doing, squirmy minded wondering. Soon after this Jesus encounters two sisters: Martha stays in the kitchen and wipes the table clean enough for Jesus. Mary comes in and sits down at the feet of Jesus and listens. Mary is praised. Martha is not; Martha is trying to justify herself; she misses out. There’s a run in with the Pharisees and teachers of the law where Jesus said such terrible people; you make others justify themselves. You put on their backs loads of things that they must do to make themselves good enough for God. You are terrible people.
Then Jesus tells the story about a rich fool who builds bigger barns to store his stuff. He’s done everything to secure himself and he has justified comfort in his own eyes. God calls him a fool. Then Jesus invites his hearers to ponder the lilies of the field and the birds of the air; your existence does not have to be justified. Then Jesus talks about settling with your opponent. We don’t always have to be right; we don’t always have to be in charge. Being right or in control of other people does not justify us. Jesus tells about a party, a man comes to the party and presumes he is important and he sits in a high place and he is terribly embarrassed when the host of the party comes over and whispers into his ear: you need to move to a lower place. Being important, presuming importance does not justify oneself. And then Jesus starts in on the big three; this is the gospel within the gospel. This is Luke 15, the story about sheep, the story about a lost coin. If there is a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost the sheppard goes looking. If there are ten coins and one of them gets lost, the woman goes looking. If there are two sons and both of them are lost, the father goes looking. Who is the hero of the story? Did the sheep find itself; get back, clean itself up and make itself worthy? No it did not. God is the hero; the shepherd is the hero, found the sheep and had a party. Did the coin find itself; shine itself up and get all valuable back in with the other coins? No it did not. The hero of the story is God the woman of the home. Did the son in the far country find himself and come home all fixed? No, he did not. He was as lost as ever when his father found him at the end of the drive way. Did the older son who never left the house, he would not allow himself to be found by his father and he remains lost.
I would invite you to pay attention to the speeches in the stories of Luke 15. The speech planned by the younger son to justify himself to his father. The powerless impotence of this planned speech to justify himself. He is already seeing through. What he says is not going to make a bit of difference. The father makes it clear: I have already justified you, stop talking and coming to the party. The older son, the speech of the older son in his anger to justify his anger, the ineffectiveness of the angry outburst, the moralizing judgment of his brother to justify himself is quietly endured by his father. Maybe listen to, maybe understood, but it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The father is already decided. Justification has happened.
This thirst, this desire to belong drives us to justify ourselves and now it gets worse because it goes where our money is. This section now turns to the attraction of money as a means of justifying ourselves. There’s the parable of the dishonest manager trying to be the big man in town who gets himself in debt way over his head and has to be let off the hook by his debt holders. The rich man who accumulates and enjoys his leisure and feels justified in his own eyes, looks at his own life has its own judgment, says: I must be doing something right and then he dies and goes to hell. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus; nine of them feel justified in simply walking away as if they deserved what they got. One of them comes back and offers gratitude, knowing he received a gift. Two men go to the temple to pray, one of them is a Pharisee, keeps all the rules, knows all the ceremonial practices thanks God: oh God, thank you for making me not like others, like these sinners. The other man who went to pray that day was a tax collector who said God I am in need of your grace every day. Guess which one went home justified?
Jesus said, let the children come to me for too such as these belongs the kingdom of God. Children who trust that what they need will be provided for them. And then there’s the parable of the rich young ruler who asks the same question that started this section. What must I do to inherit eternal life? How do I get into the heaven club? And Jesus gives him the impossible. Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, leave your home and come follow me; because it is not possible for us to earn our way in. And then there’s the story of short, conniving Zacchaeus who is just sure that his accumulation of wealth will in the end justify him as being important and necessary and worthy. It’s clear from just the few descriptives that Zacchaeus is alone and unhappy. We don’t know what Jesus says to him that day. But what we see in Zacchaeus is the relief of no longer having to play the game of trying to get into the club. I’ll buy my way in was the way he lived his life and he is released from that and he says I’m then give away half of this monstrosity and if I’ve defrauded people I will pay them back four times over. The problem in all of these texts is when we start associating our life successes with our own goodness, our own efforts, our own triumph over evil and things are going well and we are just off on ourselves. We are just sure that God is blessing us real good; that we are just God’s blessing to this earth. And God wants us to have and to consume and to accumulate because this is a measure of our worth. We have an easy time believing that those who are not as successful as we are simply just not as hard working, they’re not as talented, they’re not as good, they are not as persistent, they are not as blessed by God as we are.
What do you suppose Jesus would say to us about that? I mean after he stopped throwing up. Tying our worth to our income is dangerous. Oh and let things fall apart for us up. Let the economy shift a little bit. Let us get laid off from our job. Let our company be downsized. Let us get fired. Let us be less effective than we like to be in business, in our marriage, as parents. Let us receive unwanted health news and we turn on ourselves with a wicked judgment. We are just sure that we screwed up; we’ve done something wrong and this is our payback. We have fallen and God is cursing us for what we’ve done and there is crying and weeping and gnashing of teeth. What have I done to deserve this?
You don’t have to justify yourself; you cannot justify yourself; you must not try to justify yourself. God’s unmerited love is a gift. You are in, you belong. Who told you that you weren’t? I bet it was someone trying to get a buck out of you. You don’t have to justify yourself. Toward the end of this section, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees. They swagger up to him and they say: you talk about this kingdom of God, when is the kingdom of God going to come? Show it to us. And Jesus says to them: the kingdom of God is not coming in things that you can observe, nor will you be able to say, look, there it is; come see it. The kingdom of God is among you, it’s how you treat people. Then he lowers his voice and he turns to his disciples and he says the days are coming when you will long to see my kingdom, but it’s going to get really hard to see it. Others are going to proclaim there it is, come look, we got the kingdom right here. Don’t go. Do not set off in pursuit of what they offer. Those who try to secure their life will lose it. Those who lose their life for my sake will keep it.
We are almost to the end of this middle section on the futility of trying to justify yourself in God’s eyes, trying to justify yourself in your own eyes, in the eyes of the world. This section started with the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was seized by thieves; he was robbed and stripped; he was beaten and he was left half-dead. Religious people were no help whatsoever. But one came down the road who was representing the way of God. He placed this beaten man on his donkey and he interceded life at his own expense. This section, ten chapters on the futility of trying to please the world ends today with Jesus entering Jerusalem and today we waive palms in a parade for this man who came up from Jericho to Jerusalem. Today he’s riding on a donkey that is not his own. A little bit later this week he will be seized and robbed and stripped and beaten. And to be honest we can’t quite distinguish the thieves from the religious folks. They will not miss the opportunity they have to get the job done. They will not leave him half dead; they’ll get it done. They will end the week thinking that they have spoken the final word.
I forgot to tell you were on level 3 now. The power of people like Jesus, who know they are justified by God; recipients of God’s grace who live a different kind of life, who without fear or concern can associate and provide care for — well, you know — the wrong people. People of grace who simple presence sets free others from the burden of the world. And this section ends with the echo in Jesus of words spoken back at the beginning of this section: the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God’s authority over you and God’s presence with you. The great triumph is not what you will do for God, but what God will do through you. That’s the agenda for rejoicing. Be glad your name is written in heaven. Who told you it wasn’t? Today in Jesus we see two promises and we will see them even more clearly as we go through the week. God’s first promise: I will be with you as you go through your life trying to live my way. God’s second promise — after the world is done with you — I will speak a final word. Jesus trusts God’s promises and offers his life that we might see. This is a great expense for him. For us, and today we hold our palms and we wait for the one who will come down the road and intercede life. Thanks be to God.