Kenyatta R. Gilbert noted [Sojourners July 2019] “The social pariah next door may be our window of hope when we are left for dead.” Last week our readings spoke of anonymous folks who saved the day and Paul admonished us to help our fellow Christians who slip up. The priest and the Levite in today’s Gospel parable slipped up. The Samaritan recognized that the person in front of him was his neighbor and acted in mercy.
The priest was likely thinking of his liturgical duties when he moved to the other side of the road and walked by the wounded man at the road. The Levite also had his own issues. Maybe the person wasn’t really hurt, maybe there were bandits hiding nearby who would jump him when he stopped. These days when we see someone stopped at the side of the road, we assume they will use their cell phone and get help. On Monday when I went down to the river camp, I stopped to verify that a man sleeping out in the open was still breathing. He had a spot setup just no cover. I couldn’t just walk past even though I hated to disturb him.
Barclay claims no one would travel the road between Jerusalem and Jericho alone, yet we have this story with four people doing so. Historically, even into the 20th century, the road was considered unsafe. Today it just depends upon how much you trust the Bedouins. Mainly, they just want to sell you things and you can pay to have your picture taken with a camel. I have not been on the road in the valley only on a hill above it.
So, you might ask, why does the Good Samaritan, who is elevated from social pariah to sainthood by Jesus-why does this man remind me of Spiderman? I think both accounts give us some guidance to how we should live our lives.
I specifically am thinking of Spiderman 2 but I think the portrayals of Peter Parker, for the most part, are similar. Peter Parker is like us in that we all live our lives swapping between the attitudes of the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan as Jesus presented them in this story. We are all capable of deep compassion and acting on it. We also slip up a lot.
In the movie, Peter is torn. He is compelled to use his superpowers for good. The problem is//he is up all night chasing ambulances. Also, out of fear for her safety, he has given up a relationship with the woman he loves. Peter is worn out. He is failing his college courses, he gets fired from his pizza delivery job, and he is behind on his rent. As he begins to doubt his dedication to use his powers for good, his powers begin to fade. Peter has worked very hard and used himself up being the Good Samaritan. And, he gets no credit for it. No one is patting him on the back; the press calls him a menace.
Peter waivers in his dedication. As his powers fade, he is relieved he no longer has to respond to every danger on the city streets. He no longer has superpowers so he feels absolved from having to care anymore. He becomes like the priest, he allows his need to do schoolwork and his other obligations to keep him from helping anyone in trouble.
There is a scene in the film that is much like the priest or the Levite passing by the wounded man. Peter is walking by an alleyway and he sees three men beating up another man. The victim is screaming for help. Peter hesitates; he wants to do something. Then he remembers his superpowers are gone and with a pained and conflicted expression, he turns and walks on down the street.
Eventually, Peter can’t resist trying to help and regains his powers. I like Spiderman/Peter. He isn’t perfect and he has no clue what he is doing most of the time. Yet, he keeps doing what he feels is right.
I find joy in looking at secular media to see if I can find God there. Does the writer of Spiderman stories have a theological base? Probably not. The moral of these stories is: Stand against injustice but also do something about it. And, if you don’t use your ability to do good, you will lose that ability. You may have a carefree life, but you won’t feel right within yourself.
I think Jesus’ story runs parallel. Peter Parker sees the whole city as his neighborhood. Jesus is saying everyone is our neighbor.
The shock in Jesus’ story is that compassion for someone came from a Samaritan. The shock in the Spiderman 2 film comes when Spiderman is unmasked and the people around him say, “Man, he’s just a kid.” Help can come from unlikely people: “The social pariah next door may be our window of hope when we are left for dead.” While it is common to paint someone as completely evil, or completely lazy, or completely dependent or a loser; there is more than meets the eye.
Our congregation supports Chaplains on the Harbor and we work with many people who live on the edge-social pariahs. I use our discretionary fund to buy books for folks in jail and to put gasoline in people’s vehicles-like the other day for the woman who was using her truck to move people out of the river camp. She has no income, has been refused disability, and had used the gasoline she had to help. An unexpected Samaritan. I came along at just the right time-I know her daughter and that is who asked me to help. She only wanted what she needed to haul away the campers she had promised to help. I gave her extra gasoline because God is about abundance. The Samaritan not only bound the wounds he also took the man to safety and paid for his care and housing.
It has been a long week and the coming week will be a long week. Folks are in turmoil and I have been going out as others have, exercising my ability to be compassionate. I don’t go out with much in the way of resources but we can all do these things: Listen-it’s an act of compassion. Bind up wounds-it’s an act of compassion. Pumping someone’s gas-is an act of compassion. Making eye contact-I see you-is an act of compassion. Recognizing someone’s humanity-is an act of compassion. Accepting hospitality from an unlikely place is an act of compassion. Looking for Christ in the face of a stranger is an act of compassion. We all sometimes are like the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan depending on the occasion and the circumstance. Recognizing that sometimes we slip up and can learn from the experience is an act of compassion for ourselves. Don’t burn out, collaborate. Act with compassion and allow others to help so they can exercise their mercy muscles. Because, “the social pariah next door may be our window of hope…”