July 14, 2013
It’s daunting to preach on a text like The Good Samaritan, because practically everyone—even non-church people—know the story. And nearly everyone thinks they know what it means. It’s about loving your enemies, right? A man gets robbed and beaten up on a deserted road. Two people who should have stopped to help him didn’t, and the one who should’ve ignored him because of ethnic and religious differences, stops and helps. What more needs to be said?
It’s a classic, great story about God expecting us to care for our neighbors, with “neighbor” being defined as “anyone in need.” The priest and the Levite, who are in a hurry, can’t see the beaten man as anything but a burden, but the Samaritan, the outsider, no matter what his business was on the road to begin with, sees on the ground a child of God, a person who deserves respect and care. Shouldn’t I just say “Go, and do likewise” and sit down?
Well, that would be a good sermon, probably, but it wouldn’t be honest. Because the truth is, if I heard that sermon being preached to me (and it certainly has been), mostly what that would do is make me feel guilty. I don’t know who you identify with in the story, but when I’m being honest, I am usually the priest or the Levite (I mean, typecasting and all…). I don’t often stop next to homeless people sleeping in boxes under bridges or on the street and offer assistance. Sometimes, even when the people in need that I meet are cleaner and smell better, I still don’t go out of my way to help, especially not if it’s going to cost me a lot, or I don’t like or trust the person in need. So it would feel hypocritical for me to stand up here and tell you that’s what YOU should do, if I’m not willing to take the message to heart. Does that make me a bad Christian?
What makes a “good” Christian anyway? I think that’s the heart of what the lawyer who prompts Jesus to tell this story is trying to figure out. “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. And Jesus asks him what the Bible says. He is able to recite from memory the two big commandments—love God and love your neighbor. Good answer! That sums up the whole Bible right there! But I could probably give that answer too—I know it’s what I’m supposed to say. But like me, this lawyer doesn’t feel like it’s enough. There must be more to it, he feels, so he presses Jesus to elaborate. Like HOW will I know if I’m keeping those commandments? Who and what am I actually responsible for? What, precisely, is required of me to make God love me?
Jesus responds, as he often does, with a story. In it, he (re)defines a neighbor not in terms of race, religion, or proximity, but vulnerability. Jesus shows how anyone in need is our neighbor. But then, right at the end, he gives the lawyer’s question a little spin by asking a question of his own. He doesn’t tell the lawyer who his neighbor is, instead he asks, “Who ACTED like a neighbor in this story?” The answer is obvious: the Samaritan, who went out of his way to help the victim. What Jesus does here is reframe the conversation. Suddenly the neighbor isn’t simply anyone in need—it’s also anyone who provides for OUR needs, who takes care of US.
Who has been a neighbor to you? Who’s been there for you in the past week, the past month, the past year? As I mentioned last week, we spend a lot of time and energy trying NOT to need help, trying to be (or anyway appear) self-sufficient and invulnerable. For some people it’s even hard to accept a compliment, let alone serious assistance! But it seems that this parable is saying that being a neighbor involves not just giving help but also being willing to receive it. It’s extra-challenging if the person who assists us is someone who don’t think of as being “like” us, maybe even—if we’re truthful—someone we think is “beneath” us.
Perhaps, instead of the priest and Levite, the character we need to identify with in this parable is the man in the ditch by the side of the road. Can you think of a time when you have felt lost, abandoned, bruised, hopeless, and helpless? Who saw you in that state and showed you grace and kindness?
I remember being 19 years old and arriving in London for a semester abroad. I took the airport shuttle to a big train station—maybe Picadilly or Victoria—which is like Grand Central in New York—a million trains going everywhere and a million people rushing around getting on and off of them. I was alone and jet-lagged and confused about where the train to Cambridge might be. Suddenly, a tall African man with kind eyes was offering help. He picked up my suitcase, helped me find the right ticket booth and get a ticket, and then walked me to the right track. He told me that he was a veterinary student from Nigeria, and that he understood how baffling and scary it was to be a stranger in such a confusing place. Eventually I had the presence of mind to ask if he didn’t need to go get his own train, as he’d spent quite a bit of time helping me. “Oh, it’s gone already,” he said. Bam. There. I was the man in the ditch, and this man was my Good Samaritan.
I have to say, that experience changed me—and there are many others like it. I’m sure we could all share a time when suddenly angels descended to care for us when we felt most alone. When we have been treated with grace and kindness by someone who has nothing to gain from it, it opens up our heart in new ways.
Maybe that’s why some people suggest that the story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ autobiography. Jesus comes across us struggling in our lives, and takes care of us. He binds up our wounds, and lifts us up out of our ditches. He places us in the care of other people who will continue to provide us with blessings, and he promises to come back for us later.
When I think of it that way, the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been judged and found wanting. Because it isn’t me who is supposed to be the Good Samaritan. Only Christ can love all people at all times, and is never too tired or busy to be present. It is Christ who loved the whole wide world, even people I can’t stand, so much that he would die for us all. It is Christ, and not I, who will save the world, has saved the world, is saving the world. Knowing that I don’t have to be the Messiah takes a lot of pressure of me.
But that doesn’t mean I can go back to being the Levite or the priest. The fact that we have been loved and cared for, restored to health and hope, empowered with Christ’s own Spirit to share the love of God means that we cannot walk by any of God’s own precious children.
Perhaps the role in the story that suits us best is that of the innkeeper. Jesus brings to us people who are battered and broken and in need of healing. He says, “I’m giving you everything you need to take care of this person. And I’ll be back later.” Our job, then, is to tend to those Christ brings to us for safekeeping. But we don’t have to do it alone. I can’t imagine that the innkeeper did all the work of caring for that beaten man alone. Maybe he called the local doctor to see about medications. And there must have been others on staff or in the family who also took turns feeding and bandaging the sick man. Probably there were a group of people who made sure he had fresh sheets and a clean bathroom. It takes a village.
Jesus gives us one another as neighbors and entrusts us to each other’s care. We get to need one another and be needed. And whether we are walking the lonely road or manning the safety station, Jesus never stops coming along to give us the resources we need for ministry—stories that enrich and baffle us, forgiveness and healing for our bruised lives, and his own body and blood as strength for the journey. By God’s grace, let us be good neighbors to each other.
Let us pray: “O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider