Neighbours (Amos 7:7-17; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37)
I cringe a little when I get these purple passages from which to preach, and “The Good Samaritan” is, surely, one of these. We’ve all heard (or preached) many sermons that purport to be about this passage. Most of us are familiar with approaches that that attempt to make us feel guilty about some opportunity that we had to “be nice” to someone who needed help and didn’t get it from us. I think this parable has become diminished by overexposure and dumbed down into just being nice. Now, it isn’t a bad thing to be nice, but I think Jesus was saying more than that.
We probably need to start with the supporting cast this morning before we get to the star of the show, so let me just say a word or two about the other two lessons. The prophet Amos made it clear that God has standards in this world and insists that God’s people love people more than they love things. Hard words in North America. According to Amos, God holds all people accountable for simple justice. And there is an even higher standard of life expected for those of the household of faith. That word was costly for Amos. It cost him his home and his job.
The Epistle Lesson is the opening prayer of the Letter to the Colossians. In it the Apostle thanked God that those Colossian Christians have faith in the love of God, leading them to hope in Jesus Christ as the way in which both God’s will for justice and righteousness may be accomplished. He also prayed that his hearers might be granted wisdom and strength for living the right kind of life. Please note that this wisdom and strength is not so these Christians will be able to pass some kind of content exam over the Bible, or so they’ll have head-knowledge of this or that doctrine. Rather, their knowledge was to ripen into wisdom, which in the Bible means the ability to meet appropriately and creatively the situations of real life. Like Amos, the Epistle is concerned that peoples’ profession and their practice be consistent. These words are brief, but crucial underlayment for the Gospel lesson this morning. It’s about life rather than our beliefs about life, and furthermore it’s about our habitual patterns of life rather than about how we meet just one instance or opportunity to help or be nice.
The Good Samaritan may be Jesus’ most famous parable (if it isn’t the Prodigal Son). As a way into the story we should note the framework that Luke gave us (which shows distinct differences from the ones that Mark and Matthew gave for the same story).
One day Jesus engaged in a conversation with one the New Revised Standard Version calls a “lawyer.” This was a professional class of person whose job it was to interpret and apply the oral and written Jewish law. The conversation between Jesus and this lawyer consisted in questions, a story, some conversation, and, at the end, agreement. The apparent agreement in theory, however, masks the deep difference between Jesus and his conversation partner. Luke made it clear that the questions the lawyer put were to test Jesus and to justify himself. Today, interestingly enough, those who engage others in theological debate in order to trap them and win points against them, find themselves with this lawyer as a mentor rather than Jesus. Debate to win points is not a kingdom exercise. Also remember the principle of the first two lessons: that our beliefs are not simply intellectual matters, but should lead to consistent action in the world. Or as Jesus said elsewhere “By their fruits you will know them.” Twice Jesus says to this scholar, “Do this…and live.” It’s a matter of life not lip.
And, so, at last, the parable. A parable is usually a short story designed to make one major point. Parables are also designed with a “hook” or a “twist” in them designed to stop us short and pinch us a little, making us wonder or puzzle or even disagree. If you read a parable and don’t have a little trouble, then, as I began to say a bit ago, familiarity has dumbed it down. And this parable suffers from that problem. Almost everyone thinks of the term Good Samaritan as a do-gooder. The parable itself has been domesticated and secularized to the point where we might think that a Good Samaritan is one who simply is nice to those who need help, one after whom hospitals and nursing homes, medical societies and even insurance companies ought to be named. We jump too quickly to an application of the parable. A good way of studying parables is by reading them and asking, which character are you (today)? And, then, what’s the hook? Where does the parable stop me short if I’m honest?
To approach the first question, most of us have been taught not to identify with the priest and Levite. These are the bad persons, almost universally described as those who were cold and calloused and “passed by on the other side” (a figure of speech for just such calloused attitudes). The fact is, however, that the first hearers of the parable would probably have thought of the priest and the Levite as good persons. And most were. To give them the benefit of the doubt, these were professional people (one “clergy,” one “laity”) who had professional duties awaiting them. This beaten man was half-dead. Perhaps both religious professionals thought he was dead. If he was, and they touched him they would be disqualified from all their other duties that day. They could meet no other person’s need. Let’s think about this. What would you think if you could never count on a professional doctor, lawyer, or even a minister to show up for you because something else just presented itself along the way? These ancient professionals were presented with a conflict of two duties. Those of you who work in professions, does that ever happen to you? Do you ever make the choice to serve the pre-arranged, needs of the many over the immediate need of one who just pops up before you? I would be surprised if each and every professional hasn’t made that choice, and really made it often. Most of us, at least many times, will choose to keep faith with our appointments. So we can cut the priest and the Levite some slack. And we can say that they were doing what they were supposed to do.
