I don’t know if this is your situation, but I’ve heard this story told enough times of late that I want to share it. Your church isn’t growing, and you don’t know why. You’ve tried different evangelism programs, but none of them seem to do the trick. You’ve experimented with different styles of worship, but that hasn’t worked either. You don’t really know what’s wrong, but you do know that despite your best efforts, you can’t seem to stem the tide of decline that’s slow enough it never quite feels like a crisis, yet relentless enough that you know it is.
To make matters worse, a church a few blocks away is growing. In fact, some of your members have been there. They’ve come back — the ones who came back, at least — and told you that you should try to be more like that church. You should preach more biblical sermons, and by biblical they mean moralistic. You know this because you checked it out. You went to their Saturday evening contemporary service and experienced worship cleanly divided between thirty minutes of rock music and thirty minutes of advice on how to be a better Christian, how to resist temptation, and how to improve your relationship with God. There was no single biblical passage animating the sermon; instead, the preacher quoted a dozen or more passages — or, not really passages, but verses — scattered throughout Scripture. There was a lot of talk about sin and a lot of talk about God’s judgment and a lot of talk about how to avoid those two things. The place was packed.
And so now you’re wondering: maybe you should preach more on personal morality, or give more practical advice. After all, if it’s working down the street maybe it’ll work in your space, too. And then you see this passage from Luke coming down the pike — the Parable of the Good Samaritan — and it almost feels like a sign from God. I mean, if there’s any passage that lends itself to a good old fashioned practical, moralistic sermon that tells us what we should do, it’s this one, right?
To be honest, I’m not so sure. Clearly, there’s something about morality here; that is, there’s something about what we should do. The first two guys, the priest and the Levite, don’t do anything to help the man who’s been beaten, while the Samaritan does something. But I think that before it’s about doing, it’s about seeing. All the priest and the Levite see, I suspect, is a burden, a hassle, an obligation, a problem. And so, it turns out, they actually do do something: they cross over to the other side of the road. Why? Precisely so they don’t have to see this person in need. The Samaritan, on the other hand, sees someone, sees a person, a person in need, a neighbor.
That’s what got this whole parable started, remember? The lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer, Luke tells us, asked this question to justify himself. “Neighbor,” after all, if construed too broadly could mean a whole lot of people. So the lawyer does what lawyers do best — he parses, specifies, qualifies. Who, exactly, is my neighbor? Who, that is, must I recognize as having a legitimate claim on me? Who warrants my attention? Who must I notice? Who must I see? Who, in short, counts? Before the moral issue of doing, you see, comes the faith issue of seeing. A clean, clear legal definition of who counts as neighbor justifies the lawyer’s actions, or lack of action, and thereby allows him to remain in control of the situation. Armed with legal guidelines, he will never be surprised by an other’s need, never called to stretch beyond the limited confines of his imagination of who’s in and who’s out in the divine economy. Which is, of course, the appeal of the moralistic sermon. Clean, clear moral imperatives create the illusion that the Christian life is largely, if not entirely, about following the rules, rules we can follow and apply, perhaps even master.
This is what I find so interesting about the role the Samaritan plays. I mean, if this parable really was just another morality tale, I think the Samaritan would be the guy in the ditch. Then we’d have a classic “love your enemies” story. You know the rules: help those in need and get bonus points because it’s a Samaritan. But that’s not the way Jesus tells it. In Jesus’ version, the Samaritan is the one who notices — who actually sees — this beaten man and by seeing him is moved to pity. The Samaritan, that is, is the one who recognizes that when it comes to the question of who is our neighbor, there are no rules. Our neighbor, it turns out, is anyone in need. Where does such vision come from? It apparently doesn’t come from one’s ethnicity, one’s religion, one’s training, or one’s station in life. How else can we explain that a Samaritan saw this when the priest and Levite did not? Having the eyes of faith to see all people are children of God and anyone in need is your neighbor must be a gift of God, it must be a matter of faith, it must start with seeing, and only then move to doing.
Which is where you come in, Working Preacher. You see, my problem generally isn’t knowing what I should and shouldn’t do. It’s having the vision to see the person in need not as a burden, but as my neighbor, to recognize in the face of another their needs not a hassle, but as an opportunity, an opportunity to show the mercy I myself have experienced in Christ. My problem isn’t a lack of information; it’s a lack of faith. What I need from a sermon, finally, is not an instruction manual or life-coaching session but a cornea transplant. I need new eyes. I need the eyes of faith to see others as my neighbor, other children of God loved by God just as I am loved.
So don’t give up, Working Preacher. What you do matters. I can get good advice anywhere. But the gospel — the good news of God’s abundant grace and mercy, the good news that gives sight to the blind (even someone as blind as I too often am) — this I can only get from you. Clearly some people are looking for clean answers and clear instructions about what to do and not to do. And so maybe the church down the road is just the place for them. But there are others — and I think there are more of us than you might imagine — that desperately need to hear of a God whose love is so broad and deep that anyone in need is welcome; a God who refuses to parse, or specify, or qualify; a God who is eager to justify each and everyone one of us.
I don’t know if proclaiming this message will drive up attendance or giving. Sometimes fidelity is measured by other metrics. But I do know that this is our call, and I am so grateful for your faithfulness to it.
Yours in Christ,