Moses said, “No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:14) Moses meant that no longer would people have to wonder as to how they should live a life faithful to God as they embrace the fulfillment of God’s promises as they inhabit the Promised Land. God’s will had been written also so that it could be thoroughly studied and learned.
But as we are all painfully aware, knowing what to do does not always result in doing the right thing. We tend to wrestle internally with competing concerns and priorities, but our actions – and our inactions – ultimately say more about what we truly believe. Or maybe better put, our actions say more about what is really influencing our decisions.
My earliest memories as a boy being raised in Florida include an absolute rule: Don’t feed the alligators! We all learned it. We all know it. If you feed an alligator it will lose its fear of humans and grow to associate humans with food. Then some day that alligator will be very big and if the you don’t have food, you or someone else may very well become food. So we don’t feed alligators. And if you ever see someone feeding an alligator you will rightly want to grab them by the ears and say very firmly, “Don’t feed the alligators!” And yet, some people do. You know they do. They won’t abide the letter or the spirit of the law. And there are other laws, maybe some that we won’t abide for either the letter or the spirit. That’s a serious problem.
The parable of the Good Samaritan very familiar to many of us. (Luke 10:25-37) It is among the most recognized parables. It is even a catch phrase in our culture – someone who does something unconditionally kind for a stranger. Everyone gets that and I bet many today don’t even know where it came from.
And so we have a couple of jobs this morning. 1. We need to remember its roots so we can share it with others as an important part of our Christian life and witness, and 2. We need to consider lessons in it we might have overlooked or not considered before. We’ll do both!
At this point, Jesus is working his way toward Jerusalem. He has already been rejected by Samaritan villages along the way. His preaching and teaching is shaking up the Jewish villages and cities as Jesus is emphasizing long suppressed and overlooked aspects and interpretations of the Law of Moses and criticizing the leaders who are responsible for missing the spirit of the law.
The lawyer testing Jesus is an expert in that Law of Moses, including the prophets and the history of Israel. He is hoping to cause a misstep that the authorities can use to discredit Jesus and his message. Once they agree on the summary of the Law, loving God and loving neighbor, he follows up. He wants to justify himself by pushing Jesus harder. And so he asks the question, Who is my neighbor?
Jesus could have said, “Whoever God puts in front of you. “ Instead, he shares this parable that pushes the answer back on the lawyer.
The Temple Priest and the Levite, like our Priests, Deacons and Lay Eucharistic Ministers, serve the Lord in his house, the Temple. Sure they know the law, but fail to then follow his commandments as regards the wounded traveler. We don’t know why, but it doesn’t matter why when you aren’t following God’s commands.
The contrast with the Samaritan is striking. The Jews and Samaritans despised each other. The Jews claimed the Samaritans were transplanted usurpers of land and traditions they did not deserve for over 800 years. The Samaritans claim they were the true descendants of Moses - and it was the Jews who were wrong. The lawyer would naturally identify with the Priests and Levites. They absolutely knew better. Yet the despised Samaritan is the one who does the right thing.
We’d love to all be that Good Samaritan, but too often we’re like the Priests and Levites.
By the grace of God, “the Word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” And it is even closer now, as Paul notes in his Letter to the Colossians, the Word is alive and dwelling in us. We have no excuses and he has invited us into this ministry.
“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)
That’s roughly the classic lesson of this parable. I’d like to share a couple other angles on it that I hope will strengthen your faith in your heart and as you live it.
First, as I said earlier, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He will go by way of Jericho, which means he will ascend up that same difficult road. Jerusalem sits on a hill about 3,800 feet above sea level. Jericho is literally the lowest city in the world at 800 feet below sea level. It’s a rise of over 4,000 feet over 15-20 miles, so very steep with a lot of switchbacks. He will, in a real sense, be waylaid, attacked in an ambush just like that traveler in the parable. In his case, not only will the Priests and Levites not render aid, they will be leading the ambush. As we consider this parable, we do well to think about Jesus being the one in the ditch.
Ambrose of Milan, the priest and bishop who persuaded St. Augustine to accept Jesus as Lord, noted that the 2 denarii given to the innkeeper are two days’ wages. On the third day, he rose again.
Imagine if you left him lying there. And remember, Jesus said, “As you did it for the least of these…you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Second, when we read and discuss this parable we rightly tend to focus on the Priest, Levite and Good Samaritan. The story very clearly urges us to reflect on our responsiveness as an act of faith.
But we should also remember, always remember, that any of us are an accident, a disaster, a diagnosis from being in that ditch. Maybe you are there right now. What would you need? What would you want? Remember what Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12)
All of which brings us back to our collect today. We asked The Lord to help us perceive and know what we ought to do. That has everything to do with study of his word, prayer and listening to him. Then to have the grace and power to do it. That has everything to do with yielding our wills to his and trusting him to provide the resources as we are faithful. Don’t feed the alligators. Do follow Jesus.