I had an opportunity to be a guest at an out of town church today. I get nervous when I have to go to an unfamiliar church. You just never know what you are walking into and the time when you could hazard a fairly accurate guess regarding a church’s beliefs and practices based on the sign out front seems to have passed us by. I have walked out of more than one church in the middle of a service.
So it was pleasing to me this morning in visiting Trinity Lutheran Church in Isle, Minnesota. I have visited some good churches, and Trinity definitely qualifies. The sermon text was the parable of the Good Samaritan and it is on this that I would like to share some thoughts.
Pastor Mark Maunula delivered the sermon and during the lesson he pointed something out that I had never noticed. In the parable, both the priest and the Levite were between a rock and a hard place. The law, as was being discussed between Jesus and the Lawyer in the immediate context of this parable, says to both these men “love your neighbor”, but it also forbid them to be ceremonially unclean and therefore unfit for their duties toward God. The law also says “love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” which they could not do if they were unclean from a dead body or blood. So the Jewish clergy in the parable were stuck. Their attempt to be righteous through the law, like the attempt of Jesus’ scholarly interlocutor, would fail either way.
Enter the dirty, half-breed, heretic. The Samaritan. I hope I am not stretching Jesus’ parable further than it wants to go but I couldn’t help but put two and two together. The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable was already unclean. He was therefore unfettered by any concern for defiling himself. It’s a bit like the men who stormed Normandy Beach. Why be afraid to die when you’re already dead? Jesus says in Mark 2 “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
So what’s my point? The Samaritan understood mercy because he had NO chance of fulfilling his legal obligations to God and he knew it. He couldn’t even worship in the right temple. The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable understood mercy because he was so aware of his own need for it. We are all dead men under the law. That is a universal reality that Jesus spent a fair amount of time trying to point out to people. It is not until we are blessed, as was Jesus’ rather antagonizing protagonist, with the knowledge of our own uncleanness that we will run to the only one who can make us clean.