Why Church? To Care for the World

Jeff Garrison 
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
March 20, 2022
Luke 10:25-37

Sermon recorded on Friday, March 18 at Mayberry Church

Thoughts at the beginning of worship:

We’re continuing with our Lenten theme, “Why Church?” Our world can be cruel. But that shouldn’t be the church. We’re to show an alternative to the world.[1] We’re to be a place and a people who care for others. And because we know the church is far more than just what goes on inside these walls an hour on Sunday morning, we are reminded to care not just here, but wherever we find ourselves. How can we care for one another, for our neighbors, and for the world?   

Before reading the Scriptures:

The Good Samaritan is one of the best known and most loved parts of scripture. We have Jesus answering the questions of a lawyer. This isn’t a lawyer like we think, but one who studies God’s law. In other words, he’s a theologian. That should let the lawyers off the hook a bit; after all, they find themselves at the blunt of enough jokes. This lawyer/theologian begins by asking Jesus a question about eternal life. Jesus asks him what the law says, and he answers with the great commandment. Love God and neighbor. 

Jesus agrees. But the lawyer continues, asking for clarification. This provides an opportunity for Jesus to tell a story. As Luke recalls Jesus’ teachings in this section, he points out that our relationships to neighbors, to Jesus, and to God are all important.[2]

Read Luke 10:25-37

After the reading of Scripture:

Come on Jesus! You were asked a direct question. “Who is my neighbor?” There can’t be a better way to muddy the waters about neighbors than to tell a story about a journey. It’s hard enough to know our neighbor when we deal with those living close by. But when we travel? 

Traveling

When we travel, we often don’t want to be bothered? Think of how things are designed to insure our comfort and privacy? We drive in enclosed cars on freeways that keep us from facing other vehicles, with easy access ramps to and from the highways which helps us avoid hassles. At the exits we find drive-through restaurants where we talk to a machine along with gas pumps where we swipe a card and never talk to an attendant. Our whole system of highway transportation has evolved to isolate us from one another. 

So, who is our neighbor? How do we know a neighbor when traveling? How about closer to home. Are those in the next hollow our neighbor? Who are our neighbors in the United States? In the world? What about Russia or North Korea or Cuba? This question is problematic. How many billion people are they in the world? They can’t all be my neighbor, can they? We must admit that Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question doesn’t make our quest for eternal life any easier.  

Putting it into context: The Good Samaritan doesn’t stand alone

To understand this passage, realize that the parable of the Good Samaritan, like much of scripture, doesn’t stand alone! It’s a part of a longer conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. Like lawyers of our day, this dude tries to trap Jesus. He asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In a way, the question is flawed. How can we do anything to inherit. Inheritance is a gift; we don’t work for it.[3] Eternal life comes through grace, but back to the dialogue… 

Jesus responds with a question of his own. “What do the scriptures say?” The man answers, quotes from the Torah, the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, telling Jesus that one must “love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind,” and one must love your neighbor as yourself.[4]

Who is our neighbor?

“You got it,” Jesus responds. Do this and live.” Perhaps the lawyer hopes to trap Jesus as he asks a follow-up question. “Who is my neighbor?” However, the question naturally arises from such a command. The Jewish rabbis of the day had generally interpreted one’s neighbor in restricted ways. They did not have the benefit of Mr. Rogers encouraging us all to be good neighbors. Instead, “neighbors” were generally understood to be pure blooded Jews.[5] Others, like the half-bred Samaritans, could be ignored.  

The lawyer’s probably thinking, “If I only have to love those like myself, I’ve got it made! The boarding pass for the heaven express is in the mail.” And then Jesus tricks him into realizing those low-down dirty Samaritans who live across the tracks are neighbors. Our passage starts with the lawyer trying to trap Jesus, now we see that Jesus laid a trap for him. Upon hearing the story, the lawyer is forced to admit that the Samaritan is the good guy. 

Nouns and verbs

Interestingly, the man’s question speaks about a neighbor as a noun (a person, place of thing). Jesus responds, not with a noun, but with the verb form of a neighbor. A neighbor becomes an action, one who shows mercy. Being neighborly isn’t because of location; it’s something we do.[6]

Story told with contemporary enemies:

Jesus ends the conversation with the command to go and do likewise. Pretty tough words! “Go and do.” Over the centuries this story has become one of the most loved and best-known passages in scripture. But do we realize the force of this command? This is a scandal! If we were to tell this story today, with the force that Jesus told it, the Samaritan would be someone we despised—maybe a Russian soldier or an illegal alien.  

Encountering Jesus

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren describes a series of encounters with Jesus that “ruined his life, ruined it for good, in a good kind of way.”[7] In some ways, this is what happens. If the lawyer listens, this encounter will change his life radically. I don’t think he’s that interested in being changed, but it happens.

