Luke 10: 25-42
Today’s passage from Luke is longer than we normally hear together. Usually, we either hear what we call “the story of the good Samaritan” or we hear “the story of Mary and Martha”. We don’t often hear these together. But I think there is real value in hearing them together that all connects to that first question asked by the legal expert. To re-read you just that part:
“A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
What I want to suggest is that the two stories that follow, then: the Story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Martha and Mary: that these two stories go together as illustrations of that law, of that interpretation of the law. That these two stories show us what it is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
So, with that as the “topic sentence” of my sermon, let’s spend some time looking at these two stories.
We are so familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is probably the most well-known story that Jesus tells. A man is traveling down what is often considered a dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. He is set upon by thieves who left him near death. A priest sees him and passes on the other side. A Levite sees him and passes by the other side. Then the person that the legal expert would normally dismiss shows up. And he, in contrast to those who should have helped, stops, takes care of him, takes him to an inn, pays for him to stay there and be taken care of. At the end Jesus asks the legal expert who acted as a neighbor and then he tells the man to go and do the same.
When we hear this story what do we think? How do we feel?
I know you’ve all heard about the study that was done with seminary students in the 70s. Some seminary students who were in a class were told they had to go to another building. On the way they encountered a moaning man slumped in an alleyway. They varied the amount of urgency they gave to the students as well as the task they would have when they arrived. Some were told they would talk about seminary jobs, others were told they would have to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Some were told they were already late, others that they were early but should head over anyway. The results were that about 40% offered some kind of help and the only thing that seemed to impact their actions one way or another was how big a hurry they were in, or their anxiety level about what they were already supposed to be doing. 40% offered some kind of help, meaning that 60% offered no help at all. Again, these were seminary students and many of them had just been told to focus on the Good Samaritan story.
To me these are convicting numbers. Convicting information.
But when we stop and think about this, we know this to be true. When we pass homeless people on the street, how often do we stop and at least acknowledge them? Ask them if they are okay or if they need anything? If they are sleeping or slumped over, do we stop and offer care?
I’ve shared with you before my own experience at my first congregation where a young girl was in need of help to get home and an entire session of people refused to help her in any way. They didn’t give her a ride, didn’t pay for a cab, didn’t offer to let her use the phone… all out of fear. They, too, had just heard the Good Samaritan story that Sunday. But putting it into realistic actions was another thing altogether for them.
I invite you to think about it in your own lives. Imagine a friend fell off a ladder while you were there. You wouldn’t hesitate to call for help, to get help, to offer help. But imagine you are walking, by yourself, without your cell phone, and you see a stranger who looks beaten up and is lying injured. What would you do then? Let’s say the person is of a different race? Would you be more and less likely to help? Let’s say they are wearing obvious gang clothes and there aren’t a lot of other people around. What would you do? Now let’s throw in that maybe you are in a hurry to get home because you are needing to take your sick child, grandchild or spouse to the doctor? Now what would you do?
I think for most of us, this story is a story of conviction. It calls us to think about how seriously we take the call to actually love our neighbors, those strangers, those people we don’t know, those we fear, even as we love ourselves.
But one of the things that I would like to point out to you is that Jesus is not condemning of those who didn’t help. I think he understands that we are all on this journey, all struggling to be better, to be more the neighbor that we are called to be. All of us. Instead, the emphasis for this story seems to me to be more on the unlikelihood of the Samaritan. He was not someone who people expected to do good, to do anything to help. He was the unexpected helper, the “angel” if you will because he was a messenger of love from God.
Who are the Good Samaritans of today?
There is a wonderful group of folk called BACA – Bikers against Child Abuse. This is a group of self-identified “scary”, rough bikers whose goal is to protect, support and care for children who have suffered abuse. A story on Yahoo told about one specific girl who was sexually abused by her step-father. She was so terrified by this man and by her experiences that she could not sleep at night, was scared all the time and was falling apart. BACA began to escort her to school, they went to court with her and stood by her as she testified against her step-dad, and they stayed outside her house all night in a circle, on their bikes, so she could sleep at night. These are the Good Samaritans of today.
