This is just the first draft. Comments welcome and appreciated!
Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
July 15 2007, Ordinary 15 C
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
“You just have no common sense!” I used to hear this a lot. Apparently I often did things that grown-ups thought either ridiculous or wrong, and said things without thinking them through very clearly. Those were my younger days, of course…you know, back a few weeks ago. It seems that logic is not my strongest gift. So, when I was six and my brand new shoes were muddy, rather than traipse mud through the house I hosed them off while I was still wearing them. It turned out that wasn’t the right thing to do. When I wanted to know something, I just asked rather than thinking it all through first and coming to my own conclusions. The first thing I would see was a look, followed by a sigh or a “hmph” or a laugh, and then followed by a patient explanation of why I did not need to ask the question in the first place because I already knew the answer.
The lawyer in this story asks Jesus a question, and I can picture Jesus being a little bit like my grandparents—first the look, then the sigh, then the patient walk-through of how the man already knows the answer. But the lawyer takes it one step further, and Jesus takes the opportunity to tell a story.
But the story doesn’t go the way anyone expects. It goes against every grain of common sense we have, and if we try to plug ourselves into a character we quickly find that none of the characters are very street smart. Sure, I may have walked around Chicago alone at night many a time, but that’s nothing compared to the street un-smart of these people.
First there’s a man traveling along one of the most dangerous roads in the region. He’s alone, he’s an easy target, he probably looks as though he has something worth stealing and perhaps he’s even glancing all around, as though he doesn’t belong on the road. Everyone knows that you should always look straight ahead, walk purposefully, and use the buddy system. Everyone, that is, except this guy, apparently, because he ends up lying on the side of the road, robbed and beaten.
Then we have a priest. Now, religious professionals, everyone knows, are very holy, and very busy. There’s church business to attend to, sermons to write, worship to plan, and mission trips to lead. This priest knows what his job is, and it’s not to defile his ritual purity by helping a non-member. Besides, people on the side of the road are usually drunk, and everyone knows if you help them they’ll just buy beer and drugs, not food. It’s just common sense to pass on by.
Then we have a Levite. He’s just a Temple-helper, really, but he still has to worry about his image. Everyone knows that touching a dead, or half-dead, body, makes you unclean. And everyone knows you should stay away from people who look like troublemakers, and this man certainly got into trouble. It’s just common sense to stay away.
And then we have a Samaritan. He’s a foreigner, and everyone knows foreigners are dangerous. He’s got some weird religious ideas, and everyone knows we have to stay away from heretics. He sees the man beside the road, but instead of thinking of his image, or the trouble he could get in…really, instead of thinking at all, he feels. He feels compassion, and he stops to help. Not just a half-hearted “are you okay?” but a costly help—he uses his own oil and wine to disinfect and dress the man’s wounds, he burdens his own animal, he uses his own money to pay for a hotel room, and—most remarkably, I think—he delays his journey for a day to stay overnight with the man and ensure that he is okay. He acts without really thinking of the consequences. Not much common sense there.
I wonder what the wounded man thought, when he opened his eyes to find a Samaritan touching him, helping him, spending the night with him, caring for him. I wonder if he recoiled in horror at this inferior being. I wonder if he resisted. I wonder if he just smiled weakly and said, “thanks.” I wonder if he realized how different his life must be now that the enemy was his friend and neighbor. I wonder where his common sense went.
When the Samaritan leaves, he leaves money, instructions, and a promise with the innkeeper. Well, everyone knows a Samaritan can’t be trusted. How likely is it that he’ll really come back? He’s just like a group of teenagers in a department store—they must be watched carefully at all times. It’s just common sense.
The thing about this story is that common sense doesn’t seem to get us very far. The people who exercise common sense are the very ones Jesus makes out to be the bad guys, while the people who exercise no common sense at all are the good ones. Jesus leads the lawyer, and his other listeners, through an exercise in leaving common sense behind, and picking up kingdom sense on the way.
I wonder what Jesus would make of most of our “everyone knows” common sense statements. Everyone knows that groups of dark-haired, pale-skinned teenagers with skateboards are lazy good-for-nothings who destroy property. Everyone knows that people on welfare just work the system. Everyone knows that English is the only language we use here. Everyone knows that beggars make more money than we realize. Everyone knows a whole bunch of things, and most of them aren’t very nice. It seems like Jesus, with this story, is taking our street smarts and turning them on their heads. What if the “everyone knows” statements were more like, “everyone knows that all people are children of God” and “everyone knows that love is more powerful than hate” and “everyone knows that what you see on the surface doesn’t say much about what’s underneath.” For all we say “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” most of us still do. I’ll admit that when I figured out that I was in the Cabrini-Green housing project at night, whether it was with my tutoring student who lived there or not, I felt fear. I’ll admit that all those people who said moving to the Middle East was a sure-fire way to get myself killed weren’t alone in thinking it could be dangerous. I wonder if, as a church or a nation or individuals, we are willing to admit that sometimes we don’t look underneath what we can see on the surface. I suspect that we often use our common sense instead of our kingdom sense, and we end up walking by, or trying to get out of our responsibilities by asking questions to which we already know answers, or even something worse.
Using our kingdom sense means looking underneath the surface. Using our kingdom sense sometimes means throwing caution to the wind. Using our kingdom sense means sharing love far and wide, even if that means we share God’s love with the so-called “wrong” people. Using our kingdom sense means allowing others to help us, even if we think we’re superior. Using our kingdom sense means pushing the “what if’s” out and letting compassion take over. Using our kingdom sense means keeping our promises, because God always keeps God’s promises. Using our kingdom sense might even mean not using “everyone knows” statements anymore.
Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question—he answers it for himself. All Jesus says to the lawyer is the same thing he says to us: go and do likewise.
Thanks be to God.