For much of this year, we have been exploring the Gospel attributed to Matthew. Now we are close to the conclusion of this text. In the next few weeks, we will hear a series of pointed parables and insight-filled sayings. Then this Gospel moves through the events leading up to and following the crucifixion of Good Friday.
Today’s teaching is actually part of setting the stage for the crucifixion. It shows Jesus coming into conflict with the powers that be; it shows Jesus answering their challenge with a definitive answer; it shows Jesus triumphing over his detractors.
You see, those who opposed Jesus thought they had a riddle that would force Jesus to make a politically incorrect statement, a statement that they could use against Jesus with Roman authorities. The Pharisees ask: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
“Show me the coin used for the tax’ Jesus demands. And they brought him a Roman coin, a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’
The Pharisees answer, “The emperor’s.”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus said, neatly avoiding their trap and setting one for the Pharisees. For if they disagreed, then the Pharisees were the ones who would be in trouble with the Roman authorities.
You might think the answer Jesus gave here might be enough for us as well, that the idea of rendering unto others what is due and rendering unto God what is God’s would be a simple rule for us to live by, that we would not need anything more to guide our decision making.
But if you think that, you are wrong. But don’t feel bad, the followers of Jesus also needed more instruction. That’s why we have four Gospels, many Epistles, and some other books thrown into Christian scripture – perhaps for good luck.
You might also think that the next section of Matthew’s Gospel – the one where Jesus gives us the two great commandments – would surely show us the way. But both Matthew and the author of Luke – the last synoptic Gospel written – add more sayings and parables to help us find our way. Perhaps the most appropriate one for us today as we think about where we go as a community is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
A couple of weeks ago, we discussed some ideas Bishop Robert C. Wright and The Rev. Donna S. Mote suggest we consider as we plan how we will live in these dangerous times. This book, titled The Go Guide: 10 Steps for Innovations in Ministry from Luke 10 suggested that we – that you and I – are appointed by God to do God’s work right here and now. They say each of us is uniquely suited to do the work God has given us to do. And they called us to step outside our building, to step away from our safety zone, and bring God’ healing grace to people where they live and work.
The authors suggest the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows how disruptive Jesus is in real life. Rather than answer a question with an answer, Jesus answers with a question. At the start of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, “lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?” And the lawyer answers by summarizing what Jesus gives us as the two great commandments. “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’” And now Jesus answers with a parable that turns everything this lawyer thinks he knows upside down.
Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”
You see, the letter of Jewish religious law forbid the priest from helping the injured man. If the priest had touched this man, the priest would have been required to undergo a lengthy process of purifying himself. So the priest walked on by.
“So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” The Same law, same prohibition, same thing happened: he walked on by.
“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
“The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
And then Jesus asked the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’” And the lawyer said: “The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.”
Jesus just told the lawyer – and the Pharisees and the priests and the scribes – that their emphasis on rigidly observing the law was all wrong. And he told them in a way everyone could understand.
In the final chapter of The Go Guide, Bishop Wright argues that if today’s church is going to be more than a mausoleum to what God did in the past, then we must have the courage to follow in the steps of Jesus and ask disruptive questions. “Questions like, What is God doing now? What does faithfulness look like in the present age? What do we need to let go of? What do we need to learn,” the Bishop of Atlanta asks.
“Questions – good, God-truth questions – will; help us find our next authentic chapter with God as followers of Jesus,” he adds. “What, if anything, do I owe the people around me because I am a follower of Jesus?”
This last question is the one we need to answer as we think of our own lives and of our life together as the community of St. Cyprian’s. An authentic Christian life comes from asking difficult questions and finding answers that prompt us to change, to grow, to find new ways of reflecting God’s love out into our neighborhood and our community.
Asking good, God-truth questions” will help us see who our neighbors are and to hear how what they say they need. Asking good, God-truth questions” opens the way for us to step outside our comfort zone – for that is where we can hear what the Spirit is saying to us.
Asking good, God-truth questions” is how we plan our next steps in building authentic community here at the corner of Turk and Lyon. This is how we learn to be a Good Samaritan as a spiritual practice. Let us remember this as we move ahead.
Let us pray:
God of all who wander in the wilderness,
you go before us as beacon and guide.
Lead us through all danger,
sustain us through all desolation,
and bring us home to the land
you have prepared for us.
May God’s people say: Amen.