Have you ever been at a party or large family gathering and noticed how one person in particular seemed to be attracting a lot of attention? If I had to guess, I would say that that person was someone who could tell a good story. In my family, that person happens to be my brother-in-law. He comes into a crowd, finds a chair somewhere in the corner, sits down and waits for people to notice him – which, given his large size, isn’t hard to do. He gets food and drinks brought to him as he carries forth with story after story. He thrives on all the attention he gets.
Jesus was a good storyteller, too – an amazing storyteller. He also could attract a crowd of listeners – but it wasn’t because he wanted or needed the attention. It happened naturally as his reputation for teaching, for healing and for controversy spread. People were naturally curious about him.
As you know by now, so many of his stories were parables; and many of them were told in the company of Pharisees, who prided themselves on being keepers of Jewish rituals, tradition and liturgy. Jesus would draw his listeners in with an ordinary beginning to his story such as: “There was a man who had two sons…” (Luke 15:11) which is the beginning of the parable of the Prodigal Son; or “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..” (Luke 10:25) which is the beginning of the Good Samaritan; and “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple…” (Luke 16:19) which begins today’s parable.
A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a class that we’re offering here this summer on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We use a study guide with questions that we’re supposed to think and write about before coming to class. There was one question in particular that really caught me off guard and it surprised me by how much I struggled to answer it. The question was: How do you define faith? Have you ever tried to do that? I think you know if you have faith, but how do you describe what that is? Is it trust or a belief or are those words more like synonyms rather than definitions?
In many of his letters, Paul praises his communities for the faith that they have in Christ Jesus. In this morning’s letter to the Hebrews, he defines that faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That sounds really good, but what does it mean?
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know the story about the Good Samaritan. Most of us probably heard it first in Sunday School when the basic lesson of good and bad behavior was taught. But there is much more to this parable than that; and like all of Jesus’ parables, there are lessons in them that we adults have a hard time learning.
On the surface, today’s story is about a man who was traveling alone on a dangerous 7-mile stretch of road from Jerusalem to Jericho and who was robbed and beaten and left for dead in the ditch. Two men passed by and didn’t help the man at all. A third man came along and cared for him, dressed his wounds and took him to an Inn where he was safe for the night.
When we go below the surface, we learn that the man lying by the side of the road was a Jew; that the first man to pass by him was a priest; and that the second one was a Levite. The third man who actually helped him was a Samaritan. Once we begin to know a little more about who these characters are, it’s only natural that we would have expectations about how they should behave. And Jesus knew that his listeners would do that.
We would expect the priest and the Levite, both religious men and well-respected members of society, to have stopped to help the dying man. And we would have expected the Samaritan – an outcast of society who shouldn’t even have been on the same road as the other travelers – to have gone nowhere near the suffering Jew. But we would be wrong on both counts.
This time last year, my husband, Tenny, and I were in the middle of a project that took the rest of the year to complete. It was called downsizing! We were moving from a house that we had lived in for 20 years; and the fact that we were downsizing meant that there was no way we could bring all of our stuff with us into our new house (although my husband tried his best to do so!). We had to decide what to keep, what to give away, pack away or sell. It wasn’t easy because we had accumulated things from our own marriage but things that our parents and even grandparents didn’t know what to do with and ended up passing on to us.
Figuring out what to do with the pictures was the biggest challenge. It was easy to keep the ones of us and our children, but then there were some faded pictures of people who had lived so long ago that we had no idea who they were. Why were we still holding on to them? If we couldn’t answer that question, how could we expect our children to know what to do with them? Then we both thought: how many generations would it take before someone would look at faded pictures of us and wonder who we were?
What we just heard from John’s gospel this morning was part of what is known as Jesus’ farewell address or prayer during his last meal with his disciples. The timing is a little out of order since we’ve already celebrated Easter but the message is timeless. After Jesus and his disciples had finished eating their Passover meal together, I can imagine that there might have been an uneasy lull in the conversation giving the disciples time to wonder what was going to happen next.
What happened was that Jesus looked to heaven and prayed one last time with and for them. And from what we heard of the prayer, it sounds like Jesus was wondering who would remember him generations after he was gone. His disciples were the closest to Jesus; they were his eyewitnesses, and the survival of his memory and message would depend on them – which may be why Jesus was understandably concerned.