Proper 10C 2016 Luke 10:25-37
We all know the story. In fact ask a Christian to state the essence of Christianity and those who point to this parable of the Good Samaritan would not be too far off. However there is this tendency to reduce the parable to simplistic terms such as “be nice like the Samaritan, not nasty like the priest!” And after a while these kinds of do-good sermons hold nothing new, nothing powerful. So what if we were to explore a different meaning today—perhaps something revelatory about ourselves?
To begin with, some don’t like the do-good name of the parable, “The Good Samaritan” and suggest that it would be better to call it “The Man Saved by an Enemy.” For that is exactly what happens. And to achieve its full shock value in our culture we might substitute the word “Samaritan” for words such as “Blacks”, “Muslim”, “homosexual”, “punk,” “transgendered”, “homeless, or atheist.” Pick any group you avoid that offends you or troubles you and stay with that name as you think about this parable.
In Jesus’ day it was the Jews that hated the Samaritans and the Samaritans who hated the Jews. Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be religious and social outcasts, unclean and heretical. The feelings of hatred ran deep. But this morning we hear a parable in which something surprising occurs between these enemies. In this parable, as in many that Jesus tells, the unexpected, the unbelievable happens. In this parable it is the enemy who is the savior—not the priest, not the Levite. The Savior is one of the outcast, the despised, an outsider, the last person you would think of to be the Savior.
Looking back at why Jesus tells this story in the first place we see Jesus talking to a lawyer. It is clear this man knows the law—that is the Law of Moses. Like most of us, he is concerned with keeping a right relationship with God and neighbor. The lawyer, like us, wants to feel good about himself and to please God. He wants to know that what he’s doing is good enough to receive eternal life. But also like most of us, I suspect, he wants to justify himself and his behavior. By doing so, he sets up a barrier for any new understanding.
To break down this barrier and to challenge the lawyer’s way of thinking, Jesus tells a story. “A certain man,” Jesus says, “went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and on the way he fell among thieves who stripped him and beat him up and went away, leaving him half dead.”
It’s important to know that the road to Jericho doesn’t run through comfortable, familiar territory. Instead, travelers to Jericho find themselves on dangerous ground, rocky roads, and often, are alone. It would have been much safer to stay home in Jerusalem, with one's own people, surrounded by the temple and the walls of the city and a familiar community that provide what's needed, including a safety net if anything goes wrong.
Surely the traveler in Jesus’ story was a little nervous on that road from Jerusalem to Jericho.As it turns out his worst fears are realized when bandits beat him and rob him and leave him for dead; stripped naked and bleeding by the road. What a nightmare, lying there, just hoping and praying that someone will come and help…and then, Jesus says, along came a priest.
Surely the priest will help. But that’s not what happens. What happens is that when help is needed it is not the good, the respectable who help but the unexpected—the despised Samaritan (the Muslim, transgendered woman, black man, punk kid) who lays down their life for someone who isn't even a friend but to someone who is simply in need. “Go and do likewise”, says Jesus.
It’s a shocker all right and we want to know why—why the seemingly good ones kept on walking while the one we might have expected to turn away, doesn’t. Well, the text lays it all out. The clue is the same as those three things most important in real estate—“location, location, location.” Now pay attention to how the text relates the location of each traveler—reveals how close each one comes to the man in trouble.
“By chance,” says Jesus, “a priest also is going down that road and when he sees the man, passes by on the other side.” The implication being as soon as the priest can see there’s trouble ahead, he makes as wide a berth as possible. Seemingly saying to himself, “I don’t want to know; it’s none of my business; I’m already late.” “Soon,” Jesus continues, “a Levite comes along, and unlike the priest who takes the long route to avoid what’s up ahead, the Levite actually comes to the location of the man, sees the man…but, then (curiosity satisfied) he, too, passes by on the other side. “But,” Jesus goes on, “a Samaritan on his way down that road, doesn't make a detour, doesn't just come to the place, but, the text says he comes to where the man is. Looking at the man, seeing his woundedness, and his abandonment the Samaritan is moved to help. Interestingly in Greek, “neighbor” means “one who comes near.” Where one stands does make a difference—all the difference.
With the story ended, Jesus asks the lawyer, “That day, on that road, of the three who came by, who do you think was the neighbor?” “Why, the one who showed mercy.” Though the lawyer can’t bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan,” he knows the answer. Jesus has made his point. The neighbor is the Samaritan, the one who came close, close enough to see, close enough to care, close enough to act.
Dallas. St. Paul. Baton Rouge. Orlando. Ferguson. Charleston. City after city, gun violence, racial hatred, the enemy—black, white, brown; Muslim, Christian, gay, straight, transgendered. Where do you stand? Are you the “can’t be bothered” priest? The curious but non-committal Levite? Or are you the Samaritan, the would-be enemy, who takes a bold stand for justice and gets intimately involved with those who are hurting?
Ultimately, I think we are to be like the Samaritan. That is…caring and compassionate, indiscriminate in our response to those in need, keenly aware of the barriers we build between persons but courageous enough to break them down. I believe the way Jesus wants us to be a neighbor is by first identifying with those who are being hurt and wounded. To put ourselves in their shoes. To imagine the suffering, the indignation, the injustice. You see, it’s all too easy to stroll out of this church building with our good intentions and niceness, our random acts of kindness, our good deeds yet never really be neighbors. Preferring emotional distance rather than intimacy; staying crazy busy; pretending not to notice are all justifications for being cut off from our neighbors. I know because sometimes I do just this.
But to really be Samaritans, to be a neighbor, says Jesus, first see yourself as the one lying there in the road stripped and beaten. Know that you aren't so different from others—you are in need as well. We all are broken. We all are in need of grace. And we are all longing to be in relationship with others.
So I wonder, who are the people we have been afraid of, suspicious of? Who do we keep at a distance or shut out completely? I wonder if they are the Samaritans who, if we but welcome them into our lives and hearts, might teach us something about ourselves and God.
I wonder what needs to change in my heart, in your heart, in the heart of this church so that we might let someone, or something unexpected change us into being more courageous, more committed in taking a stand for justice? On our journey together what prejudices weigh us down and what fears hinder our willingness to get close to others? What selfish desires keep us from being open and vulnerable to help others?
What we’re not told is the rest of the story. For example, what happened to the traveler after he parted ways with the Samaritan? Once his wounds were healed and his family came to get him and he went home to the security and comfort of life among his own kind, his own community of care, I wonder if he still laughed at "Samaritan jokes." Did he turn the other way when someone said unkind things about Samaritans or treated them cruelly? I wonder if his heart was broken open, permanently, long after his broken bones were healed, and with an open heart he then became one who worked to break down barriers between his people and the enemy. I just wonder.
Dallas. St. Paul. Baton Rouge. Orlando. Ferguson. Charleston. Gun violence, racial bigotry, religious hatred, and homophobia. Where do you stand? How is God leading you/us to act against these injustices?
For our enemies let us pray:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sermon sources: “Meeting the Good Samaritan” sermon by Tom Long; commentary in Feasting on the Word by James Wallace and Cynthia Jarvis; commentary by Kathryn Matthews Huey in “Sermon Seeds”; commentary by Robert Capon in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment; Sermon ideas for Luke 10:25-37 by Donald G. Dawes; Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 by James Love.