July 14, 2019
Luke 10: 25-37
In 1974 I was twenty-four, attending St. Francis Church in Temple, Texas and was involved in teaching Sunday School, serving on the altar guild and helping in the office a few hours a day. Robert Capon’s newest book, Hunting the Divine Fox had just been released and as I read it, the person of Jesus came alive to me in a radically new way, so much so, that I applied to the Seminary of the Southwest and entered as a student that fall. At that point, women were not being ordained to the priesthood and I couldn’t imagine it but simply knew that I felt a call to go. It’s often that way with Jesus, disciples are called to come or told to go forth. That coming and going has marked my life for these forty-five years and yes, it is a strange and wondrous thing.
So, here we are today and I still find the work of Robert Farrar Capon shining the light on the gospel, this greatest story ever told, especially as we find ourselves in the midst of Luke’s gospel and this flurry of parables. Today we encounter Jesus at his most subversive in this all too familiar interchange we often call the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Capon identifies this parable as the first among several misnamed parables. He prefers to call it the Parable of the Man Who Fell Among the Thieves.
Before we tackle this passage, I feel compelled to offer a bit of insight from Robert Capon. You must forgive me ahead of time for I know that across the land, preachers are offering words of encouragement about following in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan, encouraging their members to be active in outreach and mission, compassion and service. Those are all good and important callings but we must be careful not to misread this moment in Luke’s gospel.
In giving this parable the title: the Good Samaritan, we have failed to understand this encounter between Jesus and the lawyer, and we have, diminished the brilliant insight and the foreshadowing of the events to come. Instead we have named hospitals, Good Samaritan and written Good Samaritan laws and preached that the message of the parable was about being nice to our neighbors. And we should be nice to our neighbors and we should go the extra mile but this parable is more wondrous and more provocative than that, it more mysterious and confounding, and most of all, subversive than the Mr. Roger’s message, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
We cannot forget that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, a confrontation with the powers that be and facing certain death. Luke places this story and parable here where things are heating up — this is not an interlude reminding us to “be nice” — this is an encounter with the principalities and powers, the gathering storm.
Regarding Scripture, Capon writes: “The Bible is about the mystery by which the power of God works to form this world into the Holy City, the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. It is not about someplace else called heaven, nor about somebody at a distance called God. Rather, it is about this place here, in all its thisness and placiness and about the intimate and immediate Holy One who, at no distance from us at all, moves mysteriously to make creation true both to itself and to God.”
He writes in the introduction on his trilogy on parables: “Parables are manifestations of the left-handed power of God.” And he goes on to say: ‘The Bible is concerned with the perfecting of what God made, not with the trashing of it — with the resurrection of its native harmonies and orders, not with the replacement of them by something alien. And most relevant to us today, it is done not with straight-line power (use the force you need to get the result you want), the way of the mystery of God is through the paradoxical exercise of power, what Martin Luther called, left-handed power. Unlike the power of the right hand (which, interestingly enough, is governed by the logical, plausibility-loving left hemisphere of the brain), left-handed power is guided by the more intuitive, open and imaginative right side of the bran. In other words, left-handed power is paradoxical power. It looks to the world like weakness. But it is power — so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can’t touch. God in Christ died forgiving. With the dead body of Jesus, the door was wedged open between God and the world, opening the portal, the very gate of heaven eternally.”
We are the recipients and the vehicles of this power, this paradoxical way of being in the world that sees the resurrected Jesus, now present as Christ to the whole of creation. In his series of books on the parables: The Parables of the Kingdom, the Parables of Grace, and the Parables of Judgement, this parable is found only in Luke’s gospel but the story is tied to similar events in Mark and Matthew. We often remember those as the story of the rich, young ruler. Mark and Matthew place the story during the final holy week, an encounter in Jerusalem, each author offering their own perspective. Luke has chosen to place this story as Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem. During this portion of the gospel, Jesus is entering into conversations with his disciples, with the crowd and with the authorities. Luke is both disciplined and intentional in the way these stories unfold and this story and the parable reflect a moment of heightened tension. This is a person of the law, an expert and the intent of his question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” was likely more threat than curious but Jesus responds as if it was simply an honest question. As the lawyer responds correctly, Jesus says, do this and you will live. Then the lawyer plays his real hand, “And who is my neighbor?” Now, this lawyer knew very well the legalities of a neighbor, essentially meaning one of the people of his own circle — the issues of purity and affinity are at stake here.
Jesus speaks and what follows is a story with three players and one central figure — the actual Christ-figure is the man lying there by the side of the road, practically dead. Capon sees the Samaritan’s alignment with the Man-who-fell-among-thieves, as the offering of all that he has for the sake of the other — the Samaritan enters into the death-resurrection cycle, he enters into the realm of the hungry, the thirsty, the outcast, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned in whom Christ dwells and through whom he invites us to become his neighbors in death and resurrection.
Neither the Samaritan nor, Jesus is an example of some broader, saving truths about the power of human niceness. Capon says, “Jesus is the incarnation of the unique, saving mystery of death and resurrection. He tells this parable as he himself is on a downhill journey to his passion and death, and into the lastness, lostness that he now sees as the heart of his saving work. The man who fell among the thieves is the authentic Christ-figure in this parable” and that is both the good news and the great paradox. To claim this perspective invites us into a deeper conversation — a conversation that requires time together. I say these things because we are going to be about the hard work of discernment — are we going to be an outpost and signpost of the mystery of the realm of God or that pretty little white church on the hill? Are we willing to look at the world and the church through a prism for signs of God’s love and provision or through the institutional lens of survival?
This week, I spent time reading your stories in the archives, learning more about the transition from the original building and this building. Exploring your hopes and dreams, seeing so many accomplishments and moments of great love, service, celebration and joy.
And now, we come to a new moment and a new time. We must look forward, we must choose a path that allows Grace Church to be a living sign, complex and paradoxical to the world — an outcropping of the very realm of heaven, right here, a parable that will be revealed as we worship together, pray together, study together and serve in the name of Jesus who is Christ for the world.