Christ in the Victim, Christ in the Hero – October 18

A sermon based on Luke 10:25-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 18, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

There’s a wonderful art display on the Good Samaritan going on right now over at the Schnormeier Gallery. The display is called “Who is My Neighbor.” I’ve checked it out a couple of times already. I love the parable of “The Good Samaritan.” It has so many facets and meanings and it was great to see a lot of them visualized.

Inspired by the artwork I checked to see when I last preached a sermon in this church on “The Good Samaritan.” I was surprised to discover that at this church I apparently have not preached a whole sermon around it. I’ve referred to it lots of times in sermons and in discussions. I’ve addressed it in a recent vlog. And I also directed a very funny theatrical performance of the story in Godspell a few years ago. But when I searched my files I did not find a sermon given at this church on it. To remedy that I set aside the Lectionary text for today and replaced it (as you heard) with “The Good Samaritan” text– which also dovetails nicely with the stewardship theme for today.

One particular painting at the art exhibit inspired me most for this sermon. I don’t usually rely on visual aids in sermons, but if you’d like one there’s a small copy of the painting in the bulletin (see a copy below this manuscript). It’s not in color or high definition so some of the details are lost, but I think you can get the gist from it. (Though I do recommend seeing the real one at the exhibit) It’s a nineteenth century portrait by John Burgess that like most in the exhibit, is unsurprisingly called, “The Good Samaritan.” But what caught my eye is that Burgess surprisingly depicted the wounded man like none of the other painters. The victim ignored by religious folks and tended to by the Samaritan is portrayed as Jesus was commonly portrayed in nineteenth century Western Culture. I appreciated seeing the image of Christ in the victim . . . a lot.

Although “The Good Samaritan” story only appears in Luke Burgess cleverly melds Jesus’ teaching found in our invocation from Matthew 25– that what we do to those in trouble, we do to Christ, to God incarnate here and now. Since God acts through our acts we also already know that any one tending to a victim acts in the image of Christ as God incarnate. And we catch a glimpse of that image in the portrait of the Good Samaritan himself, not in his visage but in his carefully depicted kind act of tenderly tending to the well-being of the victim.
Where we do not see God incarnate in the Burgess rendering is in the religious leaders who walk away into the horizon distancing themselves from God in the victim and God in the healing hands of help that arrive. That irony in the painting is in Jesus’ telling of the parable too, the religious priest and his assistant, the Levite, are the furthest from God incarnate, because they do not reach out as God’s image to the victim made in God’s image.

We often talk about God’s presence in humanity in this church. In the Good Samaritan painting and story before us today we can see and hear God’s hands (Christ’s hands) reach out and give help, and also reach out and receive help. God, Christ, is in those in need and those who provide what is needed. Loving your neighbor is a theological win-win. People reaching out like that bring heaven to earth.
While Jesus did not paint the story of the Good Samaritan with canvas and brush, he did depict it with powerful words, words meant to make us think on multiple levels. Certainly, one level is what most of us generally take away from the parable, that a good person does not walk away from those in need, a good person stops and helps. That is the Holy thing to do. This, of course, applies to all situations where help is needed, not just first century roadside robbery victims outside of Jericho. This point in the parable is so well known that “Good Samaritan” is a term long associated with anyone who stops and helps a neighbor or a stranger in need.

Good Samaritans are heroes and we never tire of hearing of them. The selfless act of caring and tending to well-being of others moves us to our core. A theological way to understand that is God within us reacts to God within the heroic acts in ways that draw us to them, as if to say “Three cheers for those who do this! You want to do that too.”

But what Christians often miss in our honoring and lauding the Good Samaritan is the irony Jesus created telling a story with a Good Samaritan. To Jesus’ followers Good Samaritan would have been a jarring oxymoron since Samaritans were culturally considered not good. They were considered despised and loathed lowlife enemies. All you have to do is go back a chapter to Luke 9 to find an example. In that chapter Jesus and his followers are refused welcome to a Samaritan town. The disciples ask Jesus if they should respond by “command[ing] fire to come down from heaven and consume [the town].”

Jesus rebukes them for making such a request and causes them to move on without hurting the culturally hated Samaritans . . . who seem to culturally hate them back. Just a short while later, as we heard in the text today, a lawyer asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks what the law says and affirms the lawyer’s answer that we do it by loving God and neighbor as we love ourselves. When the lawyer asks the follow-up question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the parable of “The Good Samaritan. ” The lesson ends when the lawyer chooses the Samaritan as the good neighbor and Jesus affirms the choice and tells the lawyer to be a neighbor like that.

The exchange by Jesus and the lawyer is very progressive for that time . . . for any time! Given the present atmosphere of divisiveness in our nation today, in a number of cases it’d be akin to admitting the neighbor loathed for a sign in the yard for a despised presidential candidate could be a good neighbor. See this is not just a story about helping the neighbors we like, or strangers we might be indifferent about, it is about helping everyone, including those we do not like at all, even hate, even consider an enemy!

And there’s something even trickier about Jesus’ story, the Jewish listeners would have placed themselves in the shoes of the Jewish victim so as the priest and the Levite approach there was an assumption those religious leaders would help. Respected religious people help. They don’t knowingly walk by neighbors in need. And it would have been baffling to hear that an enemy Samaritan is the hero. Enemies don’t help, they hurt. It would be a great challenge for that Jewish victim in that era to not resist a Samaritan’s help. But in Jesus’ telling both those enemies ignore the culture constructs and act like neighbors. The wounded person is benefitted by accepting the help. The helping person is benefitted by providing help, by personifying not just heroism, but God on earth.

Jesus only asked the lawyer which of the three passing-by were neighbors, the lawyer’s answer was right . . . out of those three. But there are two neighbors on that road who act neighborly, the person who stopped to help and the person accepts the help. Barriers to well-being are knocked down by these kinds of neighborly acts. The lesson in the lesson is: love your neighbor does not mean being religiously pious, it means giving and receiving needed help without regard to prejudice of any kind. Heard this way the parable echoes the whole of the lawyer’s answer, that we are to love God and neighbor as we love our self. To do that is to incarnate God’s steadfast and enduring love . AMEN.