On the Road Again: The Road to Jericho
Luke 10:29-35; James 2:1-17
This week, we’re on the road again. That first Easter season, in the time between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension or return to heaven, Jesus was busy showing that he was alive and preparing his followers for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We’re traveling different roads during this same time, looking at roads mentioned in the Gospels and how we still travel those same roads today, even if they have different names. When we are feeling discouraged, disappointed, and defeated, we are on the Emmaus Road. We all have times when we get so preoccupied with our circumstances that we don’t notice that Jesus is walking beside us, but then something makes us look around and there he is, offering us love, encouragement, and understanding. When we’re struggling with doubt or come to the point where we must decide what – and in whom – to believe, we’re on the Damascus Road. Some, like the Apostle Paul, are only on the Damascus Road for a very short time; they experience an encounter with Christ that immediately transforms their lives. Many of us, however, spend far more time, years even, on that road, before we come to the point where we confidently proclaim Christ as our Lord and Savior. Some here today may still be walking on the Damascus Road and my comment to you is not to give up; stay on the road, keep your mind and heart open, and Christ will continue to reveal himself to you. Today, we’re traveling yet another road: the Jericho Road.
The Jericho Road is one we all travel often, almost every day. It is a well-known road, but we encounter different people and situations almost every time we are on it. It’s the road we take to work, to school, to church, and to the bank or to the store. It presents us with choices and decisions; it’s a road of action, reaction, and inaction. The Jericho Road runs right through our lives, and we can’t avoid it … but we can choose how we react to what happens around us when we’re on it.
In Jesus’ time, the Jericho Road was the road that connected Jericho and Jerusalem. It was about eighteen miles in length and, depending on the direction of travel, either ascended – or descended – about 3900 feet. Jericho is located NW of Jerusalem but sits 1000 feet below sea level, while Jerusalem is about 3000 feet above sea level. That’s why the Bible often refers to people going “up” to Jerusalem … because they literally were. Last week we learned that the road to Damascus began at Jerusalem’s north gate; the road to Jericho began at the western gate. It was a well-traveled road because, just like today, many people who worked and worshipped in Jerusalem lived outside the city and commuted in. It was also a dangerous road, not only because of the terrain but because the heavy foot traffic drew criminals. The Jericho Road is mentioned several times in the New Testament, but its most famous context is in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
While the road between Jericho and Jerusalem was real, Jesus’ parable about travel on the road was prompted by a question. As Jim read for us, the question asked was intended to test Jesus. “Teacher,” a religious expert asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Every Jew at the time knew that there was only one answer to that question: obey the Law of Moses. Jesus even says to the man in response, “Well, what does the law say?” and the man provided the correct answer, “Love God and love your neighbor.” So, if Jesus and the expert agree on the answer, why was the question asked? The man, it seems, wants to push a little further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” See, here, the answer is a little murkier. For many Jews, the correct response was other Jews. Not Romans. Not Greeks. Not other Gentiles. And certainly not the Samaritans who lived just a few miles away and were hated by the Jews and who hated the Jews in return. So, Jesus tells a story … one many of you know. A man, most likely a Jew given the location, was going down – catch the “down” – from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was beaten, robbed, and left for dead by the side of the road. Two respectable, upstanding members of the community, traveling that same road, see him and walk on by without offering help. A third man comes upon him and goes above and beyond. Not only does he offer immediate assistance, but he takes the injured man to a place of safety and pays for his care. The thing is, that third man is an enemy, a Samaritan. “But which one was the neighbor,” Jesus asks. The religious man probably was choking a bit on his words when he answered, “The one who showed mercy.” Notice he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” but he was forced to recognize his response. He was the neighbor.
