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A gospel that surprises – Part One of Lent

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First Sunday of Lent – March 5, 2017

Luke 10:25-42 and Psalm 15

When it comes to Jesus’ parables, there are often so many explanations for them, that you wouldn’t believe it. If there is one parable of Jesus that we all know and the world out there is also extremely familiar with, this is it. For example, you hear phrases like, “Oh well, I thought I should be the Good Samaritan and so I cared for this person in need.”

In this parable a lawyer posed a question to Jesus. Here the lawyer would have been an expert in the Mosaic Law (the Law of Moses) and not the type of court lawyer we are used to today. The lawyer’s question was, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” What rubs this feeling of familiarity even deeper into our skin; is the fact that the lawyer that tried to cause Jesus to stumble, knew the law full well, and he even quotes the Jewish law to Jesus.

And then to add even more insult to violence, the lawyer hastens to say to Jesus, “but I do that.”

The biggest surprise is that over-familiarity brings people closer to stumbling, and this even leads us, although I hope not…towards stumbling. If you’re so comfortable that you can complete the sentences and know exactly what’s going on, then nobody can teach you.

It is precisely on this thought that Jesus masterfully catches the audience of this parable off guard.

Doesn’t it remind a person of the well-known saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt?”

In the Hebrew Scriptures one has always heard about care for the vulnerable person. It would include the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant and the refugee. Leviticus 19:34 says it so clearly “you must treat the foreigner like a fellow citizen and love him as yourself. Weren’t you strangers in Egypt?” The lawyer knew this. He was well acquainted with it.

Still, his second question “and who is my neighbour” is meant to draw the circle just a little bit closer, and perhaps Jesus’ as well…

It’s as if the lawyer wants to tell Jesus, “but you can’t be referring to those people?” They aren’t my neighbours, are they?

If Jesus told a parable of the Foreigner-Samaritan being the injured and vulnerable, half-murdered traveller, and described a Jewish Jesus-follower in the role of the helper, then no one would have blinked an eye.

Such a story would fit in with the cultural expectations of that time.

But this isn’t how the parable plays out; it actually turns the over-familiar on its head. It shakes every expectation outside of the predictable. “Whoa…!” Jesus’s hearers say, and “whoa” we also say. Don’t you and I also feel a tiny religious stab when Jesus describes the priest as one who looks the other way, and walks on the other side of the road? Our spiritual masks are pulled right off and the stab becomes a direct jab when Jesus goes on and tells about a Levite who walks on by and doesn’t even glance in the direction of the injured man. You see, this parable of the Good Samaritan turns all our expectations upside-down. The homeless guy, the other person that doesn’t fit in with the current culture, he’s the guy that shows compassion. Do we get that? Ouch…! The person that isn’t like us is the one in this parable that cares for the half-murdered traveller alongside the road.

Who is this half-murdered person in our frame of reference?

Is it the person without a cellphone and who can’t phone roadside assistance that can’t quickly get hold of his or her own circle of friends?

She or he can’t save herself or himself. They literally have no safety network around them.

Do you know what? This person solely relies upon the grace and goodness of their fellow human being and on God’s mercy. These are the only devices available to turn the situation of need around.

Aren’t you and I just as bankrupt before God as the man that was found half-murdered alongside the road in the parable? We too basically have nothing to offer to God.

We don’t have anything to help us along, and sometimes it truly is the person we expect the least from that can point us towards the one who can really deliver us. And yes, we would like to help our neighbour, and often we can do it, but by pitching in and helping we don’t afford our way to a place with God in heaven. It’s the one with nothing, the one who comes with empty hands, whom God receives with open arms. There will be times when we fail miserably in helping our neighbour.

When we do fail, it’s good to know that obtaining eternal life, which the lawyer was asking about, isn’t something we can earn. It is rather something that is given to us. And it’s not only that, it has already been given to us.

Perhaps now it also makes sense that when Mary is simply listening to Jesus while Martha is the one who is overly active, getting everything in place, that Jesus actually explains to Martha that Mary has chosen the best part. Her focus is on what Jesus has to offer, on listening to Jesus. What a surprise! I don’t need to do anything to inherit eternal life. I am allowed to come to Christ empty-handed. In fact, I am invited to know that there is nothing I can do to inherit eternal life.

 

Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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