“I feel a parable coming on!”
Message preached on
November 12, 2017
Wait a minute! Didn’t we just travel this same territory not long ago? Didn’t we sing this same song just a few weeks ago? Didn’t we read of Jesus answering an important question with the command to love God and neighbor? … Well, yes, we did. It was from Matthew’s gospel, not Luke’s. In the lectionary, a three-year cycle of scripture readings to which our bulletins (as well as often my sermons) connect, we are close to finishing the year of St. Matthew. In December, we begin the year of St. Mark. Both Matthew and Mark tell this story. So does Luke, though Luke steers in a slightly different direction.
Now, if I had more fully put on my pastor hat leading up to today, I would have seen that this Junior High Sunday was headed down its own path. But I didn’t. So here we are … again. This time, however, we are in Luke’s school bus. So, with blinking lights to stop traffic in either direction, the door opens and we step out. We’re on a field trip with Jesus, only it’s Luke who is making all the arrangements, not Matthew or Mark.
Had it been either of those gospel storytellers, the opening question would be, “which commandment is the greatest?” … “which one is the most important?” And the answer would be: “love God with heart, soul, mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” After saying all that, it would be time to get everyone back on the bus because the journey’s almost over and we’ve only got a few more stops to make. That’s Matthew and Mark… Not Luke. No sir-ee. For one thing, along the way of Luke’s field trip, we are not even half way into the gospel, and the journey to Jerusalem - which figures prominently in how he tells the story – has only just begun.
Luke’s field trip to the capital city of Jerusalem actually begins outside a Samaritan village, a detail that might be important for us to notice. Unlike how a school teacher usually plans, this apparently trip was more a one-day-at-a-time operation. As they approached the first town along the way, Jesus sent messengers ahead to check things out. Would there be room for he and his disciples in the town’s inn? - a question Luke likes to ask. The messengers returned from the Samaritan town with a negative answer: “Don’t bother stopping by as long as your plan is taking you to Jerusalem.”… In case we needed a clue that the folks of Samaria and Judea, where Jerusalem is located, are not bosom buddies, here it is. (Luke 9:51-56)
Not long after this, Jesus opens the doors to the bus and sends them all his disciples out ahead of him. Travel light, he tells them. Don’t get discouraged, he says. Share good news, he instructs. Eat their food, he encourages. If people in a town aren’t receptive, sort of like the folks in that Samaritan village, just wipe the sand off your sandals and move on. That’s what he says. Remember, he proclaims, God’s kingdom is very near. The disciples go out, and later return with joy in their step (Luke 10:1-17) The doors close and the bus moves on.
At the next stop there is a lawyer. A religious lawyer, mind you. Someone versed in the Torah, the law of Moses. It’s question and answer time. This part of the story should start sounding familiar. We were here only a few weeks ago. We sang the song, for goodness sake. It was not only a scripture in the lectionary, it was the theme of our district conference last month. In Matthew and Mark, the question is “which commandment is the greatest?” … “which one is the most important?” And the answer would be: “love God with heart, soul, mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Please allow my imagination some room just now. In my mind’s eye, I see Luke’s field trip as stopping at a county fair. I know, there was no such thing back then. But for me, I hear the rides running and the children screaming and the hawkers hawking. This is a fun field trip. “Step right up,” one says, “put your money on a number.” Another cries, “see if you can toss the ring over the coke bottle.” Yet another, instead of “let me guess your weight,” asks “what is needed to gain eternal life – see if you can guess” It is, after all, a ‘weighty’ subject. Jesus is right there with us “Hmm,” he goes in that way he often does. He is, after all, a good teacher. And before the asker knows it, Jesus has subtly flipped the question.
“Um, um, um,” replies the hawker, who hasn’t yet realized he’s been had. Out slips the familiar answer. “Excellent!” Jesus replies. “Give yourself a stuffed toy.” … Okay, I know that’s not exactly how it goes, but once I started telling about this school bus field trip, you’ve been travelling on the gospel according to Peter, not just Luke. In my imagination, the county fair hawker realizes he’s not nearly as slick as he thought he was. Only this Jesus is not a con man. The hawker, after all, has lost nothing. In fact, if truth be told, he’s gained his life. But, still, he tries to get the upper hand, which is kind of dumb when it comes to what’s most important in the kingdom of God. “Who, pray tell,” he asks, “is my neighbor?” … “Ah! Here we go again. I feel a parable coming on!”
