Who are you in the Good Samaritan story?
In our gospel lesson today a man asked Jesus what we need to do to get to heaven. And Jesus told the man that all he needed to do to get to heaven was to love God. Love God. That’s pretty easy, right? We come to church, we sing, we love God, we go home.
But Jesus said, “Wait a minute. If you love God, you also love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”
I’ll bet that man who was talking to Jesus thought, “OK, so this is a bit harder. To love God we have to do something after we get home from church, too. We have to love our neighbors.” So the man asked Jesus, “OK, who is my neighbor?”
I’ll bet that YOU know who your neighbor is. What’s a neighbor? Who’s YOUR neighbor? [Person right next to us]
So Jesus told the man a story—the story you are going to hear in Sunday School today. Jesus’ s answer is that EVERYONE is our neighbor. Can you believe that? Jesus wants us to love EVERYONE. Not just those who we like. Not just those who are like us. EVERYONE.
Do you think that it matters if they are good or bad? Should we love them anyway?
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So, “Who are you in the Good Samaritan story?”
Are you the victim, that unfortunate fellow who got robbed, stripped naked, beaten to a pulp, and left for dead at the side of the road? If so, are you a “good” victim, or a bad victim?
Are you one of the religious professionals who, for whatever reason, passed by the victim who was so obviously in need at the side of the road? If so, are you a “good” passerby, or a bad passerby?
Are you the Samaritan, the despised person who somehow taps into Christ’s own love and shares that love and compassion profligately, who somehow shares Christ’s love so heroically that we all (even today) call someone who acts in this way a Samaritan? If so, are YOU a “good” Samaritan, or a bad Samaritan?
I know you aren’t Jesus—that role’s been taken already, once and for all. But maybe YOU are the lawyer, the one who tried to justify himself to Jesus. I have to confess that I want to be the Samaritan—a Good Samaritan—but sometimes I act more like the lawyer.
Before I went to seminary, for instance, I worked in the office of a large downtown church that was right next to a Metro station. There were a LOT of homeless people in that area, especially because the church ran a lunchtime Food Pantry and a local nonprofit served dinner there.
One day, when I arrived at this church, I discovered that one of the homeless women—let’s call her Amy (yes, Amy; that name means “beloved by God”). Amy had slept in and had seriously fouled the entryway to the church offices. Now if I had been a Good Samaritan, the kind of person whom Jesus talked about in today’s gospel lesson, what would I have done? Any ideas?
Yep. That’s kind of what the schizophrenic woman did who lived in the bushes. This profoundly ill woman (who was Muslim) used her own clothes to scrub all the—um—stuff off the woman and gave Amy her only blanket. She did this as I called the police.
Now, wishing to justify myself, let me add that this was no stranger who landed at the door of the church. Amy was a woman against whom the church had taken out a restraining order barring her from the premises. She regularly threatened the Food Pantry volunteers. What she demanded was money,” to buy soda,” she said, claiming that she was allergic to water. What she wanted was another kind of six-pack. Amy got her money by turning tricks on the street corner.
Now I ask you, what kind of God would insist that the Amys of this world are as beloved in his sight as everyone else? Isn’t there a LAW against what Amy was doing? Aren’t I, myself, really GOOD at following the Law?
Our gospel lesson today addresses these questions. The Samaritan wasn’t good because of who he was or what he knew. He wasn’t good because of what he did for a living. Instead, the Samaritan was good (possibly DESPITE all of these things) because of what he did when he encountered a person in need. This person—who happened to be a Samaritan—showed compassion to the naked and bloody mess of a man at the side of the road, and acted as Jesus would have US act.
Did you notice that the scripture text never labels the Samaritan “good?” WE are the ones who recognize how extraordinary this person’s actions were, and call him “good.” We are the ones who make the value judgments. WE call the Samaritan “good.”
The reality was, in Jesus’ day (if not also in our own), that all Jews would have a hard time thinking of the Samaritan—ANY Samaritan—as “good.” And the Samaritans weren’t very fond of those who worshiped in Jerusalem, either (so the feeling was mutual). We can’t really grasp the point of Jesus’ parable unless we fully grasp this point. The one person who showed compassion as Christ would have us show compassion, was not at all naturally simpatico with the one he helped (and vice versa).
How can we depict this today? Maybe if we visualize the Samaritan as an Al Qaeda terrorist and the one he helped a Jewish Rabbi. Maybe—to bring the example closer to home—if we recognize the Samaritan as Sarah Palin and the man in the ditch as Barack Obama (or the other way around). Or maybe, as I told you about at the start of this sermon, the person in need was a homeless drunk and the would-be Samaritan a sorry Christian.
Have you noticed what I am doing here—what we humans always do here—we begin to make value judgments about the people involved before we decide what actions are appropriate. What Jesus’ parable insists that we do is act as if the other person were just like us (because, after all, the other person IS just like us); we are all absolutely loved by God.
We KNOW what Jesus would have us do. The problem is that all too often, like the lawyer in today’s parable, we justify ourselves at the expense of The Other. The renowned Hindu Mahatma Ghandi once famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
All Christians (at least the ones in India at the turn of the 20th century) were indicted by the Hindu man, the one who somehow managed to tap into and be a vehicle for Christ’s love, even while not proclaiming Christ the way we would want him to. I was indicted by a Muslim woman, one who somehow managed to tap into and be a vehicle for Christ’s love, even while not proclaiming Christ the way we would want her to. Who indicts you?
Maybe Jesus’ parable today indicts us all. The point that Jesus was making had very little to do with the two people who encountered each other on the road to Jericho. Jesus’ point was directed at a person—the lawyer—who wished to justify himself before God by asking who our neighbor was. The lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is this neighbor whom scripture tells us we are to love as much as we love ourselves—as much as Christ loves us?”
So, I ask again, “Who are YOU in the Good Samaritan story?” I think that we all are the lawyer, each and every one of us. We may like being the victim, like being taken care of. Usually, though, we intend to be—we strive to be—the Good Samaritan, the one who somehow tapped into Jesus Christ’s compassion for us all, and shared that love with everyone they met, no questions asked and no judgments made.
As always, I preach first and foremost to myself, in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.