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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Date: 07/11/2004
Feast: 15th s in o
Church: Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Bible text: Luke 10:25-37
James McTyre
July 11, 2004

You may remember Charles Woodson. He’s the football player who won the Heisman Trophy a few years ago. Who was it who was also up for the Heisman that year? Oh yes, Peyton Manning. You remember Peyton Manning. Despite losing the Heisman, he’s gone on to eke out a living somewhere in the American Midwest. But back to Charles Woodson. What made Woodson interesting (at least, to sportscasters outside the state of Tennessee) was that he played both offense and defense. Apparently, if you can switch from offense to defense in the same game, you’re pretty good.

In today’s scripture we meet the Charles Woodson of the New Testament. He’s versatile. He’s probably won some awards. He’s bachelor #1 in the debating games of Jerusalem. He can switch from offense to defense without blinking an eye. The English Bible calls him a lawyer, but he’s no attorney. He’s more a professional games-player with the rule book of scripture. So when he strides to mid-field to take on Jesus, the trophy committee nods and smiles at one another. Go ahead. Make our day.

The coin toss goes to the game-player-guy, and he elects to come out on offense. He runs a flying wedge right into the center of scripture. "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And he knows the answer. "You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says, "You've given the right answer. Do this and you will live."

Offensively, he's made the right move. What is it lawyers say? Always know the answer before you ask a question. (It's the same thing we tell Children's Sermon leaders.) In that respect, he's a legal eagle. Having done well on offense, he switches over to defense.

"But wanting to justify himself," says the Bible. You can also read that as, "wanting to defend himself," he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" It's a defensive posture. We know what he's really asking. He doesn't care who his neighbor is – he wants to know who his neighbor isn't. He's looking for the holes in Jesus' game plan. Who don't I have to love, in order to satisfy the commandment and live forever? Is my neighbor the teenager next door with an overactive subwoofer? Physically, yes; but legally speaking, do I have to love the offensive little hip-hopper? Or is simply not killing him enough?

I think we all know what the side-switcher is asking. We know who our neighbors are. Neighbors are nice people. Neighbors wave and smile when you drive down the street. Neighbors greet you by name, and let you borrow power tools.

But what if you don't want to play like the Charles Woodson of scripture? What if you don't want to be on offense, or on defense, when it comes to your faith? I get the feeling that we're so accustomed to being one or the other that, in life, if we're not playing offense or defense, we don't know how else to be.

The problem with Jesus is that while he meets us in the arena of our lives, he's not playing our game. So by what Jesus does next in this scripture, he erases the lines, so that we're no longer sure what's in-bounds and what's out-of-bounds. Jesus calls us to live neither offensively nor defensively. And that's where the faithful life gets hard.


I want to read the scripture and each time substitute just a couple of words from our present-day. Because depending on where you place yourself in this scripture, it either offends, defends, or calls us to something else entirely.

Scripture alteration #1. Pure defense.

A man was going down from (I don't know, say) Fountain City to Maryville (where's not so important), and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a member of the Taliban was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise an Al Qaeda member, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a person in an orange and white Tennessee pickup truck came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, and took him to the hospital, paid his bill, and gave him season football tickets.

Well, duh! No big surprises here (except for that part about the season tickets). This is America. This is the Volunteer State. This is the kind of neighborly thing we do. And, no duh, we would expect members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda not to want to cross the street, unless it was to kick the poor creature a couple more times.

This is the American ideal. This is the Christian ideal. This is how we want to be when someone needs help. And many, many times, I believe we live up to our ideals. Unlike other less-civilized places, unlike other people, we care for the poor, we provide equal opportunity and equal rights. We give people who others might leave for dead the chance to live, and live well. No, maybe we can't tend to every poor soul by the side of the road, but we do a whole lot better than most other places.

But if you read the scripture like this, there is no offense. There's nothing offensive at all. If we substitute ourselves for the Good Samaritan – and I think we all have had our times of being Good Samaritans – the only offense is what other people don't do.

"No one is good but God alone," Jesus said. No matter how many wounded people we care for, no matter how much we love God, love neighbor and love our country, scripture has to be more than a magic mirror telling us we're the fairest of them all. Scripture has offensive points. God's word is written on sharp-edged paper that cuts us when we get too casual with it. We take away scripture's offense, and it's just another lop-sided tool for our own defense.


Scripture Alteration #2. Pure offense.

