The First Sign of Civilization / Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10:25-37

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

I have an important question for you this evening/morning: what’s something that’s essential for human life, is highly contagious, yet most of us take it for granted? Any ideas? It’s kindness. You might think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s essential for human life and highly contagious, but I believe I can back that up.

A student once asked an anthropologist what is considered to be the first sign of civilization in a society. What separates an uncivilized collection of people from a true civilization? The professor could’ve mentioned the first signs of tools, like grinding stones or clay pots for holding food and water. She could have mentioned art, like cave paintings or carved statues. Instead, she said the first sign of civilization in her opinion was when an ancient skeleton was found with a healed thighbone. Why is that a sign of civilization?

It was that professor’s estimation that in a competitive, primitive culture where people had to hunt and escape predators in order to survive each day, the fact that someone set aside their own work in order to care for another’s injury was a sign of civilization.

A broken bone that’s healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.

That’s good, isn’t it? Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. That’s a great thought for this evening/morning as we study one of Jesus’ most famous stories, the story of the Good Samaritan.

Last year, the British Broadcasting Corp., or the BBC, teamed up with researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK to study the topic of kindness. They published an online questionnaire called the Kindness Test, and asked people all over the world to share their attitudes and experiences on the topic of kindness.

Research on kindness shows that when we experience or witness acts of kindness, we’re much more likely to offer kindness to others. This is the contagious aspect of kindness. And when we perform an act of kindness, the reward system in our brain lights up, which gives us pleasure, which causes us to look for more opportunities to be kind. A neuroscientist working on the Kindness Project said, kindness can cost us, yet we experience a sense of reward in parts of our brain when we’re kind to others, just as we do when we eat yummy food or have a pleasant surprise. These parts of the brain become active and motivate us to do them again and again.

Kindness can cost us is a good point to consider, too, as we look at this morning’s lesson from Luke 10, the story of the Good Samaritan.

Our story begins, when an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. Teacher, he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus replied. What is written in the Law? How do you read it?

Have you ever noticed how many times in the Bible Jesus answers a question with a question? Jesus asks many more questions than He answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. He’s asked 183 questions of which He only answers 3.

Jesus, who was the Way, the Truth and the Life, had all the answers in life, yet He asked far more questions than He answered. Why? Maybe because an answer provides certainty, but a question prompts growth. Which was more important to Jesus? I think we know the answer. Sometimes we get frustrated or disillusioned when we read the Bible or pray or come to church and we’re not finding answers to our questions. We feel like spiritual failures. What am I doing wrong here, Lord? But notice how often Jesus, who could have easily given us all the answers, asked questions instead. Wrestling with your questions doesn’t make you a spiritual failure. It may be God’s greatest tool for forming you into the man or woman God wants you to be.

So, let’s get back to our expert in the law. He asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, in turn, asked him, what is written in the Law? How do you read it?

The lawyer said, love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. You have answered correctly, Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.

So, the lawyer asks a question, and he gets an answer. But that’s not the end of the conversation. Maybe the lawyer wanted to expose Jesus. Or maybe his next question exposed his own soul-deep need. Because a person can have all the right answers about God and still not know God.

So, the first question this Bible story raises is, would you rather be right, or would you rather be right with God? This is a common expression, but it’s not a question we ask ourselves enough. Would you rather have all the answers, or would you rather have a relationship with the living God, even if that relationship doesn’t answer all your questions? The lawyer may have been right, but I think he knew he wasn’t right with God. Our next verse reads, but he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, and who is my neighbor?

This guy wanted to test Jesus. With this story, Jesus is testing him and us. With this story, Jesus is trying to synchronize our heartbeats with the heart of God. Because the more you love God, the more your life will be in sync with God’s heart. What does it look like to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love your neighbor as yourself?

Jesus said, A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

Those listening would’ve understood that the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a not so nice a neighborhood. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho stretches about 18 miles through desert terrain, hot, dry, rocky and rough. In Jesus’ day, it was common for thieves to hide among the rocks along this road and attack travelers passing through.

This man was caught in a bad neighborhood. Most of us use this information to justify what happened next. But not Jesus. Jesus continued, a priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

In reading this passage this week I realized. that the priest and the Levite were going away from Jerusalem. This implies that they had just left from serving their religious duties in the temple. If they were going toward Jerusalem, they could claim that their duties to God were more important than their duties to man. Can’t be late to church! But they had no excuse. They represented the first half of Jesus’ teaching: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. But they failed to do the second. And their failure demonstrates their ignorance of the heart of God. Their hearts were out of sync with the heart of God. If they had loved God more, they would have loved the injured man the way God did.

Jesus finishes the story: but a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. Let’s stop right there for a moment. The word used here for “took pity on him” refers to a heartfelt compassion, a compassion that you feel deep in your gut. It’s the same word used for the prodigal son’s father.

And considering how Jews in Jesus’ day had such contempt for Samaritans, this sense of compassion on the part of the Samaritan seems extraordinary. So, let’s continue the story: He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. Look after him, he said, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.

And then Jesus asked the expert in the law, which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The expert in the law replied, the one who had mercy on him.

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Rear Admiral Thornton Miller many years ago spoke in the chapel at Johnson Bible College. After the chapel service, he spent some time chatting with the students and answering questions. They all wanted to ask him about his experiences serving in World War II, especially on D-Day in Normandy. He described the firefight that day in vivid terms. As a military chaplain, he had gone up and down the beach, dodging bombs and gunfire while praying with injured soldiers, doing anything he could to help.

A student asked him why he had risked his own life on the beach that day, and he simply replied, “I’m a minister.” So, the student tried to re-word his question. He said, but didn’t you ask if they were Catholic or Protestant or Jew? Did you just, I mean, if you’re a minister.

Miller interrupted him. He said, if you’re a minister, the only question you ask is, can I help you? Did you hear that? If you’re a minister, the only question you ask is, can I help you? The priest, the Levite, the expert in the law, they all failed to ask the most important question: “Can I help you?” And this failure reveals their lack of love for God.

Because Jesus makes it clear, in this Bible story and in His own life, that the heart of God is a heart of mercy. Jesus doesn’t praise anyone for their religious credentials or their knowledge of the law. He commends the one who puts love for a stranger into action. He commends the one who risks himself on behalf of an enemy.

Think about what John 3: 16-17, the central verses of the New Testament, say. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

What was Jesus’ final question in our Bible story today? And then Jesus asked the expert in the law, which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

The expert in the law replied, the one who had mercy on him. Jesus told him, Go and do likewise. Go and do likewise.

When you stand before God someday, will God care more about your correct theology or your acts of mercy? Look at the life of Jesus and think about which one is more in sync with God’s heart. Then go and do likewise.