On the Road with Jesus, Pt. 3: The Good Samaritan
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Rev. G. Lynn Turner, Senior Associate Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
July 14, 2013

Amos 7:7-8; Luke 10:25-37 [link]


Our pastor began a series two weeks ago entitled, “On the Road with Jesus,” walking through the traveling narrative in the Gospel of Luke beginning in Chapter 9 as Jesus sets out to travel to Jerusalem.  We are being challenged each week to see what Jesus is teaching his disciples about what it means to follow him – to truly follow him.  We have learned from the past two weeks that it is not an easy journey.  Following Jesus requires selfless commitment and a determination to follow no matter what the cost.

Our gospel lesson today that has already been read brings us to the parable of the Good Samaritan – probably one of the most popular and well known of all of Jesus’ parables. I Googled in “Good Samaritan” this week and within .34 of a second, 32,500,000 hits came up – thousands of stories, names of hospitals and health care facilities – everyone knows what you mean when you say “Good Samaritan.” Just this week in the news was the story of the Army soldier in D.C. who was coming down the escalator in the subway and saw a man in a wheelchair get too close to the edge and his chair flipped over onto the tracks. The guy immediately gets off the escalator and jumps down on the track to help without any regard to his own life.  Another man jumps down with him to help him. He was hailed on the news this week as the Good Samaritan.

So when I saw that this was my text for today, I honestly thought, “Really?  What can be said about the good Samaritan that we have not heard a dozen times already?”  J. Ellsworth Kalas in his little book, Parables from the Backside, says, “Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, as the saying goes, but it does breed something potentially worse – the glazed eye. The parables of Jesus are in danger of such. We have read them so often, we have heard them taught and preached so much that their majestic brilliance hardly fazes us.”

So I got out my unmarked Bible,  nothing underlined, no notes in the margin, and began reading this parable again as if I were reading it for the first time. I began thinking of it in the context of our pastor’s series on what it means to be a true follower of Jesus – and you know what? The glaze began to clear. Maybe it will be the same for you this morning. 

For I began to see that this story in the Gospel of Luke was yet another amazing teaching of Jesus that helps us measure our faithfulness as a true disciple of Christ.  And when I read it in the context of the other passages in the lectionary today, it became even clearer for me, particularly the Old Testament passage in Amos.

Amos, sent by God to speak the truth to his people Israel.  One of the commentaries said, “Israel was a wall, a strong wall, which God himself reared as a defense to his sanctuary. The Lord now seems to stand upon this wall. He measures it; it appears to be a bowing, bulging wall.”  So God gives Amos three visions of what was to come of Israel if they did not turn their hearts back to Him. We pick up on one of these visions in verse 7:

This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD asked me, "What do you see, Amos?" "A plumb line," I replied. Then the Lord said, "Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”

Israel had become complacent, selfish, and had strayed far from God, and Amos conjures a metaphor for Israel’s predicament. His vision is of the Lord holding a plumb line showing how off plumb his people had become.

A plumb line is a simple yet very necessary tool – a weight at the end of a string utilized in the construction of a wall.  Reliant upon gravity, it gives the builder a true measure of that which is straight, and its usage is crucial if the structure is to be strong and enduring.

If a wall gets too far off plumb, it has to be torn down and started all over. Israel had gotten so far off plumb from God’s ways that God was ready to tear them down and to start over.

In our day, we tend to think of judgment in negative ways. We often associate the God in the Old Testament as the God of Judgment and when Christ came in the New Testament, judgment was replaced by love and grace and forgiveness. After all, is that not the message of the Gospel?

Thankfully, yes, but this does not exclude us from judgment. As we see in our gospel lesson today, Jesus also set a plumb line, a true measure of someone’s heart who has claimed to follow him. Because even if we believe that God’s forgiveness and grace trumps God’s judgment, many still have a hard time accepting that and still wonder if they truly measure up.

That was the predicament of the lawyer in today’s Gospel. A lawyer, not as we would think of a lawyer today, but a very religious man, who studied the Mosaic law, coming to Jesus on the road asking one of the most basic questions that we all ask: “Jesus, What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This is not the first time Jesus had been asked that question.  The lawyer though, as our text points out, was “testing” Jesus. But in true Jesus fashion, Jesus turns the table and tests him. “So what does the law say?”

And he responds by reciting back the words of Mosaic law from the book of Deuteronomy, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  “You have answered correctly,” Jesus said, and then comes the follow up question: “So, Jesus, who is my neighbor?”

I wonder if we are like this lawyer today. We know the Bible, we know what it says, but we struggle because we keep avoiding the fundamental point and perhaps we have a little bit of the lawyer in us, wanting to define our boundaries of the minimum we have to do to be a follower of Christ.

We do a lot of religious things. We come to church and memorize scripture and try to do things the right way, when God simply wants us to love him and do the right thing – the righteous thing. And so Jesus sets the plumb line with the lawyer that day as God had set the plumb line for Israel in Amos’ vision. Jesus’s plumb line was the measure of compassion or mercy one has in his or her heart. And He does it by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. It was a story that everybody could connect with. It had an obvious answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But that’s the problem.

It’s not enough that everybody knows – it’s that everybody understands the right answer.  

Knowing and understanding are nothing if nobody wants to do what it takes to live the answer. From what I read in Amos and the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s pretty clear that actually living a life oriented toward compassion and mercy comes with a pretty significant personal cost.

And this is why Loving God is the first and greatest commandment, for only when we love God can we truly live to love others. And when we love God with our whole heart, we are compelled to love others with that same kind of love.  The lawyer asked him, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  Many think of eternal life as what happens after you die, but it also implies living with God here on this earth so that each day of our lives brings us joy, gives us purpose. Remember, Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and life abundantly.” Matthew Henry writing about this says,"He who fulfills the great law of love is born again. There is no inconsistency. We repent and live, believe and live, obey and live, and love and live. For these are all co-related.”

