Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
It’s daunting to preach on a text like The Good Samaritan, especially after a garbage week like we’ve had. It seems so obviously relevant, this classic parable about God expecting us to care for our neighbors, right? But what can be taken from this story for our time? Finding someone to represent the beaten man is easy, but what about the priest and Levite who walk on by, unable to see the beaten man as anything but a burden? Who’s the priest? Who’s the Levite? And what is our equivalent for a Samaritan—a person of who represented to Jesus’ hearers the ultimate outsider, a person to be feared and hated beyond all others? And then, no matter what his original business was on the road, he saw on the ground a child of God, a person deserving respect and care, and he stopped to offer it. Especially in light of the news this week, shouldn’t I just read the story, say “Go, and do likewise,” and sit down?
Maybe, but that feels like a cop out to me. I feel like I ought to make an effort. Maybe it’s because the character I most identify with in this parable is the priest. Typecasting and all that aside, I confess that sometimes I’d rather just walk on by trouble. I have places to go and people to see, and I can’t be stopping for every bleeding body I come across. Except that stopping is exactly what is required. You, me, all of us, we have to pay attention. We have to stop. We can no longer walk on by bodies by the side of the road.
There are people who call the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus’ autobiography, and I get that. Jesus never walks on by those in distress. He is the foreign figure, the alien who stops and helps, who takes each wounded person to a community where they will be restored and replenished, and he promises to return. What isn’t in today’s story is that after he leaves the inn, the robbers catch up with the Samaritan and hang him on a tree.
But the point is the same. Jesus makes it clear by the stories he tells and the story he lives that love is an action verb, and if we are his followers, we cannot be passive. That’s what Jesus is trying to tell the lawyer who initiates today’s story.
“What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” he asked. So Jesus asks him, “What does the Bible say?” And he is able to recite from memory the two big commandments—love God and love your neighbor. Good answer! Jesus responds. That sums up the whole heart of the Bible right there! Now “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. GO and DO. But this lawyer feels like there must be more to it, so he presses Jesus to elaborate. Like, who and what am I actually responsible for? What, precisely, is required of me to make God love me? And Jesus responds, as he often does, with a story.
In it, Jesus (re)defines a neighbor not in terms of race, religion, or proximity, but level of vulnerability. And then, right at the end, he asks 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. But the lawyer can’t bring himself to say the hated word, so he just says, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Exactly. Go and do likewise. Act like you believe what you can recite from the Bible.”
And I believe Jesus is saying that us today too. Instead of the priest who walks by, we have to stop and look at the man in the ditch—and do something about it. I am a white, well-educated, middle class, straight, married, professional woman. Doors have opened for me in my life simply because of those things. People make assumptions about me that have frequently been beneficial to me. I’ve never once worried about being shot. In that I am privileged, and I know it.
But not everyone shares that privilege, and if I’m going to follow Jesus’ lead, I’m going to have to step off the straight and narrow path sometimes and get down into the ditches where some of God’s less privileged—but no less beloved—children have been thrown. I’m going to have to share the blessings that have come my way through no merit of my own. Even if it costs me something. And it will cost me something.
I have to put down the relative security of thinking that the violence in the world has nothing to do with me. Because it has everything to do with me. You and I have to put ourselves in the place of people of color in this land—whether they are recent immigrants, feeling oppression in their homelands or the descendants of slavery who have lived here for a century. We have to see the world as they see it in order to effectively Go and Do what Jesus commands.
We have to recall times when we have felt scared, lost, abandoned, bruised, hopeless, and helpless. And we have to remember who saw us in that state and showed us grace and kindness. We have to remember what it felt like to be treated with kindness and ask ourselves, “Who has been a neighbor to me?” Remembering what it feels like to be vulnerable and to be treated with kindness: that is the beginning.
When I reflect on my life, I see that I have had many neighbors, and not all of them were people I expected. Yes, sometimes it was a family member or a friend, but sometimes I have received assistance from people I didn’t know, who had nothing to gain from helping me. At times it’s been someone who seemed really different from me—in social class, or age, or language, or religion. Later, during the prayers of the people, we will have an opportunity to mention by name the people who have been good neighbors to us.
When I think of myself as the recipient of neighborly love, the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been judged and found wanting. It clarifies that it isn’t me who is the Good Samaritan. Only Christ can love all people at all times. Only Christ is never too tired or too busy or too self absorbed to be fully present. It is Christ who loves the whole wide world—even the people I can’t stand—so much that he would die for us all. It is Christ, not I, who will save the world, has saved the world, and is saving the world. Knowing that I don’t have to be the Messiah takes a lot of pressure of me.
But it doesn’t mean I can go back to being the negligent priest. The fact that I have been loved and cared for, restored to health and hope more than once, means I can’t just walk on by on the other side of the road. In baptism, I was named and claimed as God’s own child. I have been empowered with Christ’s own Spirit to share the love of God. That means that I cannot walk by any of God’s own precious children. Nor can you. We have been blessed to be a blessing.
So maybe the role in the story that suits us best is that of the innkeeper. Jesus brings to his church his own people who are battered and broken and in need of healing. He says to us, “Church, 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.
The Good News is that 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 by himself. I’m betting he called the local doctor to see about appropriate medications and treatment. And there must have been others on staff or in the family who took turns bathing, feeding, visiting with, and bandaging the sick man. Probably there was a rotating group of people who made sure he had fresh sheets and a clean bathroom. It takes a village to make us whole. It takes a whole church.
Jesus gives us one another as neighbors and entrusts us to each other’s care, but he doesn’t stop at that. Then he goes back down that dangerous road, looking for the people no one else sees. He goes looking for a man who was selling CDs and got shot. He goes looking for a man with a broken taillight who got shot. He goes looking for police officers who are just doing their job serving the people and get shot. He sees them all bleeding on the side of the road, all victims of our white paranoia about black people, and he says, “No more.” No more constructing fear of black people as a way for us white people to feel special and different. No more putting police officers in charge of enforcing our fears and blaming them when we remain afraid. No more thinking we will be fine if we can just get rid of these “others.”
No. Jesus brings all of these wounded and bleeding bodies to us, asking us to Go and Do what he showed us. We are called upon to be neighbors. We get both to need one another and to be needed by one another. And Jesus keeps coming along to give us the resources we need. He keeps strengthening us for ministry—he gives us 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.
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