This sermon was delivered on the Eighth Sunday of Luke (Luke 10:25-37), November 10, 2019, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
IN ABOUT TWO WEEKS, teenagers from our parish will deliver food supplies collected by our community to approximately one hundred twenty homes in the area. This charitable act will bring comfort to many food-insecure people, who face living conditions that most of us here today would find hard to imagine, let alone actually endure. Together, we as a Christian community will have carried out a commandment of the Lord by visiting those in need, who are marginalized by society.
It would appear that this is a scenario to which today’s Gospel reading lends itself rather well. We heard Jesus describe in a parable the true meaning of neighbor-hood: helping those in need whom others have ignored. In taking this food to these families, we will show ourselves to be Good Samaritans.
Unfortunately, I have to tell you that it is not so simple as this.
One way to demonstrate why would be to take a few minutes to look up various local Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu communities online, and to explore their websites. Chances are we would come across charitable events they are planning or have done. We can even consider one particular religious group’s mission statement, and I quote:
to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will
Sounds nice, right? Then it might surprise you to learn that this is the mission statement of the so-called “Satanic Temple,” a satanic group recognized by our government as a legitimate “church”.
So, I am led to wonder: if Christ’s parable is about doing good things for others who are helpless, and that will get me into heaven, then what makes his Church special or better than any of the above groups—let alone satanists who have as part of their mission statement to “encourage benevolence and empathy” and to “undertake noble pursuits”?
The answer is either a) that Christ is a fraud (or at the very least is on equal footing with Satan); or b) that life is about more than simply being a ‘good person’.
We will recall that a lawyer asked Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him what he thought, and he quoted the Old Testament scripture about loving God with one’s whole being, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus affirmed this response and could just as well have walked away.
Yet the lawyer persisted, to taunt Jesus, saying “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a parable that shows a Samaritan—an outcast, despised non-Jew—proving to be more of a neighbor by far than a Jewish priest and levite to a man beaten and left for dead.
And so Jesus made it clear that this supposedly good Jew was limiting the divine commandment of love to those who were like him. He was perfectly content to be the type of person who would take pride in saying “We help our own”. We could be charitable and imagine he might have been open to tossing a coin or piece of food to a non-Jewish beggar every now and then. From his perspective and probably from that of others, he was a “good person”.
But in our reading of this encounter, Jesus now challenges us. He could just as well be asking us, “Where are the Koreans in your pews?” Or, he might muse, “You’re going to take food to one hundred and twenty latino and black low-income families? Great. But would you also invite them to experience the Orthodox Faith, and welcome them into these doors, with the hopes of eventually drinking together from the same chalice?” If such questions make us uncomfortable or offend us, then the simple truth is that we are twenty-first-century lawyers, who think we do well and who taunt Jesus: “Sorry…who is my neighbor?”
You see, Jesus using this scandalous image of a despised other wasn’t so much about teaching a lesson about doing nice things for others, as it was a slap in the face to wake up a proud people who used the privilege of being God’s chosen to exalt themselves above others, while at the same time depriving others of relationship with the true God.
This is pride. It is pride that evicted Satan from heaven. It is pride that evicted Adam and Eve from paradise. And it is pride that stands to evict us from the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is pride and sin that beat us—humanity—and left us to die on the side of the road. It is the hypocritical keepers of the law of Moses that passed by on the other side. It is Christ—the one who was despised by these same people—who noticed us, humbled himself, bound our wounds, brought us into the Church to recover, and who will come back for us. He was proving himself to be the true neighbor to the lawyer and those like him, just as he is to all of us. He is the one who says to us “go and do likewise”—in other words, “preach my good news”. It is Christ who is the Good Samaritan.
This is why “being a good person” is not the whole story. We believe that God became one of us and died for us, and suffered with and for us, to raise us up with himself. No other faith or philosophy can claim that kind of love. People who believe in such things or in nothing at all can take food and clothing to those in need. Anybody can.
But they cannot take them Christ to bind the wounds of sin, let alone bring them into the inn of his Church. Jesus didn’t come to be just another cheerleader for social outreach and justice, but to invite the world to repentance. Have we, who carry his name, accepted this invitation ourselves? Are we who sit on the wealth of the Orthodox Faith delivering it with generosity to those starving in sin, hopelessness, and the dead-end, feel-good fads of our day? Or do we brag about it while refusing to touch the near-dead, afraid we will defile ourselves? If the latter, then we are put to shame by the non-Orthodox—indeed, by satanists!—when they do their good works, and as Jesus says in another place, even what we think we have will be taken away from us.
Don’t fall into the deadly trap of settling to be good, while Christ brings us the life-giving opportunity to be holy, and to share that opportunity with others.