I don’t know if you caught that last line in the scripture jam the youth spoke earlier. “I feel a parable coming on!” It came from the creative mind of Tyler Goss, a young adult who grew up in our district. I’m not exactly sure what he’s doing now, but maybe our youth know, since he and his sister, Chelsea, were the speakers at this year’s Regional Youth Roundtable at Bridgewater. Several years back, he portrayed “Brethren Boy,” a fearless peace-loving hero with a backward faced baseball cap and a red cape. “BB” was emblazoned on the blue t-shirt of his very nerdish outfit. Did “Brethren Boy” make an appearance at Roundtable?
Regardless, I love the fun Tyler has with this gospel scripture. Like many of Jesus’ parables, it’s a story that almost invites us to play around with it. The characters, especially the ones who pass by on the other side of the road, are caricatures – they’re “imitations of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect” (Dictionary.com). The tale is so familiar, I almost don’t have to say much about it. But, of course, you know I have to. After all, “I feel a parable coming on!”
It is altogether too easy to make fun of the priest and Levite. The zinger is, the more fun we make of them, the more we come to resemble them. The picture we draw bears a striking resemblance to what we may see when we look in the mirror. “I feel a parable coming on!” And then there’s the Samaritan, who is also somewhat of a caricature, but a good one. We want to look like him, though we know it’s a long shot. Given from where the school bus started in this portion of Luke’s gospel, you might have predicted that the very folks who were the first ones to deny Jesus access to their town, would be kin to the hero of this parable.
Do I need to remind you that Samaritans and Jews hated each other? A Galilean county fair would not be a great place for a Samaritan to draw attention to himself. Let me take things a step further. When the Hebrew portion of the Bible (aka the “Old Testament”) speaks of “neighbor,” it more often than not is referring to the children of Israel, not the rest of the world’s people, including such folks as the Samaritans. My neighbor looks like me. Of course, it all depends on how hard you look. In truth, the fact that “my neighbor” is more than an Israelite is seen embedded between the lines.
Some Hebrew scriptures make the shift openly, like the book of Ruth, where the hero is not only a woman, she’s also an outsider, from the land of Moab. She proves to truly be family to her mother-in-law, Naomi, by sticking closer than skin, deeper than death. In fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan is – in many ways - the New Testament’s version of the book of Ruth. What the Old Testament alluded to between the lines (except for portions like Ruth), the New Testament brings out into the open. My neighbor is not just someone who looks like me. Neighbor equals anyone, even an enemy. However, I don’t believe the Torah really would object to that. Some interpreters of it might, but not those who feel a parable coming on.
“Feeling a parable coming on” is not about gathering around a side-show hawker at a county fair, just for the sake of hearing another good one. It’s not about entertainment, though parables are good stories. It’s about having your own story touched by the storyteller, such that you start walking in a different way than before. You don’t leave the county fair satisfied – belly full, clutching your stuffed animal, ready to fall asleep back on the bus once the engine starts. You leave it disturbed, but in a good way.
The parable of the Samaritan who crossed the road and proved to be a neighbor to the bruised and broken man is shocking in many ways, and not simply because the hero was a hated non-Jew. It’s dangerous to act as this caricature of a hero did. You don’t know what can happen. That poor creature lying bloody and moaning could be a ruse. He could be a robber in disguise. It is risky to do as the Samaritan did. Loving your neighbor as yourself can be dangerous. Do you need me to tell you that? Being a disciple of Jesus is a risk, you know. If we undertake the challenge of really following him, if we step into this parable we feel coming on, we will be changed. And change is risky.
Wait a minute, I feel another
parable coming on! “The kingdom of
heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and
handed his possessions over to
them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and
to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that
servant’s ability. Then he left
on his journey.”
… Oh, hold on, that’s next week’s gospel… Everyone, back on the bus. Our
field trip continues!