We generally think that poor people, especially those who ask for help on the street or other places, are not generous. But this in fact is far from the truth. When we look at pure percentages, the poor give so much more generously from their poverty than any of us who are comfortable ever consider giving. Recently there have been a number of social experiments that have shown exactly how true this is. In one study, the experimenter had left a $100 bill where either a “comfortable” person or a homeless person would find it. Later they set up a situation where they are in need. In one video I saw that documented this, the experimenter found, at different times, the comfortable person and the homeless person sitting in a park a short time after having “found” the $100 bill. The experimenter pretended he was on the phone talking in desperation and in tears to a “pharmacist” who was telling him something very upsetting. He got off the phone and was crying on the bench near them about how he didn’t have the money he needed to get his sick daughter some medicine. The rich person simply got up and walked away, uneasy with the man’s distress. The homeless man, in contrast, who had just taken the $100 bill he had founded gone to target where he bought himself some food and a new blanket, expressed concern and asked the crying experimenter if he was okay. The man explained again that he needed money because his daughter was in need of medicine that he couldn’t afford. The homeless man told the experimenter to wait. He ran back into the target with the things he had just bought, asked for a refund for everything he had just bought for himself, came back and gave the $100 to the experimenter.
In another experiment, a person approached several people who were eating outside and asked if they would give him a slice of their pizza, or a piece of their chicken basket. All of those who were comfortable said no. All of them. In contrast, then, that same person approached a homeless person who had been given a couple left over pieces of pizza. Similarly, he said he was very hungry and would the homeless man be willing to share. Even though he only had a couple pieces, he did not hesitate to share it with this stranger. In the end, the experimenter who had asked for the food gave the homeless man $70 and you could see the homeless man break down in wracking sobs. $70 is not that much for most of us. But it was a world of money for this man who had nothing.
One of my lectionary group shared with me this week about a group called Food not Bombs who apparently can be a little scary at times in the strength of their convictions. But this same group, all dressed in black with tattoos, all smoking – can be found every Saturday in the park handing out food to any and all who need it.
This story of the Good Samaritan is radical. It is a radical story that calls us not only to risk treating everyone as we would treat ourselves, to risk loving even our neighbors whom we don’t like as ourselves. It was also a story that invited the legal expert to consider the possibility that a person whom he did not value, could not value, would not see as an equal human being, this Samaritan, might in fact be the very one who was doing the will of God. That this reject might be the one who had something to teach the legal expert. That this anathema might be the face of God, reflecting love, acting with care and kindness.
And then we come to the Mary and Martha story. In Jesus’ time women had their very clear place. It was a place of serving the men, doing the work of the household. It was not, ever, to be out with the men, learning, listening, partaking in the worship and conversations and community of the men. But Mary crossed that line. She wasn’t helping Martha. She was sitting at Jesus’ feet. She was honoring the Lord she loved and the God she loved by letting go of all her ideas of what it was to be a female at that time, what it was to be “proper” and “right”. Instead she did what her heart told her to do: to be with Jesus, to be learning and listening and loving. Those around her did not like it. Martha, in particular, who was working hard to do what she had always been told she was supposed to do, to be what she was always told she was supposed to be, did not like that Mary was stepping out of her place to be something else. But Jesus told her that Mary had chosen better. She had chosen LOVE of God over social acceptability.
Lent is a time when we are invited into self-reflection. We are invited to look at the areas in which we are called to grow, to risk, to try anew. On this the first Sunday in lent we are invited to look at our own actions and see where we are challenged to love God and neighbor with much more fullness. We aren’t always going to get these things right. And I want to point out that in neither of these stories is Jesus condemning the ones who didn’t get it right. He doesn’t yell at Martha. He doesn’t spend time expounding on the sins of the priest and the Levite. He doesn’t even scold or correct. What he does instead is to celebrate the wins, celebrate the times when loving God and loving neighbor over everything else is chosen. He celebrates the wins, the times when that call was answered. And then he invites. Mary, you’ve chosen the better part and it will not be taken from you. Legal Expert, see the astonishing, surprising man acting in the way God calls us to act and go and do likewise.
To return to where we started then Jesus tells the legal expert that all the commandments and laws can be summed up into two: to love the Lord your God with everything you are, AND to love your neighbor as yourself. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus shows us what it is to love your neighbor as yourself. In the story of Mary and Martha we see what it is to love God with all you are: putting aside the business and expectations of one’s life to sit, learn, worship. And then we have Jesus’ final words for today’s reading, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary.” First, he took all the commandments and summed them up into two things. And now he has taken the two things and summed them up into one. One thing is necessary. One thing. And that is love. When we love fully, when we are fully present in love with the God who IS love, then all the rest will follow. The Samaritan chose to love his neighbor as himself. And Mary chose love of Jesus and through that, love of God. We end then with Jesus words to Mary. “Mary has chosen the better part. It will not be taken from her.”