There’s the Samaritan. We have so made him into the hero here that, again, we overlook the fact that the first hearers would not have thought of him that way. Until they heard the rest of the story, the original hearers would have been sure he was going to be the real villain. The priest and Levite might not have helped, but a Samaritan would surely take whatever the half-dead man had left on him. Samaritans, as every Jew knew, were descendants of those who had intermarried with people who had been imported into Israel after the Assyrians took the country in 722 BCE. They had opposed rebuilding the temple in Ezra’s day. They had no time for Jews. They were religious heretics and political outcasts. Let me ask you to think of the person or the group that is least like you, that is most abhorrent to you – who you’d least like find standing over you as you wake up in a bed, having been beaten half to death. Think of the persons that make your flesh crawl. Think of the persons that make you say “Ick!” That’s what a Samaritan was. To the hearers of this story he was the outsider who would always remain an outsider. He deserved to be one. It is very likely that, had the Samaritan been sure that the victim was a Jew, he wouldn’t have touched him either. Are you sure you want to be the Samaritan?
Then there’s the victim. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho descends about 3,600 feet in about 20 miles; it is a narrow winding road that St. Jerome (4th century) called the “Road of Blood.” This traveller was on a dangerous road where smart people travelled in groups. He was not a smart traveller. He was almost beaten to death, in part, because of his own stupidity. He was most likely a Jew. Had he not been half-dead it is unlikely that he would have ever allowed himself to be cared for by a Samaritan. Are you sure you want to be the victim?
The way the story unfolds, it tells of bigotry, narrowness of vision, and a prejudice for the way we think things always were. Put in these terms, most of us don’t want to be any of these characters. Which one do you want to be?
However, we might answer that, I imagine that we are all of them from time to time. We are those people who have to make hard choices at work; any of which will hurt somebody. We are those who get beaten up because of where we’re headed in life and how we’ve chosen to get there. We are even those who make stupid choices to go it alone sometimes. We are those who are beaten up and punished just by being at the wrong time and place with an abusive person. Then, we are outsiders who are looked down on by people, and who couldn’t get to be accepted as an insider by anything we do. We’re all of them. Not all the time, but we’re some of them most of the time.
The story isn’t so easy or nice as we thought. And we’re getting to feel the “pinch of the parable.” By the way, I also suspect that we are, from time to time, this lawyer of the framework story. We like to engage others in debate in order to trap them and make ourselves look good. In our own minds we are concerned to make ourselves look as though we deserve bliss and blessing in God’s presence.
But, you might say to me, that I really haven’t struck on the point of Jesus’ story yet. And you’re right. In this cast of unbelievably unsympathetic, but completely normal people, there’s this outrageous act of kindness that happens. And it’s this act that overshadows everything else. When Jesus comes to work things out with that scholar, he is all about actions not doctrines. “Who was the neighbour?” “The one who showed mercy.” “Right. Go and do likewise.”
We live in a society and amidst a world that loves to demonize people as “enemies” and “outcasts.” If you find yourself standing in the place of the Samaritan in the story this morning, that outsider who is always an outsider, the story is about to whom we will show kindness. In short it’s not about who is my neighbour, but to whom can I be one? If we are standing in the place of one of the two professionals or the victim, then it’s about who we’ll allow to be our neighbour? Or if we stand in the place of this lawyer, it’s about trying to stop being a neighbour to as few people as I can and still be in God’s good graces.
And yet, I have come to understand that this parable of Jesus is not designed to make us feel guilty about some incident in our past when we could have done better. The past is the past and cannot be undone. We’re better to get on with life. I also don’t think this parable is meant to be turned into a rule that I have to do every time or I’ll feel and be guilty before God. Making a religion of rules is as bad a mistake as we can make. I think that this parable challenges our basic stance, our attitude, our identity as “neighbour.” Are we willing to be one? To allow others to be one to us? The goal is the attitude of neighbourliness to those who aren’t (yet). Still, the way to change of stance and attitude is through actions, for it is easier to act our way into right thinking than to think our way into right acting, so that, rather than feeling guilty, the goal is simply not to wait for others to come around to my of thinking before acting as God acts towards garden variety others – I mean with grace and love and support and care.
The pinch is, “How can I act for the physical and spiritual health and healing of people who are not like I am (none of the people in the story are “like us”), simply not asking the question what these people can do to make themselves acceptable to me or to us before we act with outrageous love and grace? That’s the question. What’s the answer?
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.