11th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ,
He never took his eye off of it, his only movement was down toward it. So an eyewitness said. 25 year old Petty officer 2nd class Navy Seal Michael Monsoor or “Mikey,” as they called him, was described by his fellow SEALs as being a fun-loving guy, always having something funny to say, a loyal friend, a quiet and dedicated professional, who derived his strength from his family and his faith. But on September 29, 2006 he and 3 other SEALs were on a rooftop structure in Iraq. He was the only one standing close to the only doorway and hence the only one of the four soldiers in the room with the opportunity to escape when an Iraqi insurgent launched a grenade into the room; it hit his chest and landed in a place where it likely would have killed all of them and the eyewitness said, “He never took his eye off of the grenade, his only movement was down toward it.” The soldier fell on the grenade and died, but his actions didn’t stem from a lack of training, his instant reaction was to protect lives of his fellow comrades.
What would you have done? What would I have done? Thankfully, most of us probably won’t have to face such a decision to lay our lives down in order to protect someone else. Michael Monsoor wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last soldier to demonstrate such a life-giving, self-less act of heroism for someone else. But every day you and I are presented with opportunities where we have to make the decision or choice to either be self-centered with our actions to other people or empathetic and serving with our actions to other people.
And Jesus presents this struggle for us in the form of a parable. An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. The word in Greek for this “expert in the law” is nomikos. Nomos is the word for law. In other words, this man was a religious official who spent a lot of time studying God’s Word and if you had a question about what to do or what was the right course of action to take, he would be the one you would consult. Well, he asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Already we can see that although this man knew the OT backwards and forwards he’d missed the point and assumed eternal life was something he could do something in order to get. So Jesus responded, “What is written in the law (the nomos)? How do you read it?” In other words, you’re the expert in the law, what does the law say? And the man gives an excellent summary of God’s holy law for all people of all time: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. And what did Jesus reply? “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” So, if you’re relying on doing something in order to be saved then do the law perfectly 100% of the time. If you really loved God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, then would you ever sin? Well, no. But the problem is we can’t do it. But the expert of the law, quite likely feeling a bit embarrassed that his question was quite easily answered by himself, nonetheless, wanted to justify himself and said essentially that we need to define our terms here: “Who exactly is my neighbor?” Surely the law doesn’t mean everyone, I need to know exactly who I need to be nice to and who it doesn’t matter.
So, Jesus told him this parable. A man, quite likely a Jewish person was headed from Jerusalem down to the city of Jericho. The city of Jerusalem was located on top of a mountain in Israel some 2,500 ft above sea level. Jericho, on the other hand, located about 17 miles from Jerusalem was located close to the Jordan River at about 800 ft below sea level. Not only was this road known for its steep decline, it’s rocks, crags, and caves, it was also known for the presence of roadside robbers and thieves. Perhaps it’d be like you or me driving our car late at night in some parts of the inner city of St. Paul or Minneapolis. There are simply places you just don’t want to be that are overrun with gangs and crime. While he’s on his way, sure enough he’s mobbed by some robbers, stripped of his things, beaten and left half dead on the side of the road. It just so happened that a Priest and a Levite happened to be walking down that same road and saw the man lying half-dead on the side of the road. Of all people they were the ones who certainly would have known God’s law and known the law to love your neighbor as yourself. What might they have rationalized? “Well, this man isn’t a relative, he isn’t a close friend, he isn’t someone whom I owe a favor, so he doesn’t deserve my help.” And they both walked by on the other side of the road.
But then, low and behold, a Samaritan comes by, he went to him, saw him, had compassion on him. Now, remember Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Samaritans were Jews who had intermarried with foreign people. They didn’t get along. Perhaps in our day it would be something like a Middle-Eastern ISIS terrorist sympathizer seeing a middle-class American lying half-dead by the side of the road and stopping to help out. Well, this Samaritan not only stops to help, but gives him first aid bandaging his wounds, probably with strips of his own clothes, pours his own oil on him as a soothing lotion, uses his own wine as an antiseptic, puts him on his own donkey, uses his own time to take him to an inn to take care of him, spends his own money – 2 silver coins which were 2 days wages, so in our day, like $200? – and even promises to reimburse the inn-keeper for any extra cost!
The point of Jesus’ parable? To the man who thought he was doing all the right things in order to earn his way to God, Jesus shows that he’s not even asking the right question. The question is not so much “Who is my neighbor?” But, “Who can I be a neighbor to?” “Who can I serve?” “Who can I help?”
