This is a sermon I did a few years ago. I am guessing it was done in seminary since it sounds like it targets ministers or seminarians… but I am not sure.
Here is a story from the Gospels you may remember.
A man was walking from Jericho to Jerusalem… a difficult road in a rugged and dry wilderness. He is tired and in a hurry, but he is still wary because he knows that the steeper sections of this road have a reputation of having highwaymen… bandits who will rob you and leave you not caring much whether you live or die. As he rounded the corner on one of the many hairpin turns of this path. he discovers a man injured and half naked. He feels sorry for the man. Surely, this man suffered the fate that he himself feared could happen to himself. Moved with pity, he says a prayer for this man, and then walks even faster to get to Jerusalem before dark.
How many here remember this story? Sure… it is the Parable of the Good Samaritan– or at least part of it. If you remember, there were five characters in the parable, not including the robbers. There was the man who was robbed and beaten, there was the Samaritan traveller, there was an innkeeper– and there was a priest and a levite…. the latter two both clergy within the Jewish faith.
The man in my story is one of them… it does not matter which one, because their roles are identical. That’s not surprising, because they were there, in part, to set the pattern– a literary device like what is used in the Three Little Pigs and countless other stories and jokes. Two occurrences establish a pattern and the third breaks the pattern. Let’s say he is the Levite
But even though they were there to set the pattern, that was not their only role. After all, Jesus gave them job titles. He could have said, “along came ‘this guy’ who saw the injured man and hurried along… and then along came ‘this other guy’ who…” well, you get the idea. No. They were given roles in Jewish society– respected roles. One was a priest, serving in the temple. The other was a Levite who may have worked in the temple, or taking care of liturgical duties elsewhere. These roles, add to the contrast and surprise. A priest… a man of God… one who may someday have the honor of entering one time in his life the “Holy of Holies” in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The next, a Levite… a man of God as well. So having a Samaritan— seen as mixed race and mixed faith in the eyes of Jews who saw themselves as of pure race and pure faith— provides a stark contrast.
So what is Jesus trying to tell us? Could he be telling us that priests and Levites are mean and selfish?
It is possible, but I doubt it. He was talking about the Great Commandment…. Love God and Love Neighbor. This story is supposed to help us understand what it means to love one’s neighbor. It is probably true to say that Jesus is also telling us how to love God. The context makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t trying to separate the “Great Commandment” into the “Two Fairly Great Commandments.” You love God also in loving one’s neighbor. As Jesus said in Matthew 25, one loves Jesus, in part, in caring for the weak, the suffering.
Let’s go back to the story. Let’s assume that this Levite is not a mean, nasty, selfish person. Let’s suppose that he is a generally good person… one who seeks to keep the Law… and generally have a positive role in his faith, in his nation, and in his community. Someone you would generally be happy to have as your neighbor.
So this Levite comes upon the injured man. What was he thinking? I don’t know… but here are guesses:
Guess #1. Oh no, a dead body. How tragic. There is nothing I can do, and if I linger here more, I might be next. I will hurry on to Jerusalem. Maybe I can tell someone along the way who can take care of the body. I can’t since it would make me ritually unclean and I can’t carry out my religious duties.
That is one guess, but perhaps that is too easy. There is a pretty good chance that the Levite could see signs of breathing, and perhaps fresh blood. Maybe the injured man was calling out in a weak voice “Help me… please help me…” Maybe we can guess again.
Guess #2. Oh no… an injured man. What should I do? I am running late for my religious duties in Jerusalem. Do I have time to stop? And if I do stop, what could I do? I don’t know how to care for the injured. He might die in my arms and then I will be ritually unclean and cannot carry out my religious duties. And… maybe… this is a trap. Maybe this man was left here to draw foolish people in so they can be robbed and beaten as well. … and maybe, this man is not even injured at all… just faking to lure me in. I best hurry on. Maybe I can send help if I see someone along the way.
These are all possible rationalizations to not help.
- It will get in the way of my regular job– even my ministry work.
- I don’t have time.
- I don’t know what to do
- This could be a trick
The story does not interview the Levite for his reasons, but simply acknowledges that whatever his reasons were, the end result was less than what the Samaritan did.
And that was important. The context of the story was more than simply who is my neighbor, and how do I love God and love my neighbor. Jesus stated regarding the Great Commandment, in Matthew 22:40 “All the law and the ·writings of the prophets depend on these two commands. “
Keeping that in mind, we find another reason that Jesus used the priest and Levite in contrast to the Samaritan. The priest and Levite were followers and experts in the Law… especially the ceremonial law. But if all of the Law and the Prophets is summed up with the Great Commandment… clearly, this Samaritan… a despised pereson (in the eyes of the Jews) who follow a despised religion… was doing a better job of keeping the Law, than were these Jewish ministers.
Of course, you can add an additional thing that the Jews and the Samaritans have been bad neighbors for perhaps 400 years. The Samaritans were hardly welcoming of the Jews returning from exile. They sought to hinder the building of the walls of Jerusalem. Frankly, if anything, the Jews were even worse. A couple hundred years before Christ… the Jews actually went to the Samaritans most holy site, Mt. Gerizim and destroyed their temple. NOT a neighborly thing to do. A Samaritan helping a Jew, adds contrast to Jewish religious leaders who would not even help out a fellow Jew.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a wonderful story with a strong message. But we almost always read it wrong. For most of us, when we read the story, we read it as the narrator, disconnected from the story. That is a mistake… it is a story that beckons us to place ourselves in the story. Some might place themselves into the role of the injured man, or perhaps the Samaritan. That is fine, but for most of us, this is not where we fit. Most of us in this room are the Levite.