I vividly remember back when I was in seminary in Pittsburgh. I’d been hired, sight unseen, to assist at a church in Butler, a town to the north. In the phone interview, they sold me on Butler as a quaint little town that’s a pleasant drive through the countryside, just 30 miles up Route 8.” Little did I know that in the 30 miles from the seminary to the church were 48 stop lights! I counted them on my second trip. 

I was always in a rush on Sunday mornings as I had to be there early to teach Youth Sunday School. One Sunday I was running a little later than usual, and I passed a family whose car was broken down on the highway. Do you think I stopped? No, I would have been late and who knows what those kids I taught would have gotten into. But I felt guilty afterwards—especially as I pondered this passage. I played the role of the priest rushing to Jerusalem to lead a service in the temple, except that in the story, the priest is heading away from Jerusalem. He can’t use his work as an excuse.[8]

An impossible commandment?

This story stands as an impossible commandment. Yet, at the same time, it’s an imperative we follow it. You might say in taking this story seriously, we’re placed between a rock and a hard place! We cannot be neighbors to everyone; we cannot always act like the Samaritan to all the people we come contact with in this world. Only God can do that, right? Thankfully, there is forgiveness and grace.

An allegory 

Let me suggest another way to draw ourselves into this story. Instead of trying to see ourselves as the Samaritan (or even the priest or Levite), let’s place ourselves in the ditch beside the road. We’ve been robbed and beaten. We lie helpless. The Samaritan who stops is Jesus. In some ways Jesus was a like the Samaritans. Persecuted, the “religious Jews” looked down on him. And Jesus paid out more than required for our wounds—giving his life for our sins. 

So, Jesus picks us up out of the ditch, bandages our wounds, restores our soul, makes sure we are on the way to recovery, and arranges to continue care for us. By the way, the church now plays the role of the innkeeper. Once we have been nursed back to health, Jesus pats us on the back and tells us, “Go and do the same.”      

Understanding this passage this way, as an allegory, summarizes the gospel. Jesus shows great mercy to us and expects us to do the same to our sisters and brothers in this world. Such interpretation of the passage is ancient, as early as the second century.[9] But even as an allegory, it comes back to what we do.

The desire for eternal life

It’s interesting that this story is a part of the extended answer to the question, “what must I do to receive eternal life.” In answering this question, Jesus quickly moves pass the commandments, the theological dogma, and instead Jesus tells a story about our relationship to our neighbors. For Jesus, these relationships are not isolated incidents or theological concepts, but actual encounters with real people who have needs. 

If we have been lifted out of the ditch by Jesus, if we have experienced salvation, if we are assured of eternal life, we must go and do likewise, to all our neighbors.  

Emphasis on “Go and do”

While I accept the allegory interpretation of this passage as one way to understand it, I also see the danger in such an interpretation. John Calvin, one of the founders of our theological tradition, questioned the allegory interpretation because he felt it diminished our Lord’s command to “Go and do likewise.[10]

Let me interpret this parable in this manner. We must first accept and believe in Jesus Christ and the gift he offers to us (that’s Jesus pulling us out of the ditch). Following our acceptance of salvation, we must then live as the Samaritan, helping others, regardless of how we feel about them.

Conclusion

Like all the folks in the story, we’re all on a journey through life. The question we’re left with is how we go about making this journey. Do we continue to travel down the road with our windows closed and our eyes straight head, the radio up so loud that we can’t hear anyone calling out for help? Or do we slow down and look for opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others? The lawyer asks the question for us, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus turns that question around and asks us, “To whom have you been a neighbor?” How do we answer? Amen.


[1] The Great Ends of the Presbyterian Church USA include the command to “exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world.” Book of Order, F-1.0304

[2] Following the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel is the story of Mary and Martha (relating to him, then gives the example of the Lord’s Prayer (our relationship to God the Father). 

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2008), 286.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18

[5] Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke: he New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 311, 313 n5.

P[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 323.. 

[7] Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004 ), 20.

[8] We’re told the priest and Levite were going “down that road.” Jerusalem sat on a hill at 2600 feet. Jericho was below sea level. So going down meant they were leaving their work behind and possibility heading home or to visit realities. See Edwards, 320.

[9] Edwards, 324.

[10] Edwards, 324, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.5.19. 

“A man was going down… (Luke 10:30). A foggy morn on Laurel Fork Road.

6 thoughts on “Why Church? To Care for the World”

  1. Those are great points on traveling and who our neighbors are. Why church–what a great question I still struggle with. I don’t go to church, but I’m spiritual. I often think I would return if I could find a pastor/priest who spoke to my soul.

    We’ll see…

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