The Journey Towards Grace
DL Moody tells the story of preaching one night in winter—one of the coldest winters they had and the winter after the Chicago fire. He had been studying grace, and it was the first time he was going to preach on it. He said, “I was just full of grace”….That night when he got through speaking, he asked if any one who would like to hear about grace they could to stay. He expected some would have stayed, but was mortified to see the whole audience rise up and go away. They hadn't any interest in grace at all; they didn't want to learn anything about grace. He put his coat and hat on and was going out of the hall, when he saw a poor fellow at the back of the room crying. "I want to hear about the grace of God," said he. "You're the man I want, then," said I. "Yes. You said in your sermon that it was free, and I want you to tell me something about it." Well, he got to talking to him, and the man shared his story. He had drank away $20,000, his home had been broken up, and his wife and children had left him. DL Moody spoke to him, and it was not long before they were down on their knees together praying. That night he got him a night's lodging, and the next day they got him on his feet to begin building anew life. And when DL Moody went to Europe on an evangelistic crusade, that man was one of the most earnest workers he had. He not only heard about grace, he had received grace. He believed that the peace of God was sufficient for him, and he took God at his word and he was a saved man.
You can’t understand the call of the cross if you don’t understand grace. It’s in the cross that we find God’s grace most fully given and experienced. Grace is one of the hardest things for us to grasp. We’ve experienced it in our life, but it’s difficult for us to understand. And it’s probably one of the most difficult things for the Church to express to the world and the fact is we haven’t been very good at it. It’s much easier to judge than to extend grace. And the world knows it. The Barna Organization interviewed 18-35 year-olds across America and asked, “What is the church?” The top responses were “Judgmental and hypocritical.” Jesus experienced this same attitude as he walked with the disciples through Samaria and they asked him if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy them. Samaritans were considered half-breeds because they intermarried with the Gentiles. So tensions were high between Jews and Samaritans. Most Jews walked directly through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem but Jesus decides to stop along the way to minister and teach the Samaritans. And if that wasn’t enough, he teaches a parable that would challenge the disciple’s attitude of judgment toward those they thought God hated and in the process teaches them about grace.
In our Scripture today, Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Pharisees were Jews passionately committed to honor God with their lives by following the Law to the letter. Unfortunately, in their zeal to honor God, they gradually evolved into an Insider-Outsider theology. They and others following the law were the righteous ones and then everyone else were sinners which included those who had birth defects, chronic diseases, physical maladies. These conditions were proof in their eyes that they had sinned and were being punished by God. Sinners also included those who had scorned occupations like shepherds, tax collectors and prostitutes and even whole classes of people like the Gentiles and the Samaritans. It is these people who are excluded from God’s love and care and the compassion and mercy of observant Judaism. So Jesus in Luke 5-8 intentionally brings God’s compassion and mercy to these outcasts and sinners as He invites them to participate in the Kingdom of God. But the disciples still don't get it, exhibited by their attitude toward the Samaritans. When the dialogue with the Pharisee about eternal life turns to, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a parable. The common view in Jesus’ day was your neighbor was your fellow Jew who precisely kept the Law and there was a long list of people who God hated and were not your neighbor, like the Gentiles and the Samaritans. So in Jewish eyes, your neighbor is people just like you. In response, Jesus teaches a parable about the limits of God’s grace and ours and you can’t live by the cross unless you live by grace.
Jesus tells the story about a man who was walking home from Jerusalem, which is 2700 feet above sea level, down to Jericho, which is the lowest city on earth at 1000 feet below sea level. This 17 mile trek descends more than 4000 feet and was one of the most dangerous stretches of road known for its thieves and bandits. This man is beaten and stripped of his clothes and left for dead. In a culture that instinctively thinks in terms of categories of people, the listeners of Jesus’ day would have been asking, “Is he a Jew, a Gentile, a Roman or a Samaritan? Is he one of us or not?” The problem in answering these questions is that this man is naked with no identifying clothes and he is unconscious and unable to speak. He can’t be easily identified.
The story takes its first twist when Jesus says, “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.” Now a priest traveling this road would have just completed his two-week assigned service at the Temple and was returning home after the Sabbath. Tradition says that a large number of priests lived in Jericho. Kenneth Bailey asserts that most priests were known to be well off in Jesus’ time as the Temple was a cash cow. Thus, the listener would have assumed the priest was riding a donkey on this journey rather than walking. The wounded man could have been dead and the law said, if the priest touched him trying to help or even if he passed by closer than six feet, he would become ceremonially unclean. He would then have to return to Jerusalem for a weeklong process of ceremonial purification. Klyne Snodgrass suggests he might not be let off the hook so easily as Jews were required to bury a neglected corpse and that did not ritually defile them. Another law said that if the man was alive, obeying purity laws cannot be the reason for failing to save a life. So the priest may have had no excuse in his actions. Yet, he decides anyway that his ceremonial purity was too important to risk and so he passed on by this wounded man clinging to life.