Like the Levite, we are religious people. We see ourselves as chosen by God, and ones who try to do what is pleasing to God. But we are also rationalizers… people who substitute piety for godliness. People who are pretty good at rationalizing why we should not do things that are– inconvenient.
Now maybe I am wrong. This doesn’t describe you. You are not the Levite. Great. But I am. I am the Levite. Let me tell you a story, to demonstrate that point.
Many years ago, shortly after Celia and I were married, we lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia. A city built on the Atlantic Ocean. It had nice beaches– not as nice as some of the beaches here in the Philippines, but nice. Celia and I are not really beach people. We rarely went to the beach, but my sister and her husband would drive 800 kilometers to spend a few days with us and enjoy the warm weather. They come from a cold area… much colder than Baguio.
So we took them to the beach. The sun was out, the breeze off the ocean was wonderful, but the waves were a bit strong. Nevertheless, my brother-in-law and I went into the ocean. It was fun to dive into the waves as they crash onto the shore. It felt almost like one was in a washing machine– I’m guessing. After awhile, he and myself went back to join our wives on the sandy beach. It was a good time to relax and I lay there with my eyes closed about to drift off to sleep… when I heard a voice say,
“Excuse me. Uhhh excuse me. Could you help me?” Ugggghh. I didn’t come to the beach to be harrassed by someone trying to sell me something. That is the main reason I don’t like going to the beach here in the Philippines. People feel there need to sell me something is stronger than my need to relax in peace. Or maybe this guy is not trying to sell me something, but trying to sell me his religion. In the US, some do beach ministry… trying to convert people on the beach. I am not interested in being converted. I want to stay the faith that I already am, thank you very much.
So I ignored him, and pretended to be asleep. And he went away… success!! But maybe a half minute later I here some other sounds that I can’t figure out, so I take a peek.
In the water was a man who was struggling. He was trapped in a narrow area between deep water and rough breaking waves. Without help, he could easily drown…. But there was help. A group of volunteer rescuers had formed a human chain to go out to the man and bring him to shore safely. By the time I realized this, the chain was adequately long to save him.
The man who was trying to get my attention wasn’t trying to sell me something or convert me. He was asking if I could help save a man at risk of drowning.
And I could have. I wasn’t a particularly fast swimmer, but I was a strong swimmer, and had been swimming in the same place as the struggling man just minutes earlier. I also had been trained and certified in First Aid, CPR, and Basic Water Safety (all lapsed by now).
I could have saved that man. Maybe a reporter was in the area and as I saved that man, I would get interviewed and be on TV! Not likely. Or maybe this man was rich and in saving him, he gives a large reward. Even less likely. On the other hand, maybe as I tried to save him, he would strike out at me and try to drown me, not in malice, but in panic. This is actually quite likely since a drowning person in panic will do things that can potentially hurt himself as well as rescuers.
In the end, I don’t know what would have happened because when I was called to act, I pretended to be asleep.
A similar story comes up in the book of Esther. The king of Persia marries a Jewish woman named Esther, who was under the guardianship of her uncle Mordecai. Unfortunately, there is a bad man, a servant of the king,who hated the Jews and had convinced the king to have all of the Jews wiped out. Mordecai desires for Esther, a Jewess, to speak to the king on the behalf of her people. Esther is fearful because going to the king uninvited is dangerous… even for a queen. But Mordecai was very wise and he spoke to some messengers.
Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther,
“Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” -Esther 4:13-14
What he was saying was this. You have two choices:
You can act to try to save your people… even if it is risky or scary. After all, perhaps God has put you in this place as queen precisely for this purpose. To stand up and respond when the need arises.
Or, you can do nothing. Just ignore the problem. And God will still save his people. God will find another person to save his people, because he is a promise-keeping God. But in this case you will suffer, and I will suffer and our family will suffer because we did not act when God called us to act.
This is pretty good theology. God promised to protect the Jews and so he would… with Esther’s help, or without it. If she did not help, she is the one who suffers.
In my story, it is pretty clear that it was God’s will that the man in the ocean would be rescued… whether I helped or not. Others responded and the man was rescued. The only one who suffered loss was me.
In the parable, the injured man was rescued. The Samaritan was the hero. The innkeeper was able to earn a little extra money. Even the robbers benefited because they now could not be charged with murder. The only ones to suffer loss were the Priest and the Levite. That loss, was a lost opportunity to respond to the call of God to be prepared to act, and to act when called.
I don’t know where God has placed you and what he has prepared for you to do. But he has prepared for you to do something. That something is not to sit in the pews. It is not even to pray… and then fail to act. None of us can do everything. Some things we have to say “No’ to… but there is some thing God has prepared for you to do… like myself on the beach… like Esther in the palace of a king… like a Levite on a lonely road. If you fail to respond, God can do it without you if he so desires. God can prepare another to take your place. Perhaps God doesn’t really need you… but he wants to use you… for the sake of His kingdom… and for your sake.