The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r182.htm
s182g98 Somerton Park Sunday 15
"A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho ... " Luke 10.30
There are some interesting but perhaps sometimes unrecognised innuendoes in this story of the Good Samaritan which are worthwhile to point out.
The journey the man took was from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now the hill on which the city of Jerusalem is situated is not the highest in Israel, it is just 762m above sea level. (Mt Lofty, close to Adelaide, is 700m above sea level) Jericho, on the other hand, is 256m below sea level, as it is quite near the Dead Sea which is actually 390m below sea level. So when Jesus says "down to Jericho" he is not being ungrammatical, the journey was quite literally downhill all the way. It is a drop in altitude of more than a kilometre in only 22kms.
It is necessary to also point out that the brigands were found so close to Jerusalem itself, and so were Jews. It is most unlikely that they were Samaritans, because Samaria is 50kms north of Jerusalem, whereas Jericho is 22kms to the east, in quite a different direction. The brigands were therefore most probably Jewish. The man travelling on the road was also Jewish, for Samaritans would hardly have visited Jerusalem, let alone leaving in this direction. Because the brigands who attacked this Jew could hardly have been Samaritans, the Good Samaritan who helped the Jew, did so, not to make up for his wayward countryman, or because the man was a brother Samaritan, but out of simple compassion for another human being.
Jerusalem and Jericho were linked in another perhaps curious way, for Jericho was the first of the cities destroyed by Joshua and the tribes of Israel as they entered the promised land to take possession of it. Jerusalem was, on the other hand, the last of the cities which was captured by the Israelites, and it was king David who did that, many, many years after the time of Joshua (despite what in said in Numbers 11.23). Joshua is thought to have led the invading tribes into the Promised Land in about 1250 BC and King David is thought to have finally conquered Jerusalem in about 950 BC. So in effect it took 300 years to control all the land, and so for God's promise to Abraham became a reality for his people.
So to travel the route from Jerusalem to Jericho was to metaphorically go backwards in Israel's history, to turn one's back on God in his temple in Jerusalem, and to turn one's back on the very promise of God to Abraham to give this land to his descendants. It is, again metaphorically, the same direction that the prodigal Son went in leaving his home and his family, and of course with the same results, ruin.
The road away from God so often is still downhill all the way, with thieves and brigands lying in wait, for those foolhardy souls who venture on this path. Thieves and brigands who dress remarkably similarly to ourselves. Conversely the road to God involves both effort on our part as well as grace from God.
But there comes a further rub for the religious people, for in the story Jesus has the priest and the Levite "travelling down the same road". The "down" gives it away; these were not an ordinary priest or an ordinary Levite; these too had set their faces away from God in his temple and his promises. They, too, were on their way towards ruin.
Now in the normal sequence of things, the third traveller would have been an ordinary Jew, if Jesus' purpose was purposely to criticise priests and Levites, as some would have Jesus do. For that an ordinary lay person would have done. The fact that he was not shows that this was not Jesus' purpose. His purpose is not to pick a fight with priests and Levites. No, he introduces a foreigner, a complete outsider, to pick up this Jew, to tend his wounds and to help him where-ever he could.
So Jesus' words are not a criticism of priests or Levites in general, but nor are they a criticism of this particular priest or Levite. The Old Testament law was quite specific that contact with a dead body incurred ritual defilement. Now the priest was obviously in daily contact with the sacrifices of the people, and so too the Levite. The job of the Levite was to keep charge of the sacrificial vessels. Being ritually defiled meant, particularly for the priest and the Levite, that neither could not exercise their ministry. Neither could take the chance to see if the man was fully dead or only half dead. Even if perchance he was only half dead at the roadside, he may not have survived a journey to help and again they would have been defiled. If they had made a habit of such an action they would never be able to perform their duties.
Now Jesus was speaking to neither a priest or a Levite. His words are addressed to a lawyer, though law in those times, was the sacred law of scripture. Now I have no doubt that Jesus could have, if he wished, criticised the lawyer to his face. But is he criticising them at all? What is in dispute is a question of law. Leviticus 19.6 states in precisely the same words: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." The priest and the Levite in their reading of scripture as it related to them, might feel that they had to "pass by on the other side". However the Samaritan was free of these restrictions and so could render the aid. Similarly, the lawyer would generally not be restricted by the ritual law, and so he could "do likewise".
The practical conclusion, in all this, is that God cares first and foremost for people, not laws. He cares for all those going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. I mean quite specifically that God cares for people, even when they are in the very act of turning away from him and all his promises. Jesus did not in fact, in this story, criticise the traveller, the priest, the Levite or the lawyer. He points the way of real religion, and the way is back, towards Jerusalem and the promise of the loving kindness of God towards all people, sinners as we all are. Jesus is saying very powerfully that the purpose of the grace of God towards the people of Israel has ever been to care for one and for all.
The priest and the Levite had interpreted the law to neglect a higher duty to another human being in need. Jesus, in this parable, says effectively again "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". This teaching of God's care for the ordinary human being so enraged the religious authorities that Mark says (2.27, 3.6) it was the impetus for them to seek to destroy him.
We still, both in the Church and personally, have difficulties dealing with someone whom we feel is going in precisely the wrong direction. Perhaps it is as much as we can do: to let them go and to be there to help them pick up the pieces when they fall in a little heap. This is of course particularly hard when the person is a member of the family. How often do parents vow that they'll bring up their children better than their parents brought them up. And of course they won't let their children make the mistakes they were allowed to make! The frustration comes when teenagers want to live their own lives, they even want to make their own mistakes. After all, why should parents have had all the fun! How sad it is that we see the role of the Church to make people "Christians" so they always "do the right thing" and therefore not ever "have fun".
For all the attempts we might make to shield our offspring from the difficulties of this world, everyone must face the real world, and all our efforts as parents will be in vain. We can but love, and that love, God also knows, if often rejected. We, as parents, share the same pain as the Father, and that is both a humbling and ennobling thought.
It is easy to criticise the priest, the Levite, the lawyer, the Jew; in fact the list of people we can blame is endless for all the ills of this world. We can complain about all those who are going in the wrong direction; the problem is that in doing so we may find ourselves travelling on the same road. It was "the one who took pity on him", "who proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands' hands". So when Jesus says "Go, and do the same yourself" it means that we too are to have respect for those who encounter difficulties in life, no matter which direction on the road they are travelling. Respect, not advise, Not "I told you so", not even "You won't do that again in a hurry, will you?" Plain and simple respect.
It is precisely as we would hope to be treated ourselves, and we have been told to: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Jesus points us to the true faith, which is respect for others.
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