Sermon preached at Poole Christian Fellowship 2 October 2011
Listen to this talk (or download – right click here and ‘Save as’):
Preaching a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan creates problems for the preacher – it has even been referred to as “The preachers’ nightmare”
The problems come under four headings:
1. Over-familiarity – when a story is very familiar – as this one is – there is a real tendency for listeners to assume they know what it means, and what the preacher is going to say. And whilst it is certainly true to say that this is one of the best – known and best-loved of the parables, it is certainly NOT true to say that it is one of the best-understood.
2. Under-familiarity – notwithstanding the above, there are some features of the passage where the problem is one of a lack of familiarity. For example – do many Christians know that this story was told as an answer to a specific question asked Jesus by a lawyer? And so we understand the type of story that Jesus was telling and the shock impact of the hero of the story being a Samaritan?
3. The tendency to allegorise – theologians down the ages have turned the story into something that it never was – an allegory, where every detail of the story means something particular.
4. The tendency to moralise – and secular thinkers have taking the story out of its spiritual context and turned it into a statement of Utopian type of caring for one another, that ignores what Jesus was really trying to tell. This story is in fact the darling of those who advocate the “social gospel” – the belief that our faith is about social action. This is a tragic misrepresentation of biblical truth. As John Stott wrote: “We must distinguish between the social gospel of theological liberalism, and the social implications of the biblical gospel”.
Most of a congregation will be carrying one or more of these – which makes preaching a sermon on it a challenge at best!
So, we look today at this passage under four headings:
1. A Question to Answer
The “Expert in the law” was a highly respected person in the religious system of the day. Pharisee’s and synagogue rulers would seek out this highly educated person to tell them of the minutiae of the interpretation of the Law of Moses. This man would have been highly skilled in understanding an applying the law in a way that gave very specific and clear directions as to what to do and what not to do.
The question that he asks goes right to the heart of the message of the Bible. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is the question that every man woman and child should be asking. “What do I have to do to go to heaven?” is the way we may ask it. There is no denying that it is a good question, if a simple one. But there are two problems with the question. The first problem is that it assumes that inheriting eternal life comes as a result of something we do. The second problem is the manner in which the question is asked. We read that the lawyer “stood up to test Jesus” – a dangerous game if there ever was one!
Jesus gives a very straightforward answer to what is a very easy question. In accordance with the custom of the day he answered by asking another question: “what is written in the law”. The lawyer replies by giving the classic rabbinic answer. It was a combination of scriptures from Leviticus and Deuteronomy which summed up everything in the law. So far, so good. Jesus confirms that this is the correct answer – and there the conversation could have ended.
But this exchange has raised two more difficulties. Firstly, the Lawyer now looks foolish. He has, with great ceremony stood up, asked an obvious question and got an obvious answer. The crowd may well have been giggling at the sight of this self-important, learned lawyer being put in his place by the young rabbi from Galilee. So we read “he wanted to justify himself”. The lawyer, as most of us, cared deeply about how he was perceived, so he asks a supplementary question. But there is something else happening here. Jesus answer “Do this and you will live” has in it the sense of needing to continue to do this, every moment of every day, so surely, thinking must go, there must be some limitation on what is expected here. After all, how could someone be expected to live a life of total love to God and their neighbour? So the supplementary question to Jesus is a justification question.
It is in this context that Jesus tells us the famous story. It is a story to answer the question: “and who is my neighbour?”
2. A Story to Enjoy
And what a wonderful story this is. Jesus, the master story-teller tells us a story in the classic genre of the “story of three”. Everyone listening would know that the first two characters would get it wrong, and the third would get it right. The story of a dangerous journey between Jerusalem and Jericho was well-known, the plight of the man would arouse sympathy, and the indifference of the priest and Levite would horrify the lawyer, and raise knowing looks among Jesus entourage as Jesus moved towards the climax of the story. The lawyer would have assumed that the one who would get it right would be a Pharisee or similar. And Jesus entourage would be waiting for the punch line – a parable is a story with a sting in the tail. Surely the hero of the story is going to be the average Jew, who Jesus champions.
The shock of what comes next is hard to over-emphasise. The Samaritans were the sworn enemies of the Jews. Prayers were offered by some Jews that the Samaritans would not inherit eternal life. The very idea that a Samaritan would be the one who Jesus would put up as a model of integrity, as an example of love for others, and that Jesus would tell the lawyer to go and imitate the love of the Samaritan was unthinkable. The story was told to answer the question that one who is our neighbour is the worst of our enemies. That is the one that we are to love as ourselves.
What possible response could there be to this other than the thought that this represents a level of love that is entirely beyond anything that we can find in ourselves?
3. Some Characters to Ponder
Commentators down the ages have found in this story a string of allegorical representations that range from the fascinating to the bizarre and the fanciful. Augustine understood the story as an allegory thus:
“A Man” Adam (the human race)
Jerusalem” Heaven (from which Adam fell)
“Jericho” Fallen earth
“Robbers” the devil
“Stripped him” i.e. of immortality and innocence
”Beat him” caused him to sin
“Leaving him half dead” alive, but spiritually dead
“Priest and Levite” ministry of the Old Testament
“The Samaritan” Jesus
“Bandaged his wound” binding the restraint of sin
“Oil” comfort of good hope
“Wine” exhortation to work with a fervent spirit
“Donkey” the flesh of Jesus’ incarnation
“Inn” the church
“The next day” after the resurrection
“Two silver coins” the promise of this life and the life to come
Some of these seem plausible – some are fanciful. The problem we have is that these are not the main purpose that Jesus had for telling the story and in any case, Jesus did not specify what, if anything, he was referring to in the characters. We will never know for certain until we can ask Jesus face to face what – if anything – each of the characters refers to.
But there are some points that seem to fit so well that it is worth dwelling on. Even if the parallel was not what Jesus intended, the points convey truth to the hearer.
A, The Man – the man, who recklessly travels from Jerusalem to Jericho – a notorious trouble spot – and finds himself mercilessly beaten up by adversaries is just like us. We have been spiritually “mugged” by the enemy (without back peddling on our own responsibility), we are helpless to save ourselves, and we desperately need a saviour.
B: The Priest and Levite – are like the law, which only serves to confirm our need of a saviour, but which does nothing to help.
C: The Samaritan – surely Jesus is our Good Samaritan – the “stranger “who see us in our need, who at great personal cost rescues us and sees that we are cared for, who takes full responsibility for us even though we have done nothing to deserve His favour.
D: The Inn – if the above are true, then it seems reasonable to liken the Inn to the place where Jesus deposits us to be cared for – the church. What a responsibility that puts on each to us to care for one another.
E: The Samaritan leaves enough for the individuals to be cared for, and promises to return with more if needed. Jesus continually provides the church with what it needs to carry out its ministry and will, of course, return to make sure that his instructions have been complied with.
So the gospel is in this story, if we want to see it there.
4. A Theology to Understand
We now need to pull all these thread together and ask, what does Jesus really want us to know through this passage, which includes the story of the Good Samaritan.
The thrust of the passage is the questioning of Jesus by a man who wants to know how he can get to heaven. Jesus responds by telling him a story that confirms his worst fears. The standards is perfection. Nothing else will do. The reaction of the assembled crowd would surely be”This is impossible” And that is the point. We cannot justify ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. We need a saviour, we need a Good Samaritan, we need someone who will take us in his heart, rescue us and see that we are saved. Jesus is our Good Samaritan. We can trust in our good works for salvation or we can trust in Jesus for our salvation. The message is clear. Trusting in our works will not get us anywhere near the kingdom of god. Trusting in Jesus is what brings us to heaven.