THE SAMARITAN

Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. [Luke 10:33 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoAccording to the historian Josephus, around 9 AD, when Jesus was just a boy, some Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem on Passover and defiled the Temple with human remains. The hatred between Jews and the Samaritans, however, had been going on for centuries. In 930 BC, when Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) was king, the kingdom of Israel divided. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, eventually became known as Samaria. The southern kingdom, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, became known as Judah. Fearing a change of alliance if his people returned to Jerusalem to worship, the northern kingdom’s first king, Jeroboam, set up his own worship centers complete with golden calves. After they were conquered by Assyria in 772 BC, most of the Jews were taken into captivity and foreigners, bringing their pagan gods and beliefs, colonized the land. The remaining Jews began to worship idols along with the God of Israel and the Samaritan religion became a mix of idolatry and Judaism.

Samaritans were a continual source of difficulty for the Jews of the southern kingdom. Insisting that Moses said they should worship on Gerizim, they erected a temple there. Recognizing only the five books of Moses, Samaritans rejected most Jewish traditions, interfered when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and offered safe haven to Judah’s criminals. Controlling the land between Galilee and Jerusalem, they regularly harassed pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem. Because of all the intermarriage between the Jews and Gentiles of Samaria, Samaritans were considered “half-breeds.” Seeing them as both racially and theologically contaminated, the Jews had a proverb: “A piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.”

This is the world in which we find Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan with the unlikely hero being a Samaritan (whose people were known to harass travelers). We know this parable was in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but let’s back up one chapter to see what preceded it. Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Rather than taking the longer walk around Samaria, they were walking right through it. When Jesus sent messengers into a Samaritan village to make sleeping and eating arrangements, they were not welcomed. Although Jesus had previously told the disciples to simply shake the dust from their feet if a town refused to welcome them, John and James suggested calling down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Luke says Jesus rebuked them but we don’t know what was said.

Part of their rebuke may have been the story of the Good Samaritan. The parable could have been as much for His disciples (especially James and John) as it was for the legal expert who asked the question. Jesus easily could have made his point with a Roman soldier as the story’s unlikely hero, but He didn’t. Although the Samaritans had been unneighborly in snubbing Him, Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan to teach a lesson about neighbors! That parable told the disciples that, even when our neighbor is inhospitable and slights us, we still treat him as our neighbor. Whether or not someone helps us, we are to help them and, when someone offends us, we’re not to take offense. We do unto others as we would like them to do to us and not as they’ve done to us!

Although there are about 800 Samaritans still living in Israel, for most of us the word “Samaritan” refers to someone who helps other people, especially strangers, when they have trouble. How ironic that the despised “pagan half-Jews of the Old Testament” (as one writer called them) took a place of honor in the New!

Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! [Luke 6:30-31 (NLT)]

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TO FORGIVE IS DIVINE

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. [Luke 23:34 (ESV)]

deptford pinkIn one of our small group sessions earlier this year, we heard the story of a man who spent more than twenty years imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The evidence proving his innocence had been suppressed by the police and he was a bitter angry man. Sixteen years into his incarceration, he became a Christian but he still struggled with forgiveness. Knowing Jesus expected him to forgive the men whose lies had stolen his life, he couldn’t find the power to do so. How can we forgive someone who has deliberately hurt us, someone who isn’t even contrite or repentant? Vengeance, anger, retribution, and revenge come much easier than forgiveness and yet forgiveness is what God calls us to do.

It was when this prisoner read Jesus’ words on Calvary that he understood where the power to forgive lay—in God the Father. “Father, forgive them!” said our Lord as He hung on that cross. Like him, Jesus was an innocent man and yet He prayed for His executioners. His words were not those of anger or complaint but of pity and compassion. The sinless tortured one was praying for his sin-filled torturers. Mind you, the people for whom He was praying hadn’t asked for forgiveness; they were neither remorseful nor repentant. Many had eaten His bread, seen His miracles and heard him speak, but they’d chosen the criminal Barabbas over him. Mocking Him, the soldiers were gambling for his clothing. While blood was dripping down his forehead and seeping out of the wounds on his hands and feet, the suffering Jesus was praying for pardon not revenge; He didn’t ask for justice but for forgiveness. It was on the cross that radical forgiveness met radical injustice and triumphed. If our sinless Savior can forgive, how much more should we?

Jesus’ words on Calvary told this prisoner that he didn’t have to forgive under his own power but that forgiveness was possible through God’s power. Like Jesus, he prayed for those who had persecuted him and he was finally able to forgive. Truth eventually prevailed several years later when his conviction was overturned but he’d been made a free man many years earlier when he forgave those who wronged him so horribly. It was Alexander Pope who wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.’” Indeed, it is.

The Holy Spirit, thank God, often enables people to forgive even though they are not sure how they did it. [Lewis B. Smedes]

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV)]

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A SERVANT’S HEART (Naaman – Part 1)

But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:43-45 (ESV)]

PansyOccasionally, bands of marauding Arameans would go out into neighboring nations. It was during one of those raids into Israel that they captured a young girl and brought her back to Aram. Picture her fear as she stood on the auction block and was sold to the highest bidder. This child, a spoil of war, became the servant to Naaman’s wife. The commander-in-chief of the army, Naaman developed leprosy. Had I been that girl, I probably would have rejoiced silently at his plight. He was the enemy; it was because of his soldiers that she’d been kidnapped and made a slave in a strange land. A lesser person would have thought Naaman deserved all the pain and misery he could get! Although it would have been easy to remain silent and watch him suffer, this nameless slave girl didn’t. Instead, she sang the praises of Elisha and told her mistress that Naaman should go to “the prophet who lives in Samaria” where he could be healed.

