Pentecost 5 Sermon, July 10, 2022
When we hear these very familiar readings it can be hard to really listen to them. This is a parable, not meant as a true story but meant to shock the listener into thinking in a different way. But when you just heard this gospel, did you feel shocked? Let me change it up a bit and see if we can hear it anew as I tell it.
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.
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 and goes on his way. Soon Pope Francis, comes along but he also crosses the street to avoid the man and hurries away.
Then a heavily armed man, a white supremacist 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 hope that you had at least a little moment of shock over the idea of a white supremacist 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.
We recently read that when Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, his disciples encountered a Samaritan village that would not offer them hospitality. They told Jesus that they wanted to rain fire down on the Samaritans. 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. But it is this Samaritan, despised and rejected, who was nevertheless moved with compassion and who tenderly cared for the injured man.
Where did you find yourself in this story? I wonder if any of you related to the injured man, or the lawyer, or the Samaritan. 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, but I’d likely be too focused on whatever I was doing to stop. I’d hope that someone else would step up.
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. Now they were seminary students so they knew this story really, really well. 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 record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan!
‘Who is my neighbor?’ asks the lawyer. He’s a lawyer, after all, and wants to be clear about exactly to whom he must show mercy. That question remains pertinent today, doesn’t it? In the face of so much polarization, we indeed ask, ‘Who is my neighbor? On a bike ride recently, I saw a man next to his vehicle which was plastered with a confederate flag and other offensive stickers. We nodded to each other, but do we have to be neighbors? This question illuminates differences over race, sexual preference, political party and nationality.
When we taught this lesson in church school, there was often a very valuable discussion about exactly what children and all of us could do to emulate the Good Samaritan and help strangers in need. We talked about risk and safety. We agreed that maybe calling 911 was a good idea. Or, in another situation, maybe just looking into the eyes of the person living on the street and saying hello would be a way to show mercy.
David Lose points out that Jesus casts a Samaritan, hated and reviled by his listeners, to act as Jesus himself would have acted in that situation. This parable is telling us to look for God in the most unlikely people, in the most unlikely places. We need to look for the presence of God in our neighbors and we need to look even harder for the presence of God in our enemies.
Because God comes when and where we least expect it. Because God comes for ALL. No one is beyond the reach of God’s love and mercy. That’s what God does: God chooses people no one expects and does amazing things through them. Even a Samaritan. Even our enemies. Even me. Even you.
Now let us pray: Jesus, help us to be your feet walking beside those in need. Help us to be your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. Help us be the ones who show mercy in our daily lives. Lord, hear our prayer.