Thursday, September 6, 2018

Luke 10:25-37

Probably no other parable has been more effectively turned into a morality tale than this one. We assume Jesus is saying, "You should be nice to people, especially hurting people, and especially those who are different from you." While this is not a bad lesson, and I have preached this basic message out of this parable, I think Jesus is up to something much deeper and more important here than just a cautionary tale of "be nice." Remember that from its outset, Jesus' conversation with the lawyer is about the law. Jesus helps the lawyer articulate the basic message of the law -- love God and love your neighbor. So far so good.

The rub comes in that the lawyer, Luke makes very clear, wants to "justify himself." The word in Greek here is another form of the same word Paul uses so often, for example in Romans 3:20 -- stating unequivocally that no one will be justified through works of the law. It would be dangerous to assume Jesus is preaching a message of "be nice and you shall be justified" and then to say the rest of the New Testament preaches against that very understanding. What to do?

Luther's distinction (though it really goes back to the New Testament, especially Paul, but Luther framed it for use in the post-medieval world) between Law and Gospel is helpful here. Jesus takes us on a surprising journey to get the lawyer's eyes off the Law and turn him to the Gospel. (Note: I'm not assuming that Luther had this distinction completely accurate, and not at all assuming that the thin soup of "works versus grace" that so often gets preached in Luther's name is adequate. His basic distinction, however, is a helpful place to start.)

So what does Jesus do with the lawyer's question?

The most surprising move Jesus makes is one that was pointed out to me in the summer of 2016 by a teacher at Mt. Carmel Bible Camp near Alexandria, MN. He asked the question, who is the Christ figure in the parable? As we discussed the question, we realized that most often we assume that the Samaritan is the Christ figure. He's obviously the hero, after all. However, there's no real justification for this assumption in the parable. By contrast, there are several reasons to say that Jesus draws a clear parallel between himself and the wounded man. The language he uses to describe the man's experience, for one -- he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed -- is very much what will happen to Jesus in the coming days. He will be arrested by those who come at night like robbers, convicted by an illegal court, beaten by his own people and then by the Romans, and crucified between two robbers. He will be rejected by the priests and Levites, the religious authorities of his people. And he will be left for dead.

If the wounded man is the Christ figure in the story, suddenly a few things pop. Notably, the priest and the Levite both judge themselves by their reaction to Jesus, and the Samaritan judges himself as well by his sympathy and his care. It's interesting to view this parable in light of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats, about those who have recognized him in the needy among them -- "I was hungry and you fed me," etc. Jesus, the Crucified One, is the judge of the world. He exercises this judgment in the surprising way of being wounded, beaten, killed, and raised. He is a scandalous Savior, an offensive Messiah, and only those who have been outcast themselves -- like the Samaritan -- are likely to respond favorably to him.

While it's tempting to draw a parallel between the "inn" and the "innkeeper" here and in the birth story of Jesus in Luke 2, linguistically they are unrelated. The inn here is exactly that -- what we would think of as an establishment that provides housing for travelers. In Luke 2, however, there was no room for Mary and Joseph and the newborn Jesus in the "guest room" which messes with our Sunday School Christmas programs. The relationship in both cases, of course, is that Jesus (as John writes) came into his own -- his own creation, his own people, his own homeland -- and his own "received him not." The Samaritan, by contrast, is one who receives Jesus, builds his life and his actions around Jesus, and expends his resources for Jesus' sake. Those who are currently in power are less likely to expend themselves in such a way. The outcasts, the lowly, the broken, the wounded are more likely to live out Jesus' own compassion and mercy for others. Jesus is, in this parable and in every way, the Wounded Savior, the Crucified Messiah.

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