A Promise for Life's Long Pull
A Promise for Life's Long Pull
Luke 10: 25-37
We all know the account of the Good Samaritan. Does it strike you as something more than odd that an obscure itinerant preacher, in the dusty backwaters of a third-rate province, supposedly off the beaten track of history, would refer one day to a foreigner and the term would pass into the vocabulary of the centuries? Wherever English is spoken, the term Good Samaritan strikes one as a familiar term. I find many evidences of my master's Lordship, and here is one of them: his word has come into the verbiage of all succeeding generations.
The road that drops from Jerusalem to Jericho is a precipitous one. It drops maybe fifteen or sixteen hundred feet. It is a winding road with a particularly sharp curve. People tell strangers that it is a road where brigands and highway robbers lurk to pounce upon unsuspecting travelers. When I was there fifteen years ago, right at that sharp bend, sat The Inn of the Good Samaritan. The story says travelers were pounced upon and mugged again and again. In this particular instance, one was left for dead. You might want to consider this account, as you reflect upon it, a shielded autobiography of the one telling the story, of one traveling a strange road and coming upon someone beaten and nearly dead.
The whole story grows out of a question put to Jesus by, appropriately enough, a lawyer. I do not disparage that vocation. I wanted to be one myself until I got sidetracked into this back eddy. But as they are accustomed, they love to ask questions. I was out at Northwestern College, a Dutch Reformed school that sits in a small town on the border of South Dakota. They told of how the town felt they could not afford a lawyer, but one moved there anyhow. When one moved there, they discovered they needed two.
In our story, a lawyer puts the question, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" I used to hear my father dwell upon this, to the denigration of the lawyer. But wherever people have thought seriously about the nature of life, they have pondered this question in one form or another. What is the significance of our days? We enter here as out of a darkened room into the light. We pass through briefly and return to darkness. What does it mean, this darkness out of which we come and into which we apparently go, and, even more importantly, the time we spend in the light? Is it a tale told by a fool, an idiot? Or does it have significance? Are the events of our lives a bunch of disjointed matters that have no connection, no purpose, no meaning? Is there any supreme good in this life?
"What shall I do?" this lawyer was saying. "I feel some sense of destiny, a dim outline, a murky, beckoning vision of my possibilities. And yet I seem trapped in this mortality, able to see what I ought to be, and yet unable to put my hands upon it. What shall I do? How can I come into the fullness of the significance of life?"
In our pompous piety we often underestimate our Lord, if I may say that. I've known him long enough to talk like that. Jesus turns the matter immediately upon the lawyer. "What does the law say?" he asks. The lawyer reaches back to ancient Israel. "O Israel, the Lord is thy God, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul and with all thy heart and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself." "You have the answer," says Jesus. But what lawyer is content with one question, especially when he hasn't received the answer he expected? So he comes again at him. What is the circumference of concern? What are the boundaries of neighborliness? May I feel comfortable in giving up on that obligation? Who is my neighbor?
The young believe they are well supplied for life.
George Buttrick said years ago that Jesus took this question out of the misty realm of speculation and put it down in the dust of a country road where a certain man fell among thieves. I'll not deal with the priest and the Levite. But, there comes a foreigner traveling that way who sees this man bleeding, half dead, mugged, and perhaps semi-conscious. In the words of my text, the foreigner stops, stoops, serves, and supplies. When he has put the man on his own beast and gotten him to the inn, he says to the innkeeper, "Take care of him." He leaves two pence, "two denarii" as was read in the Scripture lesson. There is no complaint from the innkeeper, and the Samaritan had not shown any miserliness so far, so supposedly this was a reasonable amount to leave for the care of the man who had fallen among thieves.
One man who practiced law in New York and later became a part of the Washington establishment told young lawyers in his firm, "If the client does not complain, the fee is too small." There is no complaint from the innkeeper. Doesn't it seem for all of us that there was a time in life when we had been given enough? Do you remember the day when you graduated or when you took on holy orders, how sufficient you felt for the responsibilities that stretched out before you? It is the self-confidence of youth. In one of our eastern universities on freshman day, the freshmen marched under the banner, "This University has waited 150 years for us." In a way it had, and of course, in a way it hadn't. But there is that sense of adequacy. We believe we are endowed with talents, resources of mind and heart sufficient for whatever life might offer. We go jauntily and self-confidently out to do our work.
The circumstances of life reveal our inadequacy.
The Samaritan, almost at the door, has an afterthought that just maybe it was not enough to see the poor, mugged man through. So he turns and says, "But whatever more you spend..." a recognition that it might not be enough. It is not long before most of us discover that what we had and thought was quite sufficient does not quite cut the mustard. Life confronts us with circumstances, private and public, that frustrate our gifts, embarrass our endowments, and leave us feeling almost helpless in our frustration.
We go jauntily along our way. Suddenly there's a telephone call, and all of life is altered. We wonder how we're going to make it. There are people in this room who put on a kind of brave show in the morning. I admire them. I've found one of the most admirable things among God's people is their gallantry. Many people get up each day, throw their heads back as far as they can, march out into the unknown, with hearts breaking and spirits bleeding, not sure how they're going to make it from hour to hour. They go on, knowing they do not have enough. You who minister to the Lord's people discover very quickly that, whatever your talents are and resources you have been given in seminary, the issues of life are so stern, so diverse, so complex, so demanding, and so stressful that there will be evenings when you finish the day's work and go into your place of rest not knowing how in the name of heaven you will be able to get up enough strength and courage to try it another day.