So, what does the Jericho Road mean for us today? First, it’s a road that challenges our expectations. We are challenged by our preconceptions of people. We are challenged by our own selfishness or self-absorption. We are challenged by two questions: “Who do we consider to be our neighbor?” and “Will we really love our neighbor as ourselves?” The Jericho Road can happen in your neighborhood when you find out a neighbor has just been diagnosed with cancer. The Jericho Road can happen as you stand in line at Walmart and overhear a conversation between a parent and a child, and discover that the parent can’t buy the child school supplies or perhaps even a toy because the parent is now unemployed. The Jericho Road can happen as you drive to work or to the bank and pass a person standing at a stoplight or street corner with a sign that says they are hungry. The Jericho Road can happen at church when someone walks in and you don’t know them, and you don’t want to say hello or ask them to sit with you because it makes you uncomfortable. The Jericho Road challenges us it forces us to consider how we look at other people. How far do we go to help the neighbor with cancer, especially if they haven’t been a particularly friendly neighbor to us in the past? Does the child in line at Walmart really need the toy … and doesn’t the school provide supplies if no one else does? And what about the person on the street corner? Ten years ago, we never saw this on our streets and now it seems like it’s at every corner. By giving, aren’t we encouraging an unsafe situation? And, if we give money how do we know if they’re really in need or what they might spend it on? But the truth is, we can always find questions to ask … questions that cause us to look away, cross to the other side of the road, and walk on by.
This is why the Jericho Road is so challenging. Every day we’re surrounded by people with needs and sometimes those needs are overwhelming. We don’t know who to help. We don’t know how to help. And yet, deep down we hear the relentless call of Jesus, reminding us that we are to love and care for others. Secondly, the Jericho Road is not just a road of challenge, it’s a road that calls us to compassion. Jesus, in his parable, specifically describes the Samaritan as being “moved with compassion.” The Samaritan didn’t stop to help because he knew the injured man or because the man looked like him or because others were watching and so he might gain something from it. He saw someone who was in pain. Think of the questions he might have asked. How do I know the man wasn’t trying to rob someone else and got injured in the process? How do I know he isn’t faking? How do I know he won’t take advantage of me? What if it turns out he’s a Roman? What if he’s not a very nice person? Won’t his family notice he’s missing and come find him? The truth is … the Samaritan couldn’t know the answers to any of those questions. He simply saw an apparent need and was moved by compassion. “Compassion” in English doesn’t necessarily have much depth to it. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as sympathetic pity or concern for the suffering or misfortunes of others. But when used in the Bible, particularly in connection with God in the Old Testament, it is a Hebrew word that has no singular adequate English translation. The Hebrew word “hesed” includes, in addition to compassion, love, kindness, faithfulness, consistency, pity, tenderness, and dependability. There is a passion to it that our English translation can’t convey. It’s how God sees and acts toward us. With Jesus, hesed wins over judgment every time. It’s an emotion that demands action, which brings us to our final lesson from the road.
The road to Jericho challenges our expectations, calls us to compassion (to hesed), and is a demand for action. Our love will be measured not by our words but by our actions. When we think of the story of the Good Samaritan, we’re not just the ones walking by on the road. At some point in our lives, we are the ones in need of help. We look at the parable and say, “What if that were me?” We look at the people we encounter, the ones who are dying, the parents who can’t buy something for their children, the ones without a place to live or a next meal, and we ask ourselves, “What if that were me?” “What would I need?” – and those questions turn into “What can I do?” We see people every day with physical and emotional needs that are not being met, but we see far more people who are living without hope and without the love of God. The need is great, and we can’t meet it all … but that doesn’t mean we turn away, pretend not to see, and do nothing. We serve how we can, we give what we can, we listen, we speak a kind word, and we pray. Why? Because Jesus ended the parable with these words: “Go and do likewise.”
James, in the second chapter of his short letter, shares his thoughts when it comes to faith and the command to love our neighbor. He poses this question, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it?” James does not say that works lead to faith or to salvation, but he is adamant that if we claim we have faith but do nothing, our faith is not only worthless, it is dead. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of The Message, puts it this way: “Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? … You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove … Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands? … The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.”
The Jericho Road isn’t an easy one. It’s challenging, it calls for compassion, and it demands action. There are days I wish I wasn’t on the Jericho Road, days when I wish I could take another route … only to find out that no matter what road I take whether it’s 465 or Washington Street or Pleasant Run Parkway or Audubon Rd., it’s still the Jericho Road. We who call ourselves Christian are always on the Jericho Road. But there’s a promise to this road that we should never overlook. The Jericho Road leads us up to Jerusalem and it leads us to Jesus. Remember the question that began this discussion: What must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer is we believe in the one that calls us to “Go and do likewise.” Our belief leads us to love. Our love calls us to compassion and our compassion to action. And this is the promise: “Then the King (Jesus) will say to those who have been faithful, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” We will have finally arrived at our destination and the road to Jericho will have come to an end.
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