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Sermon: The Wrong Kind of Help

July 11, 2010

Luke 10:25-37

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Galilee.

Even though there have been reports that it has been hot as the blazes over in the Euphrates River valley, it has been cold at the lake.  The sky has been overcast into the mid afternoon, and when the west wind whips off the lake, it seems to get down under the doors and through the window sills and goes right into your bones.

Rabbi Eli’s wife Deborah has been worried sick about her prize tomatoes.  Her fat red fruit always win first prize at the fair, but this year her plants look sickly and many of the leaves have that fuzzy mold on them.  Deborah has a patented treatment for leaf mold.  She steeps rosemary in boiling salt water and adds a secret ingredient or two, and then she pours the solution over the infected leaves, but even that hasn’t been doing the trick.  She’s losing sleep over it, and tossing and turning all night long, which—of course—drives Rabbi Eli crazy.  There’s been a lot more bickering over at the rabbi’s house this week, and all because the sun won’t come out.

But the problems with the tomatoes are nothing compared to what happened to the melon patch at Nathan the carpenter’s house.  Nathan is out of town, and his wife Martha thought it would be a good opportunity to get a new serving platter.  So the potter brought his wares over to the house.  His donkey was loaded with all sorts of earthenware goods—big soup cauldrons, lamps, dishes, and his famous decorated serving platters.

While Martha was in looking over the platters, the donkey was tied up outside the window…right next to the melon patch.  The potter’s donkey is a friendly animal, and he kept trying to lean his head through the window to get a scratch on his nose from the potter.  The problem was that as he jockeyed around trying to find just the right angle to stick his head into the house, he was tromping all over Nathan’s nearly rip melons.  When Martha came out and saw the donkey with sticky orange melon gore all over his legs, she nearly passed out.  The melons were due to be ready about the time Nathan returned from his trip to see his sick brother, but now, there would be no melons for Nathan.

None of this would have surprised Nathan.  Nathan the carpenter is the sort of man who expects bad things to happen to him.  It’s not that he has any worse luck than anyone else, but he expects that donkeys will trample his melons or that his saw will break—things like that.  He lives his life with a sense of dread hanging over his head, and usually, his is a misplaced fear.  But this week, Nathan’s sixth sense about danger was finally correct, and mashed melons were the least of his worries.

His brother had fallen very ill.  Jacob lived way down south in the city of Jericho, about 15 miles east of Jerusalem.  Nathan passed through Jerusalem on his way.  He always liked to visit the Temple whenever he could.  To him, it was the most beautiful, magnificent building in the world, not that he had seen much of the world.

After a couple of days in Jerusalem, Nathan headed down the mountain toward Jericho.  That Jerusalem-to-Jericho road is not a safe road.  It winds and twists through some very hilly country.  Around each bend in the road is yet another great spot for an ambush.  Robbers and thieves love the land around the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road.  You can imagine, then, that Nathan’s dread meter was going sky high.  As he set out from Jerusalem, he stayed with the crowds, which was easy, because Jerusalem is a big city.  But as he got further down the road, fellow travelers thinned out until finally, Nathan was alone.

He was careful to keep his eyes open and a good grip on his walking staff as he went along.  But then Nathan had the most unusual experience of his life.  He was going down the road, heart pounding, imagining a bandit behind every rock, and the very next moment he was…opening his eyes…and lying face down in the dirt.  His arms were at his side and his face was planted right down in the dust.  He tried to move, to turn his head to see where he was and what had happened, but he could not.  An excruciating pain shot down his spine and into his legs.

So instead, Nathan tried to take stock of himself.  He started with his head.  It was there and seemed relatively whole, but it was throbbing, and he suddenly realized that only one eye would open.  His arms were both present and accounted for, and they seemed okay, but to try to move them caused pain all over—both a sore pain and a shooting pain.  His legs, well, it felt as if his legs were there, but they definitely didn’t seem functional.  The upshot was that Nathan seemed to be mostly intact, but he couldn’t move.  Or at least he was afraid to move.

And then it hit him all at once.  Nathan realized that he was completely naked, not a stitch on him.  He had been robbed…just, of course, as he knew he would be.  Granted, he expected to be robbed every day of his life, including the times he went from the front room of his house to the bedroom of his house—the only two rooms in his house.  But this time, he had really been robbed…and beaten quite badly.  He felt quite dead.  He wasn’t, and that was something.

Nathan found that by moving very slowly, about half of a snail’s pace, he could twist his head to the left by degrees and without too much pain.  Eventually, he had his head moved 90 degrees, and he could see the road.  He was lying by the side of the road, just off it, and he could look back quite a ways—a couple hundred feet—up the road, back toward Jerusalem.  So Nathan lay beside the road for a long time, just looking up the road and waiting.  And, quite unlike the weather around Lake Galilee, here the sun was blazing hot on Nathan’s bruised, naked body.

After a long while, about mid afternoon, a figure came into focus.  Nathan, of course, couldn’t wave, and he couldn’t call out, so he just waited.  As the lone man approached, Nathan couldn’t believe his luck.  For once, his luck had turned.  The man walking toward him was none other than a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem.  He was, specifically, a man named Jeremiah, and he had been the very priest to accept Nathan’s Passover sacrifice last spring.  God be praised!  Nathan would be rescued from his painful and—frankly, embarrassing—predicament.

