“Things Jesus Didn’t Say: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves”
A Sermon on Luke 10:30-37
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
August 11, 2019 – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
I confess, I’m not entirely sure what I should preach to you today. This has been a bear of a week – shootings, raids, news I won’t mention with children present, political arguments, pain, grief. Many of you have reached out this week with your anger and fear, which I share. But there is so much going on, I’m not sure what I could say that would be helpful. I am at a loss.
When I’m at a loss, I turn to books, to those wiser and more eloquent than I am. And so, I’d like to begin today with a quote from my favorite theologian – Mr. Rogers. Yes, that Mr. Rogers, and No, I’m not kidding. Rev. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian Minister ordained to TV ministry where he spent his life tackling hard topics with children and preaching inclusion, common sense, curiosity, and kindness. That’s my kind of theology. Once, in an interview, Mr. Rogers said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”[i]
Coincidentally, we’re continuing our sermon series on “Things Jesus Didn’t Say” today with this phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.” Friends, you know that phrase isn’t true. God helps us in so many ways that we can’t help ourselves, and sometimes helps us through kindness shown by our neighbors. There are a lot of helpless people around, and God calls us to be the helpers in our world. So, let’s spend some time today talking about how to be helpers in weeks like the one we’ve been having.
Our text today tells the story of perhaps the most famous helper, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story. A man is on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he is robbed, beaten, and left for dead – the very definition of someone who can’t help themselves and must rely on others. A priest walks by – and of course, our expectation should be that priests and pastors would help, right? But the priest passes by the other side. Then a Levite sees the helpless man – but he, too, walks by. It’s not until a Samaritan, a hated outsider, comes by that the helpless man receives any help. The Samaritan tends his wounds, takes him to an inn to heal, and provides money for his care. At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us to “Go and do likewise.”
At face value, it’s a nice story about being selfless and helping people. Dig a little deeper, and it’s a meaningful tale of not judging people’s morality by their appearance or station. But when we dig even deeper, it’s also a statement on the necessary risk we take in helping those who can’t help themselves. And Jesus wants us to help anyway.
The priest who passes by this nameless man is religiously and legally obligated to help. But there’s a problem – this man is naked, unconscious, and probably unrecognizable due to his beating. For all the priest knows, this could be a trap! Perhaps other robbers are waiting nearby – and what would his congregation do without him? Perhaps this man isn’t even an Israelite but a foreigner – this would put the priest’s loyalties and reputation into question. Worst of all, the man was left “half dead” – there’s good reason for the priest to assume that he either is dead or would die soon. And according to the law, touching a dead body would make the priest unclean. That would mean that “he would need to return to Jerusalem and undergo a week-long process of ceremonial purification. It would take some time to arrange such things. Meanwhile he could not eat from the tithes or even collect them. The same ban would apply to his family and his servants. Distribution to the poor would also have been impossible.”[ii] It was just too risky to help the man – the needs of the many outweighed the needs of one. So, naturally, the priest stepped to the side so that he could continue to feed his family and the poor. It was the safe decision to make.
The Levite, too, was obligated to help. To be a Levite was to be part of a religious order, an assistant to the priests. The Levite would have had the same concerns about ritual purity and the way it would affect his life and those around him. The Levite also may have had a political concern. If the Levite had known there was a priest traveling before him, who was the Levite to second-guess leaving the man on the road?. “Should a mere Levite upstage a priest? Did the Levite think he understood the law better than the priest?...Could the Levite ride into Jericho with a wounded man whom the priest…had opted to ignore? Such an act would be an insult to the priest.”[iii] And so the Levite, reasonably, decides not to take the risk and passes by the other side. It was the safe decision to make.
You and I make a lot of safe decisions when it comes to helping people around us. I can’t tell you I’m ready to give all that safety up. For instance, I never go into bad neighborhoods alone. If someone comes to the church and asks for gas money, I don’t accompany a stranger to a gas station to fuel them up. None of us would spend our entire paycheck on the foodbank – we feed our families first. We’re safe. We’re smart…as were the priest and the Levite.
