July 10, 2016
William G. Carter
This is a favorite story. Many of us have heard Jesus tell it a hundred times. It’s a story about taking care of one another, especially taking care of those who are beaten up and left by the side of the road.
That's the usual takeaway lesson: Be merciful to those who are victims of violence. It is the good advice of kindness. Show compassion to one another. Act like the merciful man in our story and you will live. Not only that, others will live because of you. This is the obvious lesson. It can be sanded down for children, and we can tell them, “Be nice.”
So we have Good Samaritan hospitals, Good Samaritan counseling clinics, and Good Sam travel clubs for those who break down on the road. Even President George W. Bush in his first inaugural address, declared to the troubled Middle East, “We aren't going to leave anybody lying by the road.”
These are nice thoughts that can lead to charitable actions. So nice and charitable, that we may not realize how we have softened this parable for the suburbs. As we tell it, it resembles nothing of the original setting.
Before the tale unfolds, we hear about a lawyer who wants to pounce on Jesus. “Just then” he asks a question about the Jewish law – which law? Which commandment? Jesus is adept at playing the game this shyster wants to play and tosses it back in his lap – how do you read your own Bible?
The lawyer says it’s all about loving God and loving your neighbor. He’s right! It all comes to that. Nobody outruns the two-fold obligation to love.
But this lawyer is pushy, so he pushes some more. He really wants to test Jesus, so he can jump on the first wrong answer. Like every good Jew, Jesus answered his question with a question, so the lawyer comes back with a third question: “So who is my neighbor?” Who, indeed?
On the surface, that’s a stupid question. The neighbor is the one right in front of you, or across the street, or over the hedge. That’s the definition of a neighbor. But do we know these people? And if we know them, can we like them?
When I lived for nine years in Newton Township, my neighbors were the people across the field that lived in the farmhouse. I never did learn their names. They were too private to put more than a number on their mailbox. We rarely saw them come and go. If I had ever passed by them on the road, I wouldn't know who they were.
On the other side of my property, my neighbor was a retired civil servant. I was still unpacking moving boxes when he knocked on the door. “My name is Frank,” he said. Then he added, “You're the minister?” Well, yes, but I hadn't told him that. He seemed to know. Frank said, “We stick to ourselves out here.” He turned to leave, and then he looked over his shoulder to say, “By the way, your septic tank is spilling onto my back lot.”
Who is my neighbor? Apparently we have more neighbors than we realize. Could it be the gruff old man who defined the property line and doesn’t want your sewage fertilizing his field of weeds? Or maybe it's the internet troll who posts something offensive on Facebook and it makes you so mad. He’s your neighbor too. Or perhaps the family member that you don't speak with anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, they are the troubled souls who strike out in violence, maybe because they were victims of violence themselves. Are these people our neighbors?
This week, I think I was able to name the biggest problem that we have in America. We are confused about who our neighbors really are. We will acknowledge them if they are like us in every way. If they are like us, we might even come to love them. But they are not like us, are they still our neighbors? And are we still under any obligation to love them?
Many years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah pulled together some colleagues. They wanted to study American life and describe what was happening to our country. It was around the time that gated communities were getting popular, around the time when private schools were on the rise. They asked what’s going on. They noticed how like-minded people tended to clump together and how they subtly excluded those who were not like them. These sociologists came up with a phrase to describe it: “lifestyle enclave.” It’s an exclusive little community where people can afford to buy in, and those who can’t will know that they don’t belong.
Yet the question lingers: those people on the outside of our fence, are they still our neighbors? Well, what does Jesus say? Oh, he smiles slyly, and he says, “Let me tell you a story.”
He says: you know that road that goes downhill from Jerusalem to Jericho? I'm sure you do. There is only one road. It follows the canyon through the desert, down toward the Dead Sea. It’s about seventeen miles long, and you can walk it in a single day if you must. But you had best be careful.
Why, just imagine a man walking down that road, that isolated, lonely road. The thieves come out of nowhere and attack him. They take his money. They take his mule. They take his clothing. They beat him severely and leave him in the ditch. Anybody who travels that road will know: that could happen to them.
Then it happens that a Jerusalem priest passes by. He doesn't stop. He keeps going for some inexplicable reason. Maybe he figures the robbers are still there, we don't know. Those Bible scholars among who remember the book of Leviticus will know that a good Jewish priest will not go anywhere near a bleeding body, especially if that if that body is no longer alive. It will make him unclean and he won’t be able to do his work.
Ever hear that explanation? Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar, and she says it's ridiculous. For one thing, he is not going up to Jerusalem to work in the Temple; he is going down from Jerusalem. He’s on his way home, so he doesn’t have to stay pure. Amy-Jill says, certainly the Bible had its rules about staying clean, but it also had commandments to care for those in need.
So don’t let this priest off the hook. He blows off the wounded man, walks right by him, will not get involved. There is nothing religious about it, nothing at all. He is insensitive, inconsiderate, uncharitable, and inhumane. So Jesus gives a little kick to the priest.
Same can be said of the Levite, who also passes by. The Levite is part of the worship team in the Temple. He’s not a priest per se, but he has been born into a professional caste of lay religious leaders. And when he sees the wounded man, he avoids him too. He ignores him, or whistles a happy tune and refuses to look at the victim, for pretty much the same reasons the priest passed by. He is clueless, or thinks himself superior, or too busy, when he is simply lacking in any human sympathy. No religious reason for it. So Jesus gives a little kick to the Levites too.
