State Farm We Ain't
Since 1971 State Farm Insurance has had the jingle, "Like a good neighbor State Farm is there." Is that the message of the Good Samaritan? If so, State Farm we ain't. The parody: "Like a good neighbor stay over there" is more our jingle.
O, you disagree; you think we aren't all that bad about being good neighbors? Think again. Aren't we like the priest in the parable? He comes upon a naked, bloody, beaten half-dead man. He sees the man clearly but passes by on the other side of the road pretending he doesn't. Can you blame him? If the injured man was a gentile or dead, the priest would become ceremonially unclean by touching him. That would mean he could not collect, distribute, or eat of the tithes which fed his family.
You pretend not to see people in need, don't you? You turn away so you don't have to look at someone who needs your help. Your wellbeing, your family's wellbeing will suffer if you take from what is yours and give to someone else. Do you honestly think you're being a neighbor when you act like this? Not neighbor according to the parable's definition.
The priest is bad but the Levite is worse, and we're like the Levite too. The priest only saw the needy man from a distance. The Levite goes right up to the victim, and then quickly crosses to the other side. Think of it this way. The priest sees the man holding a sign asking for help. The Levite actually goes over to him, sees the need face to face and still turns away.
How many people in ragged clothes have you turned away from? How many cars have you seen broken down in plenty of time to stop only to blow by them? How many times have you seen someone in real need and did just what this Levite did? You looked at the suffering person with the same perverted curiosity that you look at car accidents.
"Not true," you say? It's not? You think I'm falsely accusing us. You think we're not that bad as neighbors. Okay. We might not be the priest; we might not be the Levite, but we are the expert in the law. We've made excuses like he did. He tells Jesus the only reason he doesn't love his neighbor is because he isn't sure who his neighbor is. The expert in the law is interested in justifying himself and so are we. How many excuses can you think of for not helping someone broke down on the road? It might be a trap. I don't know anything about cars. They probably called for help already. My family is in the car. How many excuses can you think of for not giving a guy a money? He's just going to spend it on booze. He's a bum who probably begs for a living. I gave at the office.
State Farm we ain't, but so what? So what about eternal life? Did you forget that this is where the conversation started? "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" the expert in the law asked. Who then is saved? Not even State Farm types. It is not enough to be what the world considers a good neighbor. A good neighbor in Texas is one who minds his business and praises yours. A good neighbor to some is one who takes care of his property. A good neighbor to me is someone who keeps his hands off my trees. But even being a good neighbor who is always there for others does not get you eternal life.
What about being a bad neighbor who repents and tries to be good? This is how this parable is often preached; people leave church convicted of being bad neighbors because they've pretended not to notice people in need, have turned away from those they did see, and have made excuses. Their guilt elicits a vow to do better. They're going to pick up the first hitchhiker, aid the first stranded motorist, and give to the first beggar. If you leave this way, you leave under the law and you're no more saved then people who are good neighbors in the first place. Because it's not good neighbors who are saved but perfect ones. According to the "go and do likewise" of the parable only perfect neighbors are saved.
What's a perfect neighbor? Look at the Samaritan. He's traveling not commuting to a job like the priest and Levite. He's loaded down with goods, a perfect target for robbers, but stops right where they had just been. He not only aids the injured man who is not of his ethnic group but takes him to an inn. He pays in advance for 2 months room and board, tells the inn keeper to care for all his needs, and promises that whatever it costs he will pay it when he returns. Unless you go and do likewise you can't be saved. That's what this teaches. If you want to be saved, you must always help stranded motorists even in the inner-city. No matter what the ethnic group you must load him in your car and get him help. Picture a white man taking a badly wounded black man to a clinic in the projects. Picture a black man taking a bloody white man to Scott and White. If you want to be saved, after you take him to the hospital you must take him to a hotel, pay for 2 months expenses, and leave your credit card for any expenses that might pop up.
