This passage is familiar and yet tricky and the lesson we often hear from it is the exact mindset that Jesus was trying to push against.

This passage is from the Revised Common Lectionary, year C. Click here to read the passage.

The Starting Point

This passage is familiar and yet tricky and the lesson we often hear from it is the exact mindset that Jesus was trying to push against. Preachers often say from this passage, “If you are a real Christian then you will love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” And then salvation becomes about what we do instead of what God has done for us. We can get the mindset of, “We are the real Christians because we fulfill Jesus’ words,” and that is the exact attitude Jesus is seeking to dismantle.

In my sermon, I start the sermon with the end of the sermon, hoping this will grab everyone’s attention because my sermon cuts across the grain. Here’s the punch: we are the man in the ditch. We are the victims of ideas and behaviors that strip us of our humanity and our compassion. We are the ones knocked unconscious, unable to help ourselves.

In the ditch is where Christ, very God of very God, saw us in our deepest need and saved us at great expense to himself. He lifted us out of the ditch, gave us the cleansing waters of baptism and the nutritious meal of the Eucharist, and took us to the inn called the Church and said, “You take care of this person I rescued and as you take care of their need, I’ll make sure you are taken care of as well.”

God is the hero in the salvation story. The expert sees himself as the hero. Jesus’ story and “go and do likewise” at the end are given to the man to humble him! Okay, if you want to have salvation on your terms, then love God perfectly and fully and wherever there is a person in need, take care of them. Then and only then will you inherit eternal life. Do you see how impossible this is?

Lest we think we can do it, we need to remember that Jesus couldn’t do it and even refused to do it. In Luke 4 people in need try to get Jesus to stay and help them. He refuses to stay and help, saying, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well.” In other places, Jesus removes himself from the crowds to go to a solitary place. Even Jesus had limits.

The Expert

We understand the expert’s mindset by understanding that the Greek word used here as “test” means hyper-test, to push a subject or a person beyond a reasonable limit. In other words, “I’m smarter than you, Jesus, and I’m going to embarrass and humble you in front of this crowd.”

Okay. What does the law say? The expert replies, “To love God with all your hearts, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” It doesn’t even click with the man that he falls short of this. Your heart is your affections. Your soul is yourself. Your mind is your thoughts. Your strength is what you give your bodily efforts to. Who of us can say we love the Lord fully in those areas? I can’t.

It is true that the expert would have taken his faith seriously. He would have memorized the Old Testament and likely some commentaries written by rabbis. He would have been disciplined in his behavior and thoughts. He would have been up on a pedestal.

The Change of Definitions

What does the law say, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Okay, go and do that,” in order to humble the man. You can’t do it and his next question proves it!

And Jesus, who is my neighbor? And you can almost guarantee that the man’s definition is going to be tilted in his own favor. And as you will see, each tradition that Jesus mentions in the story defines neighbor narrowly so that they can say, “I’m keeping the law perfectly.”

Jesus tells a story and defines the man in the story as widely as possible. He starts with, “There was a man . . .” We don’t know if he is Jewish, Samaritan, Greek, Roman, or otherwise. He is pushing against the expert’s narrowing of “neighbor” as is expanding his obligations. Notice that Jesus keeps the wide definition. The man is stripped, so the passersby cannot categorize him based on dress. He is unconscious so they can’t categorize him based on dialect or accent. This is any person at all in the world.

The expert’s tradition along with the priest and Levite would have limited one’s obligation, “Our people first and foremost.” The priest passes by but doesn’t want to be unclean (the man could be dead or a Samaritan and he would have to go through a time-intensive purification process). The Levite follows suit.

Jesus surprises everyone, the next person in the story to pass by the man in the ditch is not a Jewish layperson, but is a distrusted cultural and religious enemy – a Samaritan who sees the man, and has compassion on the man, helps him at great expense to himself.

The expert wanted to press Jesus and embarrass and humble Jesus in front of the crowd. Now, Jesus asks the man, “Who was a neighbor to the man?” The man replies the one who showed mercy. Okay, go and do likewise.

This is to humble the man and to get him to a point where he realizes he cannot do this. He needs to get to a point where he realizes, “Oh, I’m the man who has been robbed of my humanity by religious fundamentalism. I’m the man who has been robbed of compassion. I’m the one who has been stripped of big-hearted love. I’m the one whose soul has been half to death by law-keeping and boundary-making.”

Jesus gives him this impossible task in order to save the man from hatred, bigotry, bias, and a close-minded view of others, and a crippled view of God.

The Lesson

Jesus gives the man an impossible task of loving everyone everywhere the same at great cost to himself. This is to chip away over time at his superiority complex. Maybe one day he will come back to Christ and say, “I can’t do it. There is no performance I could render that would absolve me.” And then he would be able to see that instead of on a pedestal he is actually in the ditch and needs grace.

The expert of the law should have recalled Ezekiel 16, in which the prophet shares the word of the Lord. In that chapter God says, “When you were born no one cared for you. The cord was not cut and no one wrapped you in clothes and you were discarded in a field. I passed by. I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put medicine on you. I clothed you and gave you food.”

The story of the Bible is the story of humanity (Jesus gives us the widest meaning by simply saying a person was in the ditch, ruined) being noticed and loved by a compassionate God.

You see, God is the hero and we are in the ditch and we need to be saved from any thought that would tempt us to think otherwise.

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This passage is from the Revised Common Lectionary in year C. My hope is to provide Bible study and sermon ideas and to give readers (and myself) something worthwhile to think about. As always, Christ is gracious and kind and bids us come. Happy studying and preaching!

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