Now, Dr. Levine says every good Jewish story has three people on the road. As she puts it, “If I said Larry and Moe, you would probably say Curley.” So there should be a priest and a Levite … and an ordinary Jew. The priest was extra-ordinary, the Levite was very special, and so we need an average schmoe to be the third person in the story.
You have heard the story enough times to know there’s nothing average about him at all. He’s not even a Jew. He’s a Samaritan, and he is the one who stops to help the wounded Jewish traveler.
Now, that’s all wrong. The Jewish lawyer knows that’s all wrong. The Samaritan is not on his map of neighbors. Oh no, not at all. Dr. Levine says, “It’s like saying Larry and Moe and Osama Bin Laden.”
Doesn’t Jesus know this? Oh yes. But doesn’t he remember? Just a few verses before, Jesus had wandered through some Samaritan land. He had decided to go to Jerusalem. Galilee is up here, Jerusalem is down here, and Samaria is in between. You have to go around it, because those people are your enemies. Well, Jesus went through it. The Samaritans made it very clear they wanted nothing to do with him, either. They refused him. He’s a Jew. He wasn't on their map of neighbors.
It was a tense moment. If you recall from the text a couple of weeks ago, James and John (the Galilean fisherman) said, “Lord, let's call down fire from heaven and blast these Samaritans away once and for all.” Jesus turned and told them to shut up. He rebuked them, as if he was an exorcist casting out their evil spirits. He was not interested in blasting anybody away. That was not his way. That is not the way of God’s kingdom. So he looks at his own followers, tells them to knock it off, and they move on.
And now, twenty-five verses later, he names a Samaritan as the hero of his story. The Samaritan is the one who stops. The Samaritan is the one who binds the victim’s wounds, takes him into his own room and cares for him at a nearby inn. When the Samaritan has to leave him behind, he gives the innkeeper a generous sum and says, “Keep taking care of him, and I’ll be back to settle the bill.” The Samaritan does this and he supposed to be the enemy.
Can you imagine that? The hated enemy is the one who helps. The hated enemy shows more humanity that those who are supposed to be your friends. In a world where religious people can be close-minded and cold-hearted, it is the hated outsider who turns out to be the savior of the man who was beaten and left for dead.
That's the story. And Jesus asks, “Which of these three acts like the neighbor?”
Well, duh. Everybody can see the hero of the story. According to the text, the lawyer says, “It's the.... It's the.... You know, it's the Sam...” No, he can't say it. So he says all he can bear to say. Who’s the neighbor? And he says, “It’s the … it's the one who shows compassion.”
Ah, he took the easy way out. He gives the answer, but he cannot say the name.
Do you see what the problem is in America? We have a lot of confusion and conflict about who our neighbors are. Even if they are kind to us, we cannot say their names.
There’s nothing new about this. It is an ancient problem. If this was a story about a story about a Samaritan who fell among thieves, the last thing the Samaritans would expect is for a Jew to reach down, dress his wounds, and nurse him back to health. Same old problem is with us. As somebody notes, imagine you’re the one in the ditch, and as people pass you by, the only one who stopped was a member of ISIS, or the NRA, or the Democratic party, or the PLO. Fill in whomever you most fear and despise. And a lot of people might respond in unison: We’d rather die than be saved by the likes of you.
See, this is the problem. It’s not that we are independent enough that we don’t want help. It’s that we don’t want help from that person. That person is supposed to be my enemy. That person is supposed to stay out of my way. I’m supposed to live in a nicer house and nicer community than that person. I’m supposed to make more money and be more successful than that person. I’m supposed to be superior to that person and everything I’ve ever been told has shaped me to hate people like that.
And Jesus dares to tell a story that says, rather clearly, that the neighborhood is a lot bigger than we think it is, and it’s populated by people who actually act like neighbors to one another.
Can you see why Jesus got killed, after telling stories like this?
Even more, can you see why God raised Jesus from the dead and pushed into our faces to keep telling stories like this? It’s because God loves the neighborhood, the whole neighborhood, the big neighborhood, and God wants it to be populated with people who show mercy to one another. That’s what love is all about. As the early Christ-followers declared, “You can’t say you love God if you hate your neighbor.” The truth of the Gospel is that God-in-Christ has taken away all the reasons to hate anybody at all.
- Imagine a world where people who are different from one another actually make the effort to get along, to understand and receive help from one another.
- Imagine a world that is no longer carved up in groups of friends or enemies, where everybody is now named “neighbor.”
- Imagine a world where innocent black people don’t get shot, where innocent police officers don’t get shot either, where people on every side pursue every reason to respect one another.
- Imagine a world where people turn off their television sets, with all the blathering that stirs up animosity and drives up advertising revenue, and instead they walk outside their guarded homes, knock on their neighbor’s doors, and say, “Can we talk until we find some common ground?”
- Imagine a world where people aren’t afraid of one another.
- Imagine a world where people who hurt one another are committed to working through the hurt and living into forgiveness. .
- Imagine a world where the dreaded enemy Samaritan draws near to take care of you, a world where you might be the Samaritan to somebody else, yet you take the first step to create some honest peace.
And if you can imagine it, go and do likewise. Because you know as well as I that love is the only way to life, real life. As the scriptures say, “Whoever does not love abides in death . . . We know we have passed from death to life because we love one another.”