1 John 4:7-21
Following Jesus into Eternal Life
by Rev. Jeffrey Bergeson
My wife and I enjoy comedy. One comedian we really like is Jim Gaffigan, and he frequently talks about food. In one set, he notices just how much food is eaten during holidays—that holidays seem to be an excuse to eat lots of extra food. He says, “I don’t usually eat a burger, a bratwurst and a steak, but…it is the 4th of July…and I’m gonna need my energy if I’m gonna be blowin’ up stuff! It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted…” We justify how much food we eat around the holidays. Anyone have children? Me, too. And my kids will, I admit, sometimes do something wrong…and I’ve learned to ask them “what did you do?” instead of “why did you do that?” Because the “why” question teaches them to justify their bad behavior rather than acknowledge what they’ve actually done.
In our passage this morning, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and to justify himself. And it is my conviction that if we want to follow Jesus into eternal life, we must follow Jesus beyond our own self-righteousness. Following him out of all the ways we try to justify ourselves.
Self-righteousness is not always a ‘high and mighty’ attitude of being holier-than-thou. It’s not only when we think “I’m better than you.” Rather, self-righteousness is any attempt to justify yourself and your behavior. It’s any way that we try to make ourselves feel good about who we are and make ourselves feel justified in our behaviors and attitudes toward others: “Sure, maybe I don’t __________, but at least I’m not like __________!” or “Yes, that is how I act, but it’s my right to act this way!” In other words, it’s any way we try to tell ourselves that we’re ‘in the right,’ other than because of Jesus. It’s trying to look good without putting on Christ.
The lawyer asks two questions. One is to test Jesus, and one is to justify himself. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer and he responds with the greatest command and the one like it: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus agrees and says, “do this, and you will live,” but the lawyer, in order to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?” And we take the bait, too! “Yeah, who is my neighbor?”
The lawyer never asks about God or how to love God. Either it’s too complicated or abstract to bother asking, or somehow it doesn’t actually matter, or—more likely—he thinks that he’s got that one down pat. “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever. Love God with blah, blah, blah… done. Check. Moving on. What about my neighbor?”
But Jesus invites the lawyer and us to see ourselves and God in a different light, because truly loving our neighbors rightly will not come until we love God rightly, and we cannot truly love God until we understand who God is and who we are and what God has done for us. Only then can we truly love God, and from that place of love, then we can love our neighbors as ourselves.
So Jesus doesn’t answer his question: he takes up the question and turns it on its head by telling a parable to redirect the lawyer’s focus. The thing about this parable is that it’s incredibly memorable and moving. It leaves a very distinct impression on our hearts, but it’s also open-ended enough to keep rattling around in our minds, causing us to keep asking questions and seeing things differently.
We all want to be the Good Samaritan. In fact we’re told to “Go and do likewise.” Maybe sometimes we justify ourselves and think that we already are! But for Jesus to say, “Go and do likewise,” “be like that guy”… means implicitly that we are not by nature already like him. We’re to be found somewhere else in the parable, in fact, anywhere else, because we’re all supposed to be like the merciful Samaritan, so by definition we’re not… and the parable unsettles us.
The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” to justify himself. Under Law: Who am I obligated to love and who can I hate or ignore? We must remember that Jesus is the Son of God—the Incarnate Deity. So the lawyer is trying to justify himself to God! That just never works; that’s not a good place to be. And I think there are three characters in the parable that implicitly do the same thing and three that don’t.
The first is really a group: the robbers. They implicitly justify their violent behavior perhaps thinking, “We deserve what he has!” or maybe even “we need what he has, so we’ve got to take it to live.” They justify they’re robbery.
The 2nd and 3rd characters are the priest and Levite. The priest, the highest religious leader, is probably thinking something like, “I am holy, and that bleeding man is unclean. I can’t possibly mingle with him and jeopardize my holiness.” The Levite is more of a minor clergy, but probably thinks along the same lines as the Priest. As I said, I have children, so we sometimes watch Veggie Tales. And in the Veggie Tales version of the Good Samaritan, these two characters sing: “We’re busy, busy, horribly busy. Much, much too busy for you!” Both the priest and the Levite ignore the man, believing it’s not their responsibility to help or they’re unable or unwilling to get dirty.
These three characters implicitly justify themselves and their behavior.