"Whatsoever more thou spendest ." It is saddening to read some of the excessive confidence we have had as a nation. A man making a fourth of July speech a generation ago said this nation was to be bound on the north by the North Pole, on the south by Antarctica, on the east by the first chapter of Genesis, and on the west by the last trump of Revelation. What enormous self-confidence. It was not long before we discovered that we did not have enough. It is a tragic aspect of our nation's life upon which too many of us do not look as often as we ought.
Long before the Civil War, a man named John Chapman said that the institution of slavery was like a sleeping serpent in every moment of this nation's life. It lay coiled under the table at the constitutional convention. We kept trying to patch it up and gloss it over and fix it with the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas Compromise. Daniel Webster sold out his whole career trying to fix it and could not. Finally we went to the great battle fields of our civil conflict, places that resonate in the national reflection: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Bull Run, Shiloh Church, Port Hudson, Gettysburg, and on and on. It looked then, having sent the best blood of the nation into a baptism of blood to redeem the nation's promises, like we would have bought in national blood enough to match the issues of democracy.
Did you know that 600,000 and more men lost their lives in the Civil War? In the state of Mississippi in 1866, one-fifth of the state's budget was spent on artificial limbs for Civil War veterans. One-fourth of the South's young white manhood perished. It would seem that would have been enough. But we welched and waffled and fell back after that awful sacrifice. I look out upon my own African-American community, and I wince when I hear those stirring words from James Weldon Johnson: "Stony, the road we trod, / Bitter the chastening rod, / Felt in the day when hope unborn had died." He goes on to say, "We have come, treading our way through the blood of the slaughtered." A little earlier that verse says, "Have we not come to the place for which our father's sighed?"
When I think of the high hopes my own forebears had for this nation and for their own destiny in this nation, I recognize the sore repairs to which the African-American community has come. I am aware of what the Samaritan said, "Whatsoever more thou spendest ." For the first time in a long span of years, we have come in our African-American community to the day when nobody is certain as to what the next step ought to be. We may have been wrong in the past, but we had confidence that just beyond the next hill the prize upon which we had our eyes and for which our fathers had sighed and sought would be realized. But now, who knows? "Whatsoever more thou spendest ."
We will be repaid for our sacrifices in this life.
Then this rich promise, "When I come again, I will make it up to you." If this is shielded autobiography, then this narration was about another who came along a strange road from a distant country as a foreigner, whose original residence was not in this time frame, but who came traveling a dangerous and perilous road and found all of the daughters and sons of men stricken and beaten, half dead, by the roadside. That foreigner stopped, stooped down, bound up the wounds, and put us on our way. He says, " I will come again, this is not the last trip I'll make along this road. When I come again, I will repay you. Whatever you have spent I will make it up."
I declare to you tonight that that's the great promise that hovers over our efforts. Whatever you have sought to do in the name of the Lord Christ, he promises he will repay. However far you have gone out or thought you have gone out, whatever sacrifices you perceive you have made, whatever efforts that you think you have put yourself to, he promises: "I will repay. I will not be left in your debt. I will give it back to you." He will give back more than whatever it is we have put in. He said it himself. "No man, no person, has left father or mother or sister or brother or land for my sake, that I will not make it up to you."
I want to bid you good evening tonight, if you will allow me, by recounting something very personal in my own life. In the spring of 1940, that must seem like an anti-deluvian time to many of you, I and my classmates left our bright years at Oberlin College. The Christian center sent a letter to each graduate. Looking back I realize it was a ploy for subscription, but it said, "Now that you are coming to the end of the time in seminary, with all of the insights which have been given to you, what will you do?" And it paraphrased a line from Wordsworth: "What will you do when your ministry fades into the light of common day? When the freshness of the morning has passed, and the dew is no longer on the grass, and the roses begin to wilt under the intensity of the sun? What will you do when your ministry passes into the light of common day?"
I remember those glorious days with gratitude. The great names of those days have all disappeared. And you who teach here, how exercised you must be sometimes when it seems that these young people are determined not to get it. But mark, mark, mark me well. Long after you have quit this place, there will be men and women wearing upon themselves the weight of the years, who will look back upon you and thank God that you led them into the high disciplines of the faith. Yes, all of them are gone now. You have only to look on my countenance to know that my years have faded into the light of common day. It has been now fifty years. I have gone up and down this country and beyond it. I have no record of how many pulpits I have tried to preach in. If there's any purpose in it, it is written in heaven. Sometimes I have come out of the pulpit so spent and drained that I wished I never had to go into another pulpit. But I can say this to you. Every time I have felt I was at the end of my tether, the old promise has come true. There has been restoration; there has been renewal; there has been revival.
I do not deal well in harsh, severe, theological terms. I can best describe what has happened to me in some of the words of a spiritual I love the most: "There Is a Balm in Gilead." "Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work's in vain" but then, just at the end of my tether when all of my strength seems spent and gone, then, when I come almost to the borders of despair, then, when I feel frustrated and confused and out of it, "Then, the Holy Spirit revives my soul again." I can promise that Christ will be all you need: Strength for your weakness. Light for your darkness. Peace for your confusion. Food for your hunger. Water for your thirst. Life for your death. Hope for your despair.
I read and I hear that there is even more that eye cannot see and ear cannot hear. And by the most riotous imagination man can perceive, I read and I hear what the Lord has in store for those who love him. I know this: in this poor life he has already repaid. If there is more, it will take an eternity to praise him and honor him and thank him and glorify him for it. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him you creatures here below. Praise him above you heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It will take eternity to get it done.
© Gardner Taylor 1992
Preaching Today Issue #111
A resource of Christianity Today International
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Gardner C. Taylor pastored Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York, for 42 years, helped found the Progressive National Baptist Convention with Martin Luther King Jr., and is co-author of Perfecting the Pastor's Art (Judson Press).