Scripture – Luke 10:25-37 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 10, 2016
Well! This is an easy one to understand, this Parable of the Good Samaritan. Pretty straightforward – not like some of those other stories Jesus tells to illustrate his points: like burying talents in the ground or bridesmaids with lamps going out or vineyard managers or millstones around the neck. We get this one: love your neighbor as yourself and put that love into action. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.
We can even understand how we must interpret “Who is my neighbor?” for ourselves today. As we have become more globally-minded, we know our neighbors do not just live on our street or belong to our religion. As we have increased our knowledge about the interdependence within our ecological system on the planet Earth, we have come to understand that our care and compassion must extend to all God’s creatures from plankton to pelicans to panthers – all of them our neighbors. We like to think we get this one…but, my friends, it is precisely in its simplicity that this parable begs for deeper analysis to find the reasons why time and time again we do not live it.
Let’s start with the victim. Jesus describes him only as “a man”, but…wait a minute, a man “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” A man, traveling alone on an 18-mile stretch of notoriously dangerous road leading away from the familiar territory of Jerusalem and the protections of home. Well, c’mon, what did he expect? What was he doing on that road in the first place? Asking for trouble apparently. Come to think of it, what was he up to after dark in an alley in Hartford anyway? What was she thinking to get in the car with him? Why was he carrying all that cash? Whatever possessed her to walk across campus alone after midnight? Well, he was a drug addict. Did you see what she was wearing? I mean…c’mon.
So often, rather than viewing the victim – stripped of possessions and clothing, beaten up and lying half dead on the road – rather than viewing the victim with compassion and mercy, we blame. We clothe ourselves in our racial bias, our gender bias; we put on the layers of all our assumptions about behavior and “those people” and, upon encountering a victim stripped of everything, including their dignity, we throw over them the blankets of blame and some kind of ignorant justification for why they’re in the situation they’re in. The victim may be lying bleeding and naked; but we’re wrapped up to our necks with all the reasons why. Hard to show mercy when we don’t think it’s deserved.
So a priest goes by and a Levite goes by and they don’t just go by: they cross to the other side and go by. This is not walking along and being so preoccupied that we don’t notice. This is noticing and crossing to the other side to avoid. Translations indicate these positions of priest and Levite are akin to the senior pastor and the deacon, passing by on the other side wrapped up maybe in self-importance? Busy schedules? Ritual excuses about blood? Maybe some of those same victim-blaming layers…like he should’ve known better….
Thankfully, we do not usually encounter abandoned half-dead bloody bodies in our daily round but there are certainly a host of other people walking around stripped of what they need to be considered whole in our culture. So we throw on an additional set of layers: I didn’t have any cash on me. If I had stopped, I would have missed the train. Did you see her teeth? And the most offensive to those living on the streets, which our youth will learn this week: Keep walking – don’t make eye contact. I don’t see you. You don’t exist. Your problems are your own. I don’t want to see you or be near you, so I’m crossing to the other side to pass by.
Now, two thousand years later, it may be lost on us the significance of a Samaritan being the one to stop and help. We’re so used to hearing that term in a positive context because of this parable. But Rev. Kate Huey of the United Church of Christ writes of Jesus’ listeners’ stomachs churning as they listen to his story, their hatred for Samaritans so strong, so ingrained, so widely held. Given their disdain for the temple religious hierarchy, they may have nodded in mutual expectation about the priest and Levite passing by, like any other clueless elite, “figures”, but a Samaritan stopping to help? A Samaritan who showed up stripped of the protective clothing of self-proclaimed busyness, stripped of the attitudes of “he’ll probably die anyway” or “I dare not get involved or I’ll put myself in danger” or “oh…one of them.”
The Samaritan was the least expected to show compassion and mercy to a man from Jerusalem. Not only does he allow himself to go near, the Samaritan goes over the top: he administers antiseptic in the form of wine, salve in the form of oil, bandages the wounds, lifts him up, puts him on his own animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him there and then leaves what amounts to 2 days’ wages with the innkeeper to keep up his care until he returns, promising to pay the difference if it ends up costing more.
Jesus’ listeners would find it extremely surprising that a Samaritan would show mercy, especially to one of them. It would be helpful to look at who might surprise us in this Samaritan role and peel off those layers as we examine our expectations around compassion and mercy. Instead of a Samaritan, today an ex-con, an ex-con sex offender, a rival gang member, an undocumented immigrant, a celebrity, a sex worker…I’m afraid we might have a long list of people who would surprise us by showing compassion and mercy, including those we would deem as incapable. The very teenagers giving up a week of their summer to express their compassion are of the same wider group who are often dubbed by others as selfish or clueless or self-absorbed or too busy ramping up their resumes. And because of the wrong kind of media attention today, we Christians are viewed by many like the priest and the Levite, more concerned with morals and judgment and literal biblical minutia and who’s saved and who’s not than modeling the compassion of Jesus and truly living as he taught.
My friends, we know what happens when we have too many clothes on, too many layers: we can’t move. We might be protected from the elements of responsibility but we end up covered from head to toe in blaming and fear and biases and assumptions and foregone conclusions, so much so that we literally cannot move. We can’t bend down to comfort, we can’t lift up to heal, we can’t run to the side of others who so desperately need our help and we cannot stand in solidarity with the robbed, the beaten down and those whose lives don’t seem to matter and they should and they do.
So today I’m going to say to you something that you may not hear often from the lips of a Christian minister: take it all off. Let us strip ourselves from the judgment and the jadedness, from the blaming and the bias, from the fear and the ignorance and let us become the least expected. The teenager who will look right into the eyes of the homeless mother he meets this week in Boston. The Christian who will let go of difference and dogma and act freely with love.
Let us be the ones who surprise with kindness. Let us go over the top with providing care and support, especially to those who are continually ignored and left behind and worse. Let us not only easily understand this parable, but let us easily “go and do likewise” in today’s world, revealing the compassion we have hidden under all our layers. Yes, let’s take it all off, my friends, and let’s get moving. Amen.