This young girl, of such little significance that her name isn’t even recorded, didn’t hide her light under a bushel. Her story reminds us that we all have opportunities to share God’s light and serve His people. The loving action of this child, who gets only a brief mention in 2 Kings 5, teaches us all a valuable lesson about forgiveness, love and obedience to the word of God. She may have worked as a servant to Naaman’s wife but, by her actions, we know that she lived as a servant to God.

One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:1-4 (ESV)]

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IN THE DARK

And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. [John 3:19-20 (NLT)]

sunriseAlthough demons had no trouble recognizing Jesus, the people who were most knowledgeable about Scripture and best knew the Messianic prophecies often seemed blind to what was before them. In fact, even after hearing Jesus speak and watching Him heal, the Pharisees and scribes accused Him of being a demon. Why did they refuse to see what was right in front of them?

Of the people who recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah, only a few were what would have been called religious. The devout Simeon and Anna knew the Messiah when Jesus came to the temple as a baby yet, twelve years later, no one in the temple recognized Him as anything more than a perceptive intelligent boy. Most of the others who recognized Jesus were secular people who knew they were flawed and in need of Him: the woman at the well, the Gentile woman with a demon-possessed daughter, the prostitute who washed His feet, the blind Bartimaeus, the corrupt publicans Zacchaeus and Matthew, Mary Magdalene, the lepers, the adulterous woman, and the paralyzed man and his friends. On that dark Friday, rather than a religious scholar, it was one of the Roman soldiers who’d nailed Jesus to the cross and a thief hanging beside Him who testified to His true identity.

Just as sunlight reveals fingerprints on the window and dust on the table, the Light of the World revealed the sins of the world. Without light, a zircon can pretend to be a diamond, stainless can pass for sterling, and a designer knock-off can be mistaken for the real thing. In the darkness, hypocrisy, deceit and legalism can pass for righteousness, morality and piety. Until it recognizes what it actually is, corruption can call itself integrity, wickedness can say it’s virtue, and arrogance can profess humility. Those unwilling to see their own sinfulness and need for salvation rejected Jesus—the one without sin. Not wanting to see what the Light revealed, they chose to remain in the dark. Those who admitted their sins knew they were in the dark and welcomed the Light. Recognizing their need for Jesus, they accepted Him and received healing, mercy, forgiveness, and everlasting life.

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. [John 1:10-12 (NLT)]

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ONE AT A TIME

But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval. [John 6:27 (NLT)]

northern mockingbird

There once was a beautiful mockingbird who loved to sing from the branches of the forest trees. An old sly fox sat beneath the trees and licked his lips as he thought of devouring her. Every time he tried to snatch the bird, however, she would fly away to safety high in the oaks. One day he offered her a mouthwatering berry for the price of just one feather. Accepting his offer, she plucked out a feather, swooped down for the fruit and flew back up to the treetop before the fox could catch her. The next day, he made the same offer and the mockingbird, anxious to enjoy the sweet bite again, gave him another feather. The wise owl warned her not to play this foolish game with the fox but the bird, hungry for the tasty berries, ignored him. This went on for several days until one day, after giving the fox a feather and snatching the berry, the mockingbird tried to fly away only to discover that she couldn’t. Foolishly, in her desire for the passing pleasure, she had given away one feather too many. The fox had his meal and the mockingbird was no more—all for a perishable and momentary indulgence.

Berries won’t cause our downfall, but pursuing fleeting pleasures can. We don’t have a wise owl on a neighboring branch but we do have the Holy Spirit living within us. We must listen to his voice and live by his power. Best of all, even if we lose our feathers, all is not lost. Because of Jesus Christ, God’s final word is not punishment and death but grace, forgiveness, redemption and restoration.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) … Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. [Romans 8:9, 12-14 (NLT)]

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EXCUSES

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)]  

black eyed susan - blanket flowerWhen the woman joined our group at the work table, she told us, “I got a late start so I was speeding to get here. I decided that if a cop stopped me, I’d just tell him I was doing the Lord’s work and, since God will forgive me, he should too.” When I questioned her reasoning, she insisted that speeding for a godly purpose was a justifiable offense and, since God offers forgiveness, so should the police. Granted, we were doing God’s work by packing food for the needy but, as the Blues Brothers learned when they saved the orphanage, a mission from God is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Short of rushing someone to hospital in a life or death situation, I’m not sure there is a valid excuse for speeding. While the bags we filled with rice and beans could be considered life-saving, we were packing food all morning so there was nothing urgent about the task. If the woman’s speeding had caused an accident or injury, would she still have thought her mission from God was a valid excuse for breaking the law?

When we offer our confession to God, I wonder if we’re like this woman. I know I am. Rather than a contrite confession, we often offer a litany of excuses along with our transgressions: I wasn’t to blame, I didn’t mean it, there were extenuating circumstances, I forgot, it was the only way, I meant well, no harm done, I didn’t know, it was an accident, and so on. Although being on a “mission from God” is not an excuse for sin or law-breaking, part of the woman’s theology is correct. She’s right that God will forgive her but she was totally wrong about why. God doesn’t forgive us because of our good works or great excuses. It is only by God’s grace and our faith in Jesus that we are forgiven.

God’s not interested in excuses because there is no excuse for sin; what He wants is a sincere and penitent heart. Although it’s easier to spot other people’s sins than to look deep into the darkness of our own souls, we must be brutally honestly about our transgressions. Until we recognize and admit them, we’re not likely to repent of them. It is when we truthfully look at our sins, when we contemplate how pitiful and unworthy we are, when we offer our failures in their naked ugliness without excuse, that we can truly understand how loving, compassionate, generous, and forgiving our God really is. It is only then that we truly appreciate the gift Jesus gave us on the cross.

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. [Romans 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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