I used to trap so many feral cats and get them fixed at Brady Vets that they finally gave me a special discount, called a “Good Samaritan” discount. The ‘Good Samaritan” - boy, hasn’t this become a well known phrase? There is the Good Sam RV club. There are countless hospitals and societies and even laws that bear the name Good Samaritan. So with this commonplace name, we hear this commonplace story.
This is a parable, not meant as a true story but meant to shock the listener into thinking in a different way. Let’s change it up a bit and see if we can hear it anew and as I tell it. I want you to think about who you would be in this story:
A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says; “You already know. You tell me.” So the lawyer quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all strength, and will all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies; “Good job. Do this and you shall live.” (Note that the lawyer wanted to inherit eternal life but Jesus just answers; “Do this and you shall live.”)
The lawyer wants more clarification; “Well, who is my neighbor?” Instead of giving him a straight answer, Jesus tells him a shocking story. (I’ll modernize it a bit so that it is a little more shocking to us.)
A man is walking through a dangerous neighborhood and gets mugged and is left naked and half dead by the side of the road. A holy man, let’s say, the Dalai Lama comes along but he crosses the street to avoid the hurt man and continues on his way. Soon another holy man, Pope Francis, comes along but he also crosses the street to avoid the man and walks on his way.
Then an armed man, a member of Al Qaeda comes along, and seeing the wounded man, he puts down his weapons, stops and helps him. He tenderly treats the poor man’s wounds, helps him to a hotel, stays with him and then goes to the front office and pays for two more nights.
Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three was the neighbor to the poor man?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says to him, “Go and do likewise.”
I know that my example is silly and not very apt, but I hope that you had at least a little moment of shock over the idea of an Al Qaeda member being the helpful one, being the merciful neighbor. Magnify your response and you get an idea of how shocking and even offensive it would have been for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of this story.
Just days before telling this story, in Luke 9:52, we read that when Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, he sent messengers ahead of him into a Samaritan village to prepare for his upcoming visit but the Samaritans would not offer him hospitality. The disciples James and John were incensed and asked Jesus, “Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven to burn them up? But Jesus said no. Imagine how jarring it was to those same disciples when Jesus uses a Samaritan as the example of the best person in his parable.
Why is it so shocking? Jews and Samaritans had a bitter history of racial and religious hatred. They had nothing to do with each other. They were enemies. In fact, the hurt man lying on the side of the road may not have even wanted help from a despised Samaritan. A Samaritan was viewed, well, like a member of Al Qaeda. But it is this Samaritan, despised and rejected, who was nevertheless moved with compassion and who tenderly cared for the injured man.
So, where did you find yourself in this story? I’m sorry to admit that I always see myself as the priest or the Levite, knowing in my heart that I really should stop and help this battered man by the side of the road but I’d likely be too focused on whatever I was doing to respond. I wonder if any of you related to the injured man, or the lawyer, or the Samaritan.
Some years ago an experiment was conducted with seminary students who were told that their assignment was to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry to that building. Unbeknownst to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering. The researchers wondered what would happen when the seminary students actually encountered a man in need? Would they be Good Samaritans? Well, no, they weren’t. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man's body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan!
‘Who is my neighbor?’ asks the lawyer. That question remains pertinent today doesn’t it? In the face of so many issues around immigration, we indeed ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ This was certainly a central question in the UK around the Brexit vote. ‘Who is my neighbor?’ raises questions about race and sexual preference and nationality.
We read Psalm 82 today, which tells us to “Save the weak and the orphan, defend the humble and needy; rescue the weak and the poor, deliver them from the power of the wicked.” John Dominic Crossen said this psalm is the most important passage in the entire Bible. What does justice look like? “Save the weak and the orphan. Defend the humble and the needy.” The Bible names the poor, orphan, widow, immigrant or stranger. Every single human life is to be valued in the kingdom of God. That is our charge. As Jesus told the lawyer, “do this and live.”
Martin Luther King wrote about the Good Samaritan. He described this very road from Jerusalem to Jericho as a perilous, steep and winding road and he could see why it was such a dangerous place. But he extended this lesson of this neighborly parable to society at large: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway… An edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Remember Mr. Rogers? His whole mission was to get people to think about being neighbors. And he sang every day, “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?”
For a while we had a neighbor who was pretty tough to love. He had served time in jail for dealing heroin, he had really sketchy looking friends, and from all the cars that stopped by his house for just a minute, I suspected that he was still dealing. I would often see him outside when I was walking home from church and it was like hitting myself on the head with a hammer: HE was my neighbor. So I always said ‘hi’ to him, I always smiled at him or praised him for the work he was doing on his house. He was my neighbor.
The whole point of the story is that neighborliness is defined by compassion - compassion for all of humanity. In the face of so much strife and dissension in our country, maybe the first step toward peace is this simple. We just need to remember this: all people, especially people who are different than you, all people are our neighbors. This may be hard to do but that’s why we have God. We can strive toward this goal of loving all of our neighbors … with God’s help. Amen.