In this story, though, the priest and the Levite ultimately fail. They may have been smart, but they failed to follow the most important rule –“saving a life is so important, that Jewish Law mandates that it override every other concern, including keeping the Sabbath.”[iv] They may have been safe in leaving the man to God’s care alone, but they failed in their own obligations to God.
Helping people means not always playing it safe. My favorite theologian Mr. Rogers said, that “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say ‘It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’” He also said “Justice is taking care of those who aren't able to take care of themselves.”
I’m sure you know that Samaritans were considered the enemy. In fact, the man on the road may have rather died than been helped by a Samaritan. Samaritans were the descendants of Shechem in the Old Testament;[v] so saying someone was a “Good Samaritan” was like saying someone was a “good murderer.” Even just interacting with the helpless man on the road was risky for the Samaritan. Can you imagine the danger if someone had discovered the Samaritan kneeling over a naked Israelite, or carrying him unconscious on his own animal? It would be, in today’s terms, like seeing a felon leaning over an unconscious police officer, like seeing a Klansman leaning over an Africa-American – to put it more literally, if we look at the descendants of the Samaritans and the Israelites, it would be like seeing a member of Hamas leaning over an unconscious Jewish Israeli. We wouldn’t ask questions – we’d assume that the helper was up to no good. We’d call for backup, we’d intervene, we’d do something to stop him. And in the day and age in which the Samaritan lived, he was guaranteed to be met with violence should someone catch him. He had every reason to pass by the other side of the road.
But he didn’t. He helped. Even though it wasn’t his problem, he helped. At risk to his own personal comfort and safety, he helped.
Friends, Jesus tells us to “go and do likewise.” He tells us to help even when it’s not our problem, even when it’s easy to ignore, even when we put ourselves at risk.
I look at what’s happened around our country in the last couple of weeks, and I take comfort that there have been helpers. In El Paso, hundreds of people lined up in 100 degree heat to donate blood – someone showed up with a cello to entertain them during the five hour wait.[vi] A gym owner in Forest, Mississippi, opened his building overnight to house children whose parents were taken in the largest ICE raid in a decade – volunteers showed up with food and offers of carpooling to school.[vii] Lady Gaga is funding 162 classrooms in communities affected by mass shootings so that children can properly process their trauma.[viii] There are a lot of people helping in the world. It is comforting to look for the helpers.
But there are times we need to take an even riskier stand; Times we need to stand up and say that what is happening in our world is wrong; Times have to take to the streets and say that we won’t tolerate gun violence or white supremacy or unfair laws or anything else that reduces people to Samaritan status in our world. Sometimes we have to have conversations about politics that make everyone uncomfortable, or be accepting of people who make us nervous, or put aside our preferences in order to proclaim the gospel. And y’all, I don’t know what that always looks like. But “Justice is taking care of those who aren’t able to take care of themselves,” and God’s justice sometimes makes us uncomfortable. It sometimes makes us the Samaritans in our world. But it’s what God would have us do.
One more Mr. Rogers quote: “Love … is an active noun like struggle.” Being helpers – being missionaries of God’s love, is a struggle, my friends. I don’t tell you stories about helpers and Mr. Rogers to make you feel better. We shouldn’t feel better – our world should make us so angry right now that we flip over every table in the temple.[ix] It would be wrong of us to grow numb to the state of the world and accept the death and hatred around us as normal. It’s not normal. And even if it were, it is not the way of God. God’s way is justice working toward peace, God’s way is caring through the least likely people, God’s way is a struggle of love, God’s way is help for those who don’t or can’t help themselves.
I do not have all the answers for you this week. I wish I did. All I can tell you right now is that Jesus tells a story of a helper who took incredible risks, and tells us to go and do likewise. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
[i] All Mr. Rogers’ quotes in this sermon come from: https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/tv-radio/2018/02/19/Mister-Rogers-quotations/stories/201802160001
[ii] Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, p. 293.
[iv] A.J. Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, p. 102
[v] Ibid, 104-105.
[ix] Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2:15