A second who is a Levite man passes. Levites functioned as assistants to the priests and thus were considered a lower class than the priests. He might have been traveling a ways back from the priest in deference to him and his position. The Levite probably knew the priest was ahead of him because on this road, one can see a considerable distance ahead of you. So when he comes to the injured man, he can see the decision the priest made not to help. Notice Jesus says that the Levite came alongside this half dead man to at least see if he was dead or alive. But still he does nothing. Since the priest had already set the precedent, the Levite could pass by with an easy conscience. Besides, if he rode into Jericho with a wounded man, this could be an act of insult and perhaps, even judgment against the priest. Should a Levite upstage a priest? And so he passes by without helping too.
Now in Jesus’ story, we’ve had an upper class priest, a middle class Levite and Jesus’ audience would expect the story to progress to an observant Jew or perhaps even a Pharisee, especially since that is who Jesus is talking to. Instead, Jesus stuns his audience when a Samaritan enters the story. We don’t know much about this Samaritan other than he has his own donkey and probably the only reason he was in Jerusalem was to trade his goods. Even as a Samaritan, he would have had the same understanding of neighbor as the priest and Levite, that is, someone just like himself, Samaritans, not Jews. Even though this man is not his neighbor, the Samaritan’s heart is moved with compassion. He applies first aid which would have included applying oil to make the skin and wound pliable, pouring wine on it to disinfect it, and then he binds the wounds with strips of cloth, perhaps even tearing his own clothing to make the strips.
Doug Greenwold says that word “bound” is a powerful image for Jews because it evokes God’s acts of rescue and restoration. Hosea 6 says, “He (God) will bind us up…He will revive us…He will raise us up for I desire mercy not sacrifice.” So Jesus’ implied teaching in using this word is that the Samaritan, an outsider and sinner and is participating in God’s work with this man. Thus, he is doing exactly what God has done for us and would have us do in the lives of those most in need of rescue and restoration. But the Samaritan doesn't stop there. He puts him on his donkey, takes him down to Jericho and puts him up in a hostel type motel for travelers, paying for almost a month of recuperation time. He even stays overnight with him, placing himself in danger as these hostels catered to rough individuals and probably would not have taken kindly to a Samaritan. And if that wasn’t enough, he even guarantees to pay for any further charges that may be accrued. This is to display the length God’s grace will go for us.
By this time, Jesus’ audience and the Pharisee must have been flabbergasted beyond belief as Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to this man?” There are four things we learn about grace from this parable. First, grace includes the excluded. Grace is unmerited love and if you want to understand God, you have to understand His love. Because God is love. To see love in its purest form is to see who God is. And what learn is that God’s love and grace is ridiculously inclusive. It includes those who reject him and those who don’t follow His ways. In fact, there is no one to whom God’s grace doesn’t extend, even the worst of the worst in Jesus’ day: prostitutes, tax collectors and Samaritans. The fact is none of us deserves God’s grace. All of us are broken, flawed and undeserving. Paul puts it this way in Roman 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There is no room for judgmental attitudes in the church. Grace includes the excluded and is available to all!
Second, grace is unconditional love. In our Scripture today, all of the 613 laws are narrowed down to two and each has one common denominator: love. But it’s not any old love, it’s unconditional love. There’s not anything you can do to earn or deserve God’s love and there’s nothing you can do to lose God’s love. It’s unconditional. God’s love has no conditions. God loves you not because of who you are or what you’ve done but because he has chosen to love you regardless. Third, grace is love in action. So which of these was the neighbor to the injured man? The Pharisee replied “the one who has mercy on him.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Grace is love in action. Fourth, grace transforms lives. Author Ann Lamont who wrote “Traveling Mercies” says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” God loves us too much to leave us in our sin and brokenness and that love leads us to extend grace to the excluded. It transforms the people it touches and the people who extend it. Being a Methodist first and foremost means extending grace to all. That is why our communion table is open and everyone is welcome to the communion table because that is what Jesus would do and what he calls us to do as well.
In his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” Phillip Yancey tells the story of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway grew up in a very devout Christian family, and yet there he never experienced the grace of Christ. He lived a wild sin-filled life but since there was no father, no parent waiting for him, he sank into the mire of a graceless depression. A short story he wrote perhaps reveals the grace that he hoped for. It is the story of a Spanish father who decided to reconcile with his son who had run away to Madrid. The father, in a moment of remorse, takes out this ad in the town’s newspaper. "Paco, meet me at Hotel Montana, Noon, Tuesday… All is forgiven… Papa." When the father arrived at the square in hopes of meeting his son, he found 800 Pacos waiting to be reunited with their father.
It is the Father’s forgiveness which we yearn for and seek in our life. God’s grace is available to all. The lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” is not answered by Jesus. Instead, Jesus reflects on the larger question, “To whom must I become a neighbor?” The answer is anyone in need. “We love because he first loved us…. Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” 1 John 4:19,21 Why? Because Jesus died for all on the cross and the call of the cross is to extend that grace to all. Amen.