So you and I come to a crossroads today with this lawyer. Do I stand by the Law as Gospel?  Or do I stand by the Gospel as law? Let me say that again. Do I stand by the law as Gospel?  Or do I stand by the Gospel as law? There is a huge difference.

Jesus came to do away with the law, for no one could live measured to the plumb line of God’s laws. Israel proved that over and over again. But God so loved the world that he did away with the law and He gave us His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him, will not perish, but have eternal, everlasting life.

Jesus says to this one following him on the road. Love God, believe in him, trust him with all you are, and love your neighbor. This is the Gospel. Live it like you live the law.

Here is the truth. As much as we might rather get lost in the questions about how to define the commandments, as much as we would try to turn our focus to the minutiae of the law, as often as we allow ourselves to get bogged down in figuring out just how to meet the minimum standards, Jesus is paying attention, plumb line in hand, waiting to see what we actually do.

Notice that Jesus did not answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Instead, he says, go and become a new kind of person.  Go with a compassionate heart and do likewise.  This is exactly what Jesus died for.  This is the promise of the new covenant in Ezekiel 36:26.

 “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” And Jesus said at the last supper, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. A new commandment I give you: love one another.

Those who follow Jesus all the way to the cross will see him there paying for their new heart.

What is your measure today of compassion and mercy?  It is a gospel question. It is a heart question.

But I think it begins with this question: has there ever been a time in your life when you were shown mercy and compassion? Has there ever been a time in your life when you had to totally trust and depend upon the help of someone else? Maybe it was not a physical need, but there are many other situations where we feel like we have been thrown in the ditch. You know their names: despair, depression, loneliness, fear, lust, anger, defeat; whatever has jumped on us and caused us to fall has left us in a place of needing someone to help us up again. It is at that point I am convinced that we then understand, truly understand, how to show compassion and mercy to those around us. And we have all been there in one form or the other haven’t we?

Thomas Long, pastor and theologian at Emory University, in his book Preaching from Memory to Hope writes in his preface:

On the wall of what my grandmother called the "sitting room" of her antebellum home in South Carolina was a constellation of family portraits – old pictures of my uncles and aunts, my cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents, a genealogy in photographs. In the very middle of the cluster, in the place of honor, was the portrait of someone I did not recognize. It was a sepia-toned, Civil War-era photograph of a striking young man dressed in the uniform of a Union army officer. Needless to say, this was very unusual—the portrait of a Yankee soldier in a place of honor on the wall of a proud South Carolina home. One day, when I was small child, I asked my grandmother, "Who is that man?"

She said, "I'll tell you when you're old enough to understand."

Years later, just before she died, she saw me in the sitting room one day, all by myself, gazing at the portrait. She came in, sat down beside me, and she finally told me the story. The man was a good man, she said, a minister, a chaplain in the Union Army. In May of 1862, after the smoke had cleared from the field of battle at Williamsburg, Virginia, this chaplain rode out onto the field on his horse to see if there were any wounded troops who had been left behind, and he came across a nineteen-year-old Confederate soldier, lying wounded and terrified in a ditch.

The boy had taken a bullet that had practically severed his leg at the knee, and he was slowly bleeding to death. Feeling compassion, even for the enemy, the chaplain lifted the boy out of the ditch, put him on his horse, and took him to the Union medical tent, where a surgeon amputated his leg at the knee, bandaged him up, and stopped the bleeding, saving his life. When the boy was strong enough to travel, this chaplain got together enough money to see that he was sent home to his grateful and relieved parents in South Carolina.

This nineteen-year-old Confederate soldier grew up to be a minister himself, a teacher, a college president, and, what is most significant to me, my great-grandfather. The chaplain who rescued him and saved his life was the Rev. Joseph Twitchell, a ministerial graduate of Yale College and, after the war, a good friend of Mark Twain's and the minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, where among his parishioners were some of Lyman Beecher's children. Joseph Twitchell and my great-grandfather, William Moffart Grier, bound together by this humane moment amid the ravages of war, remained correspondents and friends throughout the rest of their lives. No one had to preach the parable of the Good Samaritan to my family. We had lived it.

Were it not for Joseph Twitchell, my great grandfather would not have lived to see his twentieth birthday, I would not have been born; I would not be a great grandson, a grandson, a son, a father husband, a pastor, a Christian theologian. The more we know of life, the more we know that all we have is a gift, all that we are is grace.

I have often wondered what happened to that man in the ditch.  Did he pass on the mercy that was shown to him? Did he ever tell the story of how one of his enemies saved his life, bound up his wounds, showed him great compassion? Was he eternally grateful for the mercy extended to him and did he go on to live his life likewise?

How about us?

For sure as followers of Jesus, we have been there. For there was one who saw us in our great need of sin and helplessness, he looked on us with great compassion, he died on a cross so that we might have life. Do we tell that story? 

Do we take it as sheer gift? Are our hearts transformed by it to the point that everywhere we go, we see others through eyes of mercy?

In Christ we are new creatures. Those uneven walls are torn down, and with plumb line in hand Jesus stands beside us giving us eyes of compassion, hearts of mercy, and compels us to follow him and go and do likewise. Let us pray.

Lord, Following you is not easy, but following you is living life in its truest sense Each day is a gift of your grace. May we see it,  grasp it,  with all our strength, seeking to love you fully through the lives of those around us. Give us hearts of love today we pray through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lynn Turner 2013
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