Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
July 14th 2019
Amos 7:7-17
Luke 10:25-37

The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating , redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

How do we live a good life, as individuals, as a society? What does the Lord require of us? And how do we know if we are doing the right thing?

God, through the prophet Amos, speaks about a plumb-line.

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,

‘See, I am setting a plumb-line

   in the midst of my people Israel;

   I will never again pass them by;

 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,

   and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,

   and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’  (Amos 7:7-9)

In the context of building and construction, the plumb line tests if a building is upright. In the context of God and God’s people at the time of the prophet Amos, the time of King Jereboam II in the 8th century before Christ, the plumb-line is a test of justice and righteousness.

But let justice roll down like waters

And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

God cried out through the prophet. (Amos 5:24)

In a land and time when immense prosperity was based on the rich taking from the poor, the people of Israel failed the plumb-line test.

The lawyer in our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Luke would have known about Amos’ plumb-line, known about God’s longing for justice and righteousness. He would have known the scriptures well.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? This lawyer asks Jesus. It’s a critical question, a life and death question. Jesus would approve of the question. He’s here that we might have life, remember. And Jesus points the lawyer, not to the prophets, but to the law. ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ Jesus says. The lawyer answers, ‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ We could have answered Jesus’ question ourselves. We know the most important commandments too.

But this lawyer wants things defined, he wants them clear. Perhaps he wants Jesus to give him a plumb-line. What he seems to want is a program of action and clear guidelines on the limits of the action required. Who is my neighbour? Give me some boundaries. Limit the group of people for whom I must feel some responsibility. I want eternal life. But I want the way to this life to be achievable and measurable.

Jesus is not interested in definitions and guidelines and a boundary on compassion. He knows that God’s kingdom doesn’t work like this. So he tells a story. We know this story very well. We talk about people being Good Samaritans. The trouble with knowing a story well is that it can stunt the liberating power of the story for us. We will need to find a new way of experiencing this story if it is going to transform us.

Like all good stories, this story begins with a problem.

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. (Luke 10:30)

We know nothing about the man; he could be any of us. As we explore this story we will, in fact, find ourselves in the ditch with him. Those listening to the story would have known about the road on which the man walked. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous. They would have felt the danger.

The next words in the story give hope: “By chance,” this man is not the only one on the road. Like many stories, this story uses a series of three – three people pass by the beaten man, a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. Those listening would have expected the third traveler to have been an ordinary man, an Israelite. Those listening would have expected the story to tell of someone who wasn’t religious doing the right thing, being better observers of the law than the religious people. But the one who helps the beaten man is in fact an enemy of the Jewish people, the last person they would have expected to obey the law.

For us to be moved by this story, as those who were listening to Jesus would have been moved, we need to see it a little differently. The priest is someone deeply trusted to do obey the law. The Levite is someone also trusted to do the right thing. For us to be shocked, as those listening to the story would have been shocked, we need to imagine two people we trust to care for us walking past the beaten man, and then a person that we view as utterly untrustworthy – perhaps someone who we find difficult, or someone who we find unreliable, or someone we find disturbing – seeing the man, stopping and offering care. With whom do we feel most uncomfortable? Who is a Samaritan for us?

What does the behavior of the Samaritan look like? What did he do? The priest saw the beaten man and passed by on the other side. The Levite also saw the beaten man and passed by on the other side. The Samaritan also saw the beaten man. They all saw the man. But the Samaritan saw a human being. When he saw the man, 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. (10:34)

He went, he bandaged, he poured oil and wine, he put him on his animal, he took him to the inn and took care of him there. This is what compassion looks like.

While the hearers of the story are reeling at the identity of the man who brings healing, the one beaten at the side of the road doesn’t mind who helps him. What he needs is his compassion.

Having told the story Jesus, looks the lawyer in the eye and asks, 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

The lawyer cannot bring himself to use the word Samaritan, we notice. The neighbor is “The one who showed the beaten man mercy”. “Go and do likewise”, Jesus says.

All of a sudden, the lawyer finds himself in the ditch with the beaten man. The lawyer had asked Jesus to define neighbour, to give limits on those to whom he should offer the love referred to in the law. But Jesus has twisted the question around. We are looking at the question now from the point of view of the one who is beaten by the side of the road. Three people have seen this man. Who has been a neighbour to him? Who has been moved with pity, who has responded with Godly compassion? The question is not about who we should help, it is about the essence of the quality of a neighbour. Jesus has shown the vocation of neighbour in his story.

The lawyer asked for boundaries and not only has Jesus refused to put boundaries on who is neighbour and so also who is not neighbour, he has broken down the boundaries about who belongs in the fold of the children of God. The Samaritan, who definitely did not belong, is, in the story, the one who enacts the love of God, the one who knows and enacts the two most fundamental commandments in the Jewish Law.

The lawyer’s question has been superseded by a more fundamental question about neighbourliness in the kingdom of God. As one scholar put it, “One cannot define one’s neighbor; one can only be a neighbor.”[1]

A lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks a question, a very important question about eternal life. Jesus answers him with a story. The temptation for us is to do with the story what the lawyer tried to do with the commandments. To extract from the story a definition or two, a program of action, some clear guidelines on the limits of the action required. Only that is not what stories are for. Stories are like seeds planted in the ground, planted in our hearts, perhaps, disturbing us, causing us to wonder, leaving us a little unsure, and yet, …, leaving us with a sense that there is a deep truth there that we have not quite grasped but that it is well worth our while sitting with for a time.

The scholar Walter Brueggemann said that “people are not changed by ethical urging but by transformed imagination”. [2] He might have said we are not changed by definitions and programs of action but by stories that disturb and puzzle us. I sometimes think that Jesus’ parables are like the grains of sand that irritate an oyster until a pearl is formed. Somehow we need to let them irritate.

We end up like the man in the ditch really as we struggle to understand the spiritual life. And the ethical life. And the day to day life of trying to do the right thing.

And who walks by?

There’ll be those who give us definitions and plans of action. There’ll be those who tell us what is wrong with us, leaving us feeling guilty.

And then a man might walk by. The one who will feed us at this Eucharist.

This man called Jesus, who sees us, sees the struggle of it all, sees the longing for definitions and simple answers, sees the guilt that can constrict us when we wonder what it is that God requires of us and we know that we have so often failed. Sees it all. And sits down beside us and binds up our wounds and then … tells us a story. We don’t really get the story. In many ways it puzzles us. But somehow we know that the answer to the lawyer’s question, our question, how is it that we inherit eternal life, somehow the answer to this question will never be straightforward and might just be found in the story of the one who keeps us company in a ditch on the side of a road.

1.  Quoted in Arland J. Hultgren The Parables of Jesus p. 99.

[2] Walter Brueggemann Hopeful Imagination p25.