Jesus and a crowd of followers are on their way to Jerusalem. The crowd is full of men, women, and even some children. As they travel, they stop in various towns and villages, eating, resting, and sharing their story. As with any group, there is conversation along the way.
Sometimes there are intellectual debates: how to understand the law or the role of the synagogue. Sometimes they argue: about who is the greatest disciple or how they should treat those who reject them. Sometimes there is boasting: “Jesus I will follow wherever you go…” Sometimes there are excuses: “Go ahead; I’ll catch up after I bury my father and say goodbye to my family.” Along the way,Jesus sends some of them ahead, to prepare the way and to spread their ministry. And, occasionally in the evenings, they sit around a fire telling stories.
One night, they find themselves in a small town. Many have come to meet Jesus and his disciples. There are farmers, carpenters, tax collectors, and even lawyers gathered around the fire. There are shepherds at a distance, listening and watching their sheep. The children play games at the edge of the crowd. They pass around bread, fish, and a little wine. There is laughter, some boisterous debate, and even a sleeping baby. The disciples tell stories of incredible healings. Eventually, the crowd grows quiet; Jesus’ voice rising above everything else. He is telling them that God is with them, that the kingdom of God is near. There are whispers: what is he saying; is he starting a revolution; who is this man that he speaks so boldly, makes such incredible claims about God?
“Just then a lawyer [stands] up to test Jesus, ‘Teacher,’ he [says], ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”
The disciples, those who have been with Jesus over the last few days, gape at the man. They forget that this lawyer is new to the crowd. He has not been with them to hear and see all that Jesus has done. He was not there to hear Jesus say, “…your names are written in heaven.” He does not, yet, comprehend the depth of God’s mercy.
So, the crowd turns to Jesus with expectancy and wonder. Will he teach about forgiveness? Will he tell one of those mysterious and strange parables? Are they about to witness another miracle?
I don’t suppose anyone expects to hear a story of a great robbery; of a Samaritan, a priest, and a Levite. We, us Christians, know it so well; I wonder if we even hear the story anymore. Maybe you do; but every time it starts I think, Oh yeah. I know this one. The Samaritan saves the day. I don’t know the real threat of traveling on the road to Jerusalem, the possibility of losing everything. I don’t, initially, hear the echoes of those would-be followers of Jesus (those who must first bury the dead and say farewell to their homes) as the Levite and priest pass by on the other side. I don’t know the scandal of a Samaritan caring for the injured and hopeless man. I wonder if we expect to hear anything life-changing in today’s Gospel.
Several weeks ago, I was at camp with a crowd of 6, 7, 8, and 9 year olds. We had great fun playing, hiking, and telling Bible stories. The first night we talked about hospitality. We started with the story of the Good Samaritan. We asked the children, who is our neighbor? The children knew. There was a resounding chorus of small voices saying: EVERYONE! If they heard the lawyer’s question today, they would raise their hands in the air: crying me, Jesus, pick me, I know, I know.
And herein lies the problem. After all the research, all the Biblical scholarship, we know that this parable is a morality tale.After all these years, we have forgotten. Yes, the morality is good: be kind to each other; treat others the way you want to be treated; love God; love your neighbor. And, there is another story in this story. Jesus is telling us more than how to behave, teaching us how to live; he is showing us that God is very close, the kingdom of God is near to us.
You are on your way. It is a good day. The sun is shining. You kiss your beloved goodbye as you walk out the door. Everything is going your way. Your boss gives you kudos at staff meeting. You laugh with a friend at lunch. You even say a prayer of gratitude as you head home. And then, something happens. You get lost. You make a mistake. The next thing you know, in the span of a second, you are on the verge of losing everything: your house, your family, your whole life. You are alone. You can’t imagine who will help you; in fact, there is no one who can help you. And then something happens, something completely unexpected, unpredictable. In fact, when you tell the story later, no one believes you. Somehow, though, you don’t lose everything. Of course, things are never the same. Your life is changed forever. You’ll never see things the same way again. And, in the back of your mind you know: if it hadn’t been for that one thing…well, who knows how bad it might’ve been.
This is mercy. This is a story of how God comes near to us. God is not afraid of our brokenness, our wounds, and even our death. God sees all of it. And God responds. God acts. God takes one look at our lives and says, I got this. And in a moment, our lives are changed; we are never the same; we have hope.
The truth is our world is very much like the world of the lawyer. Even on the days when we “get it right,” we are surrounded by competition, greed, and individualism. It is easy to define our lives in terms of success. And we rightfully commend a life of “doing good.” It is easy to lose sight of our relationship with God, to think it all depends on us. It is easy to forget that God is near to us – every day, every moment, all the time. Maybe it is in the touch of a loved one. Maybe it is the act of a total stranger. Maybe it is reconciliation between enemies. It is easy to forget. It is easy to lose sight of this one truth: the kingdom of God is here. Instead, we get distracted. We look for answers. We look into the face of Christ and ask, “Teacher, what must I DO to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus says, “Follow me.”
And we say, “Yes, but first I must do this one thing…”
And Jesus says, “Follow me…”
And we say, “Jesus, look what I can do…”
And Jesus says, “Follow me.”
And we say, “…but what do you really want me to do…”
And Jesus says, “Follow me…”