*Preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, on 14 July 2019. I admit, I did feel this familiar text more painfully than usual, given it’s on a day when there is a nationwide sweep being conducted. (I fear that particular discussion has been caught up in what is “legal” instead of what is “humane.”) When it comes to the story of the “Good Samaritan,” whether we look at what is a pretty divisive issue in our nation as to those seeking asylum… or our little part of the neighborhood… we cannot miss that the Word of God, over and over, expresses specific concern for the stranger and alien, whoever they happen to be or to represent (see Deuteronomy 10:18-19). As a people of faith, we would do well to consider our Biblical roots… whether standing behind someone who is short on money at the grocery check-out line or in looking at larger issues of in our society. In the end, each person is, without exception, a child of God.
The Gospel of Luke 10:25-37 (New Revised Standard Version)
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In the long journey of my years in ministry, my training as a clinician, and processing adventures in life, I have concluded there are two forms of trauma which can afflict one’s body, mind and/or spirit – and they are abandonment and abuse. In this story of grace, read from the Gospel this morning, the victim is unnamed and silent, but we know by inference he is a male Jew. That’s it. Abused, he had been set upon, beaten, robbed, and cast to the side of the road.
There are many ways to unpack this well-known story. We can talk about how folks get so caught up in their “religious” work, like his fellow Jews – a priest and a senior layperson at the temple, who miss that the truest worship of God are those actions that lift up the downtrodden. We can talk about the narrative being about a “Good Samaritan” as if he was somehow an aberration in what is a thinly disguised form of racism – something our society wrestles with as well. But let’s start with what’s most obvious – a man abused and in severely dire straits is abandoned by those who walk on by. Left behind, be it malice or not, this stands as a searing discount of the value of a life. It happens all the time, all around us, sometimes to the point where it isn’t seen.
Like the plumb line that the Prophet Amos spoke of centuries before, one set “in the midst of my people Israel” [Amos 7:8], Jesus is dropping a plumb line amid this parable as he responded to the lawyer. He does so while standing amid his own followers, this having taken place shortly after they had experienced a rather inhospitable reception in a Samaritan village. In the intentional way of Luke, this is no accidental placement. We might recall the brothers Zebedee, James and John, also known by Jesus as “the sons of thunder,” had actually asked Jesus to set fire to that village, out of their aggrieved sense of offense.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
I would suspect they did not realize Jesus is using the lawyer to teach his own disciples, even as he used them on occasion to teach the crowds. Asked to the effect, “How do you interpret the law to others?,” the real question in this parable is: how do we interpret the Lord’s grace for others?
Luke is, after all, a doctor, and we know how doctors just love lawyers! As the one Gospel author who often portrays lawyers in a bad light (try nine times!), there is a richness of irony in the telling. Someone well-versed in debate, educated to parse words and nail down details, is used to air out prejudice and see the larger view of God.
Reciting the words of the Shema, a twice-a-day prayer, the lawyer adds the command from Leviticus 19:18, as to loving “one’s neighbor as oneself.” Unsaid, is the rest of the direction of the Lord in this passage from Leviticus as to why one should “love your neighbor as yourself,” it is because “I am the LORD… When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
It really is a commendable response, as Jesus himself notes. Nowhere before are these two commandments joined as one in scripture, and the lawyer is absolutely correct. But, have you ever noticed how when someone is really pleased with themselves, they will say that one word too many that just undoes everything? I know I’ve been there, just ask Julie! So the lawyer asked, “But who IS MY NEIGHBOR?” Reading between the lines, it’s like saying: “I am all about loving my neighbor as myself, Jesus, but not the wrong neighbor. Rabbi, can you help me out by specifying exactly who I have to help and who I can just ignore? What is the limit of my responsibility?”
What is ours indeed?
There is the implication of his hope the answer will be “People that look like and worship like me… fellow citizens of religious and tribal identity… people of purity, you know… the ones who I think belong here.” But can compassion be limited only to those for whom there is an established legal relationship? Just fellow citizens of the kingdom? Just fellow citizens of the nation? It is an interesting question whether we are talking about the people in Hampton and Newport News, or the imprisoned children on the border. You see, it is the Living Word of God because it is always relevant to what is happening around us, not just a couple millennium ago as if a just a history lesson.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus always knew what folk were really thinking? Here he responds with a story and then asks the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think WAS A NEIGHBOR?” He is asking of the man, “Who did you see that demonstrated what it LOOKS LIKE to be a neighbor?” In the Kingdom of God perspective, neighbor is not a matter of the identity of the other, but instead, of owning identification with the values of the love we experience in Christ. It’s a love that knows no boundaries, and which sets no limits on the grace flowing through some surprising and unanticipated places into the lives of those we’d not expect.