Hope rose in Nathan’s breast, especially when the priest quickened his pace.  But then, hope fell just as quickly when Nathan watched the priest stay to the far side of the road and walk right past.  The man was almost running.

Nathan sighed and waited again.  Mercifully, it wasn’t too long before another man came along the road.  By the man’s dress, Nathan could see that the traveler was one of the assistants in the Temple, a Levite.  He still wore his red Temple sash.  Nathan recalled his last encounter and tried to keep his excitement down, but it didn’t work.  Nathan wanted to cry out.  “Here I am.  Here!  Help me!”  Of course he couldn’t.

Nathan was disappointed, but somehow not surprised when the Levite stayed to the far side of the road and kept on moving.

The next traveler, a little while later, was a man and a donkey.  Nathan watched them trod along closer and closer, the man riding at an easy pace, and suddenly, Nathan’s small hope turned to fear as he realized who this man was.  Nathan could see by the distinctive cloak that the man was a Samaritan.  A Samaritan, wasn’t that the worst of luck.  God did intend to punish Nathan after all.  God had directed the priest and the Levite to pass by just so that the Samaritan could finish the job that the robbers started, and thus Nathan would be well paid for his many sins.

Samaritans, as Nathan knew, and as you probably know, lived in a part of the former northern Jewish kingdom of Israel.  They were half breeds who had intermarried with the invading Assyrians hundreds of years earlier.  They were sinful blasphemers who did not believe the Temple was the proper home of God.  They were smelly and rude.  They had bad teeth, the worst cuisine in the world, and they spoke with an accent.  This time, Nathan hoped the man would pass by on the far side of the road.  He wanted to be as far away from that ugly man as possible.  He prayed to God.  “Lord, in your mercy, let this apostate leave me alone.”

Instead, the Samaritan directly approached the helpless carpenter, hobbled his donkey, and kneeled right down where he could see Nathan eye-to-eye.  He got so close that Nathan could smell his Samaritan pickled onion breath.  Nathan blinked.

“Oh heavens, you’re alive!”

The man stood up and went to his donkey’s saddle bag.  Nathan knew this was it.  The man was probably getting out his knife to cut Nathan’s throat.  Instead, he brought a bag of wine and put it to Nathan’s lips.  He worked his jaw and got a little of the wine down his throat, which was so parched it stung.  At least it was good Jerusalem wine and not some swill from Samaria.

Next, the man poured oil and wine over Nathan’s cuts and bruises.  The Samaritan carefully wiped them with a clean rag.  He spoke gently and quietly to Nathan, and sang while he worked.  Nathan only prayed silently, “Let this man leave me alone soon.”  Just to be touched by such a man was almost as bad—no, it was as bad—as being touched by a leper.

Finally, the Samaritan got to his feet, and Nathan thought his ordeal would be over and he could wait in peace for a rescue.  But no, the next thing Nathan knew, the man was trying to lift him up.  Nathan couldn’t resist.  The man hefted Nathan’s upper body on his shoulder, and the pain radiated throughout Nathan’s body.

“Work with me, here,” said the Samaritan gently.  “Try to stand.  Can you stand?”

This guy wouldn’t stop.  Nathan got his feet under him, and found that he could stand.  The Samaritan helped him to the donkey and hoisted him up onto the animal’s back.  Nathan collapsed against the animal’s neck.

The Samaritan covered Nathan with a blanket and patted him on the back.  “My name is Saul,” he said.  “Thanks be to God that I found you.”

Thanks be to God, indeed, thought Nathan.  The man was probably going to sell Nathan into slavery.  A strong adult man would fetch a pretty price.

The pair traveled down the road toward Jericho for a while.  Saul sang quietly, and Nathan prayed to God to strike him dumb.  Saul said over and over, “You’re going to be all right,” and Nathan wished he had died on the road rather than to be subjected to such a man.  Saul told a joke that started out, “A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan walk into a bar,” and Nathan had to admit that it was pretty funny.

They eventually reached a small village with no name in a small valley about seven miles outside of Jericho.  Nathan had been there before.  The Samaritan stopped at a roadside inn and went inside.  This is probably the black market site for slaves, thought Nathan.  Yep, sure enough, the innkeeper came out to get a good look at Nathan.  The next step was haggling over the price.

“How about two denarii?” asked the Samaritan.  And Nathan thought, Two denarii?  Is that all I’m worth?  That’s only two days’ wages!

The Samaritan said, “I’ll give you two denarii, and if you spend any more to take care of him, I’ll give you more when I come back.”

At first, Nathan was confused.  Why was the Samaritan going to give money…No!  No!  Why couldn’t he just have left me by the side of the road to die?  Nathan wanted to shout at the innkeeper, but couldn’t make a sound.  He wanted to say, “Don’t take money from that dirty excuse for a human being.  Can’t you see what he is?”

But the innkeeper said, “All right.  Help me get him inside.  I have a clean bed for him.”

The pain was again excruciating as Nathan was hauled into the house.  But at least the sheets were cool and he could sleep.  It took a while, though, for Nathan to get to sleep.  He kept brooding over his bad luck.  First, he was robbed, beaten nearly to death and left by the side of the road.  Then, even worse, that rotten Samaritan put his filthy hands all over him and showed him such kindness that no self-respecting person should ever have to put up with from such a smelly creature.

Well, though Nathan to himself, at least when I get home I can have melons.

And that’s the news from Lake Galilee, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average” (Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion.)

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