But there are also three characters who implicitly do not.
The first is the Samaritan. Now, if we only looked at his actions, maybe we could think of an ulterior motive, but v. 33 won’t allow us to think that. The NRSV says he was “moved with pity.” Now, I’m a nerd. I make no apologies for that. The word in Greek for “moved with pity” is spla(n)gchnizomai. The root of that word is spla(n)gchnon. Try saying that: spla(n)gchnon! Spla(n)gchnon is all the mushy organs below your lungs. It is the bowels—the seat of love and pity. It’s your gut, moved with affection to have compassion for someone in a bad situation. The Samaritan does not try to justify himself. His compassion is justification in itself.
First is the Samaritan. Second is the man robbed. He cannot justify himself. He never says or does anything. He is unable even to beg for mercy! He’s “half-dead” and that’s not an English paraphrase; that’s literally what the Greek says.
And friends, spiritually speaking, without Christ we’re all half-dead. We’re not fully alive. Yes, we may be breathing, our hearts pumping, but really, we’re helpless and hopeless and only half-living, unable to save ourselves…without receiving God’s mercy. And God’s mercy, I think, is what this parable is all about. Finding life. Which brings us back to the first question asked: What must I do…?
See, the priest and Levite were supposed to be mediators between Israel and God. On different levels, they represented God to Israel and vice-versa. But their understanding of holiness got in the way. Yes, God is holy, but Jesus says, the priest and the Levite are not what God is like. He asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And it wasn’t either of the ‘religious professionals.’ It was a despised Samaritan who showed mercy. And so, we see that God’s holiness is connected to mercy!
This is important! Back in Luke 1:72, at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and prophesies, declaring that God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” which includes rescue from the hands of their enemies. And later in chapter 1, verse 78 refers to the “tender mercy of our God.” That word “mercy” in verses 72 and 78 shows up three more times earlier in Luke ch. 1 always in reference to God, but not again in Luke until here in the Lawyer’s answer. “The one who showed him mercy.” This is what God does! God shows mercy. So the Samaritan—not the Priest or the Levite—truly shows who God is.
Okay, back in 1:78, where it says his “tender mercy.” The word “tender” is that spla(n)gchnon word—bowels, guts—which in Luke shows up there in 1:78, again in ch. 10 when the Samaritan sees the half-dead man, and then only two other times in Luke (7:13 and 15:20), which respectively refer to: Jesus seeing the widow of Nain with her dead son; and the father in the parable of the prodigal son when he sees his younger son returning and runs to greet him. The Samaritan, in his compassion and mercy, represents the holy God of Israel. And we are to be holy as God is holy, which includes showing mercy!
Sadly, there are probably times that we act more like the robbers or the priest and Levite—justifying our way of life and who we think we should care for or ignore, but really, without Jesus, we’re all half-dead and in need of healing. We are beaten and bruised by the world and our sin—bleeding, naked and left for dead. And the Lord God in a surprising and maybe even offensive visitation has come and shown mercy on us.
Nowadays, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is met with joy and delight. But this parable would have shocked and probably even offended many of its original audience. So how might we ‘re-cast’ this story today for the same shocking effect? How about this:
A Fox News Anchor was mobbed during a recent rally in Washington, D.C. Now it just happened that the President of the United States was passing by, but when he saw the man, he said, “You know, I’m very much a germaphobe. I don’t want to get into that bloody mess.” And he passed by on the other side. Just then, a State Representative came to the place and said, “This is horrible! I’m going to bring this before the Senate to take action,” and, likewise, passed by without helping. But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, saw him and was moved with compassion and cared for the man.
Now…maybe you liked that version! How about this one:
A woman wearing a cat-ears knit-cap was at that same rally and was accidentally trampled. Now, a Presbyterian Teaching Elder happened, but was running late to a Social Justice and Community Responsibility Panel discussion… and so hurried away. Then a Licensed Social Worker also came to the place, but didn’t stop because she was on her way to meet with a client. But then came someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, who stopped and helped the woman.
Wherever we personally stand, if Jesus’ parable doesn’t make us uncomfortable or challenge our notion of neighbor, then we’re not hearing it as Jesus told it. We’ve justified ourselves like the lawyer.
So let me ask: Who is the Samaritan in your life? From whom would it offend you to receive help? Who is difficult for you to love? To whom do you have trouble showing mercy?