Only that kind of neighbor can be saved, so don't leave here thinking you gotta give more change, pick up more hitchhikers, or help more stranded motorists. That's not enough. Only perfect neighbors are saved, and we ain't even State Farm. The expert in the law didn't realize this; he thought he could be saved by the law. So Jesus says, "You want to be saved by being a good neighbor? Here's what it takes!" I don't know about you, but I know I can't be saved by keeping the law. This turns me toward the only one who saves anyone in the story: not priest, Levite, or lawyer, but the Samaritan.
Hear this parable as the expert in the Law did. After hearing that the beaten man is left by a priest and a Levite, the very next word in Greek is "A Samaritan." The expert in the law would've gasped. "O no! Now the man is in for it; that lowlife Samaritan is going to really give it to him." But the One he thinks the villain turns out to be the Savior. Likewise, the One he thinks so low of that he can test and disagree with is the only One who can save him. The parable is meant to drive us to the Samaritan not for us to go out and be Samaritans. O by all means go and be one if you think you can, but if you're lying helpless to keep the law, beaten by your sins, you need a Samaritan, and Jesus is Him. That the Samaritan is Jesus was the standard interpretation of the early church. Why? Because Jesus was called a Samaritan by His enemies; because the Greek word for "took pity" is used only of Jesus in the NT and of Jesus figures in parables like the forgiving king, the waiting father, and the helping Samaritan.
Furthermore, who but Jesus has made an unimaginable sacrifice to help the helpless? Who but Jesus has poured out not just precious oil and wine but His holy precious blood to soothe our wounds? Who but Jesus not only risked all but gave His life to help us? Who but Jesus left us a not a blank check on earth but one in heaven saying, "Whatsoever you ask My Father in My Name He will do it for you?" Who but Jesus does this with not one bit of help from us? The man the Samaritan helps doesn't do anything. He just passively receives the compassion and gifts of the Savior. This is the theme for this Sunday as seen in the Introit. "Taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him." The theme today is not about being good neighbors; it's about being saved by the Lord.
Taste your neighborly works and see how horrible they are. Taste and see that there is, as Paul says, no good thing dwelling within you. Taste your good works and see that as Isaiah says they're filthy. But taste and see the Lord is good. Taste His body and blood which don't taste like death but like bread and wine, like life and health. Taste and see that while you're not good the Lord is and that His goodness provides a place of refuge for you.
Yes, it's true; the judgement of God should rain down on you as it should on me. I haven't been a good neighbor. I'm responsible for hurting, embittering, and harming my neighbor; for this I should die; for this I will die out here in the open with nothing between me and God's judgement. But there in that font, there on that altar, here in this Word of grace is Jesus and He is a refuge for sinners such as I. He takes me in who can no more help himself than the beaten man in the parable could.
Any other focus other than Jesus being your Good Samaritan is wrong. Any way of approaching this text that doesn't lead you to find refuge in the Lord who tastes good, who tastes like forgiveness and salvation is wrong. I'm talking about the focus that leads you to such questions as, "In what conditions should I help?" ""How much ought I to help?" Or, "Who really should I help?" Can you see that these are the very questions that came out of the mouth of the expert in the law? When we ask or debate about how we should help whom and in what situations, we're the expert in the law testing Jesus and trying to justify ourselves. We're acting like we really could do what it takes to inherit eternal life if someone would just tell us what to do, and we are trying to justify the hundreds of times we have failed to be not perfect neighbors but even good ones.
But what about the "go and do likewise" that ends this parable? That command can only damn you if you hear it as the lawyer did: still thinking you can keep the law enough to go to heaven. That command is meant to make you feel the full weight of your sins until you cry, "But I can't go and do likewise!" That command is meant to drive you to the fact that all you can "do" is be beaten, bled, and left for dead; all you can do is nothing as the Samaritan carries you to the inn of the Church, pays your bills, and commands Her to care for you till He returns. And here's a question: How did the Lord tell His Church to care for sinners? By training them to be State Farm or by forgiving their sins for His sake? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (20190804); Luke 10: 25-37