How much does self-centeredness crowd out empathy and service in our hearts? How much does it affect the way we treat others? Think about what rationalizations could have been made by the Priest and the Levite, ones the expert in the law likely had made himself: “I might put myself in danger if I linger around here to help, what if the robbers are still lying in wait, they might get me too, what has this guy ever done for me that I should take care of him? If I stop, I might miss an appointment. If I stop, I might not be able to get home in time to get in a little fishing on the Jordan River. He probably wouldn’t return the favor if I were in his shoes. It’s too inconvenient for me to stop and help, someone else can do it. I’ll help out the next person in trouble.” Did you notice the pronouns in all of those things? “I” “Me” “My” How much do those pronouns affect our thought processes or our decisions and our choices when we come across someone, anyone who needs our help? Be it our spouse, be it our family member, be it our coworker, be it a customer, be it the disabled person we meet in the store, be it whomever? How much does “I” or “me” get in the way of service? How much does my money, my time, my stuff, my hard work, my hobby affect my thoughts and decisions or lead me to ask, “Who really is my neighbor?” Instead of searching “Who in my life can I be a neighbor to?”
Jesus’ words to this expert in the law are chilling to us too, aren’t they? “Do this and you will live.” Be the perfect neighbor, loving God at all times with all your heart and perfectly loving others by putting their interests and needs above your own. Do that and you will live. Go and do likewise. That’s what each of needs to hear if we think we can stand before God like this expert in the law and say, “You know, I’m not that bad of a person, I’m pretty good, I’ve done mostly good stuff in my life, I go to church, God will definitely let me into heaven.” We can’t say that, because each of us has miserably failed, we haven’t been the neighbor God has called us to be, And so, each of us deserves to be squished by God like an annoying fly.
For those who’ve failed, for those who’ve been self-centered, for those who’ve failed time and again to love your neighbor as yourself, for all sinners, came the one who did, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus came to do exactly what God demanded. Jesus came not only to live perfectly loving God above all else and loving others as Himself, but also to lay His life down as the sacrifice for every time we’ve failed to be that good neighbor, that Good Samaritan to others. Jesus paid the price for your sins on the cross, served you in the best possible way, and because of what Jesus has done for you, you are a king and a queen of God’s kingdom, an heir of eternal life, a member of God’s own family. And if God was done with us at that point, if as soon as God brought you or me to faith in Jesus as our Savior he was done with us, then we’d already be dead. But we’re not. We’re still here. That means God has a purpose for our lives. It’s a purpose not to serve ourselves, tire ourselves out in getting what we think is best for us. Rather, God has re-created us through faith to find more joy, more pleasure, more satisfaction in life in making other people feel better than taking for ourselves what we think will build up our ego and make us feel better.
There’s an important point to remember and it goes something like this: God doesn’t do for you and me things he has enabled us to do for ourselves. God also doesn’t do for other people what he’s put you and me there to do. And God doesn’t let you do what he has sent other people to do for you. God doesn’t treat us like little spoiled kids saying, “Give me more!” Rather, God delights in, loves making us His partners by working through you and me to help others. God continually, day after day, places before us people whom He has given us the opportunity to be His face to, His partner to help and serve. And it’s in service to others where real satisfaction is found. You can spend all day long looking out for number one, trying to serve yourself, to get ahead in life or, you can spend yourself in service to others. But here’s the truth, at the end of the day, the most self-centeredness can get you is a moment’s pleasure and more problems and no rest. But spend yourself in service to others and you might be tired but in it there’s huge satisfaction and great rest. Try it.
We live in a hurting world racked by sin and its consequences. You don’t have to look very far to see someone in need. Instead of asking whether or not someone falls into the category of being my neighbor whom I should help or not, rather God wants us to ask ourselves every day, “Who is it today that I can be a neighbor to? Who is it in my life that I can serve and assist? Who has God enabled me to serve?” Think about how that would change the way you viewed your family. To see them and look for how you can help your wife, your husband, your child, your parents. Think about how that would change the way you viewed coworkers and customers at work. To see them and ask, “How can I be a neighbor to them? How can I help them?”
Most likely none of us will have to fall on a grenade for someone else. But each of us has the capacity to turn fro self-centeredness and be a neighbor to those around us, to lift up the lives of those around us. And it’s in that that real satisfaction in life is found, knowing that in my service to those around me I’m really serving my Lord and Savior, no longer seeking self, but rather seeking to serve. Amen.