Because here’s the thing: in Christ, God has shown mercy to all! And therefore, in Christ, God is revealed to show us what it means to be holy and a neighbor by showing mercy to all!!! If God, in Christ, has made all of us his neighbors, then who isn’t our neighbor?
As much as I struggle with loving some people, this parable tells me that I don’t get the luxury of justifying to myself those whom I am to love and those I don’t have to. God is neighbor to all! Unlike the priest and the Levite who wouldn’t give their time, money, efforts or affections, God in Christ, represented as the Samaritan, is moved to compassion for us. At his own cost and effort, he cleans us up, gives up his rightful seat on his animal to carry us, brings us to a safe place and cares for us there, providing for our every need to bring us healing and new life even though we were half-dead and unable to heal or justify ourselves.
The Samaritan does not need to justify himself, nor does he. He acts and speaks with compassion, mercy and authority. The man beaten and left for dead cannot justify himself. He cannot and does not say: you should help me because… and yet he is helped by the Samaritan. The Samaritan, in a way, justifies the half-dead man to the innkeeper who probably would not have taken in the beaten man and cared for him unless the Samaritan had already started to care for him and provided the resources for the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.
And so the Samaritan also justifies the innkeeper’s actions! The innkeeper may not have otherwise continued to the care for the man without the Samaritan’s resources and command. But the Samaritan, that is God, does all this at his own expense, brings the man to the inn keeper, pays the inn keeper, gives him charge to care for the man, and promises to pay him back upon return. And so the Samaritan justifies both the man robbed and the inn keeper to each other. Neither tries to or needs to justify themselves or their actions. The Samaritan does it for them, just like God in Christ, justifies all those who believe in him.
So, can you see yourself as the half-dead man and how Jesus has saved you—justified you? Good! That’s actually the first step in being able to fulfill the first commandment—it is the beginning of how we are to love God. But the parable keeps rattling around in my mind…
Before Christ saves and heals us, I think we’re the half-dead man in the parable, but after Christ gets to us, I’ve begun to think that we’re more like someone else in the parable: I think we become the innkeeper!
See, when Jesus asks who of the three was the neighbor to the man robbed, the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy,” which of course is the Samaritan moved to compassion. And Jesus commands the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” But in the parable, the Samaritan initially takes care of the beaten man but then commands the innkeeper to do the same thing he had been doing. “Take care of the man…” The innkeeper has to trust the Samaritan, allowing the Samaritan to justify his strange behavior of caring for this stranger, and the innkeeper must obey the Samaritan in order to receive the promised compensation. But…Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable if the innkeeper ever did it or not…which leaves us asking: would we? Will we?
Will we trust God enough to care for those he cares for, and to care for others the way he cares for them—to use the resources he gives us now and trust that he’ll provide all we need later to continue living in obedience, in giving of ourselves to fulfill the command to love our neighbors? Will we be the innkeepers of the world—which, by the way, that word “innkeeper” in the Greek means “all-receiver”; welcoming everyone, which, based on the parable, does not mean letting people remain the way they are when they’re welcomed; they must still be cared for and healed and brought to wholeness through Christ’s resources given to us—but I digress… will we be the innkeeper, letting Jesus justify our strange behavior of loving and caring for others to bring healing and wholeness to broken and hurting people? Or will we continue to justify ourselves like the priest, Levite or robbers?
Loving our neighbors isn’t about drawing a line and categorizing people who are or are not our neighbors. Loving your neighbor as yourself is about showing undeserved mercy to others, bringing them healing, just as God has shown undeserved mercy to you when you were a stranger and half-dead without Jesus. Loving your neighbor as yourself will be costly, just as it was costly to Jesus to show us love. But…we are promised that God will provide all that we need in order to care for others—material resources, yes, but also the Holy Spirit in us to show them mercy, to love them like our Heavenly Father loves us.
If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we will do well to: first, consider how we love the Lord our God, and more importantly how Jesus loves us in such a way as to dismantle our ways of justifying ourselves to bring us wholeness. May we all follow Jesus out of our self-righteousness and into eternal life, understanding all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at great cost to himself! Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” but realize that God in Christ has become your neighbor, and neighbor to all, choosing to show mercy to everyone. Do that first. Then, go and do likewise, and you will live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.