In an age when people are as quickly offended as James and John, and just as ready to call down fire on those they don’t like, an age that leaves me thinking if Jesus encountered Jewish Nationalism back then, now Jesus would run into the hardness of Christian Nationalism – a subservience of the faith to the technicalities of the law, instead of embracing what is the highest responsibility. To be blunt, it’s wanting to know the restrictive limits of one’s duty to be compassionate, while Jesus points to living in the spirit of God’s kingdom as honoring God with an expansive understanding of “neighbor.”
It is hearing Jesus ask us to hold this vision: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me?”
It’s really that simple.
The Samaritan gets it. Not for any other reason but to address human need, he responds to the needs of the man in the ditch, actions that cost him time and money. Willingly. There’s no mistaking the first two who came by expanded the distance between themselves and the hapless fellow in the ditch, rather than coming near… to be a neighbor. Yet to his listeners, Jesus portrayed what is a “good” Samaritan”- an oxymoron to a first century Jew – making the marginalized as the compassionate, the abused as the caregiver, the abandoned as the present, and the stranger as the generous.
We have no idea why the man had been beaten or mugged. Things happen and often there is no connection to any kind of justice we can see. People have strokes, get cancer, have epilepsy, struggle with depression, are abused and abandoned – all, like Job on down, through no fault of their own. Life just happens. Good or bad. It just IS. We don’t always know the why.
If “Neighbor” is rooted in the same word that means “to be near,” we would rightly hear Jesus’ question as: “Who is the one who comes near when there is suffering? THAT is the neighbor!” And this, my friends, is really God’s value system, the very thing we see in Jesus. Now think about a recent study by the Barna Institute which found that “although many of the churchless hold positive views of churches, a substantial number also have no idea what Christians have accomplished in the nation, either for the better or for the worse. When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community…” And then there is this…. If half of the unchurched could not name any contribution of Christians to the common good, among those who could it was seeing the poor being served, disadvantaged welcomed, the extension of love to those in one of the many kinds of ditches of life.
If the parable has elements of being a cautionary tale about justifying ourselves and watering down the concept of “Who is my neighbor,” it also unveils the need among the Jewish hearers to be “healed” of their prejudice. In their case, a prejudice against Samaritans, by the setting aside the misuse of scriptural “laws” that create barriers to compassion.
So what do we make of all of this?
In this upside-down kingdom, Jesus calls each one to strip away our self-delusions, and reveals how the ideology of tribalism which is an age-old affliction of humanity, is to be countered by the vision of faith. There is no us and them, not in the realm of Jesus Christ; his own death is meant as the destruction of divisiveness, such that grace would grow where separation once ruled. This is something we must ponder in personal and public life, the choices we make on a daily basis to see and to care for individuals, but also how we would influence our society.
All of this brings me back to something I noticed the evening we had our Welcome Table picnic. It seemed a small thing, if a bit disconcerting. Connie had everyone draw a number and sit at that table’s number. She mixed us all up! Church members, husbands and wives, kids, sailors, neighbors. All of us sitting in new patterns. She busted up our little tribes! It seems to me this is what Jesus is talking about, shattering such patterns in all of life, inviting us to sit with strangers as much as friends, inviting us to the discovery of each other’s stories, pulling down walls, inviting us to see one another.
We need to be – we must be – shaken up regularly, that love would abound.
Source: “Five Trends Among the Unchurched Research,” Barna Institute, 09 October 2014. Accessed on 13 July 2019 at: https://www.barna.com/research/five-trends-among-the-unchurched/
The concern for the stranger and alien is a repeated theme throughout the Bible. When speaking through Moses, God makes very clear that God “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [Deuteronomy 10:18-19].
The mercy of the Kingdom of God often comes only to those who seemingly have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes. The paradox is that the very one who is beaten and abandoned is the one who most experiences the kingdom of God. As it has been said: “The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy” [Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom, p. 29]. In the kingdom, mercy is always a surprise.
Bernard Brandon Scott. “Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom,” p. 29.