A man was going down from Fountain City to Maryville (again), and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a Presbyterian minister was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a van full of church-goers, singing "Ninety-nine Bottles of Non-alcoholic Beer On the Wall," passed by.

But a member of Al Qaeda while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

OK, I think we can stop right there. There is no such thing as a "Good" Al Qaeda member, unless it's a… well, you know how the saying goes. How we feel about terrorists who prey on innocents of this or any other country is probably pretty close to how Jesus' listeners thought about Samaritans. There IS no such thing as a GOOD Samaritan. There IS no such thing as a GOOD Al Qaeda. The words don't go together and are an offense when spoken in the same sentence.

Now you're getting closer to the offense intended by scripture. You see, this is one of those places where scripture is supposed to offend us. Pre 9-11, this scripture was often used to preach against prejudice, to open peoples' minds to how good even the worst humans could be. I've preached it that way, myself. But to read it that way smoothes away the pure offense. It's not about lifting up the goodness of Samaritans. It's not, I now think, even about offending our anti-neighbor-ness. It's about offending our defense. It's about getting us mad at those priests and Levites who cross to the other side of the road and have good, sometimes biblical explanations of why they're good, faithful people. It's about getting us mad that Jesus would even pretend a Samaritan would be more compassionate than we are. It's about getting us mad at our own agility and ability to switch from offense to defense when we're seeking to justify ourselves.

Jesus means to knock us ALL off balance, to offend us so much that we see the holes in our own defense. To show us our own offenses against God. To spin us around so that we don't know what side we're on. To end the playing of games.


What are we if we're not playing offense, or playing defense? Referee? Spectator? Uninterested shopper at the mall? The truth is that we're so geared to thinking in terms of one or the other that it's hard to know what other options there are. The truth is that even at our best – even at our best – we're offending God, we're offending our ideals, we're defending our actions and opinions without even knowing it. Even at our best, we do not love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Even at our best, we don't love our neighbor quite as much as we love ourselves. Which is not to say that we can't be loving and selfless. We often are. But we just as often get pulled back into the game, into stuff that we know we can't justify before Jesus.

So if we're no better than a Good Samaritan, if we're not totally offensive but also not quite defensible, not completely good but not rotten to the core… what are we?

Throughout scripture, God is called the great "I Am." It began with Moses when he asked God's name and was told, "I Am." It continued with the commandments, "I am the Lord thy God…." And it was repeated and re-shaped by Jesus who said, "I am… the way, the truth, and the life." But if we look in scripture, particularly the New Testament, for how ordinary human beings speak those words, we get a very different picture.

"Have mercy on me, Lord, for I AM a sinful man," the apostle Peter prays. "Be merciful to me, for I AM a sinner," prayed the tax collector who wouldn't even look up to heaven. "I AM not worthy," said John the Baptist and said the centurion who came asking for healing. Without exception, from the lips of human beings, I AM is a prayer of confession: "Lord, be merciful to me, for I AM a sinner."

When we're finished playing games with God, we confess we are sinners. Nothing more. Nothing less. If we're good it's because we're the children of God who is good. If we're bad it's because we're not God. "It is God who justifies," writes the Apostle Paul. I am, you are, we are not one thing or the other without the loving mercy of the Great I AM.


Back to the gamesman who switches at will from offense to defense seeking to justify himself. He's really the most important figure in the story of the Good Samaritan. Without him, it's just another story about the kindness of strangers. A man seeking to justify himself, a woman seeking to justify herself – that's us. That's our place in today's scripture.

Maybe Jesus shocked the gamesman out of his game. We don't know. This is one of those places where we have to write the ending, because it's our story scripture is telling. It's not about whether we're supposed to be good Samaritans or bad Samaritans; we know the answer to that one before we ask the question. We're to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. We know that. We don't have to play games with it – "Is this my neighbor?" "Is that my neighbor?" You can pretty much look at someone who's beaten up and tell they need a neighbor.

What we have to choose is whether we try to justify who we are, or if we let the prayer of scripture say it for us. "Lord, be merciful to me, for I AM a sinner." Because if we're not offending God by defending our offenses… if we're not praying, "Lord, I have sinned, but I have several excellent excuses…" if we're not seeking to justify how good we are by how bad other people have been to us… what are we? What's left?

God is. Jesus is. Holy Spirit is. They're what's left. They're all that's left. And by their offensive grace that loves even sinful people, like us, we are justified. We are forgiven. And we are set free from human games, and sent forth to go, and do likewise.