Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Good Samaritan Curveball

(A sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church on 7/11/2010)

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be the best known of all of Jesus’ parables. Perhaps one reason why people remember it is that it seems to translate well to any time.

Who’s my neighbor? Everyone. Everyone’s my neighbor. Love everyone as yourself; love everyone as your neighbor.

I think this is a natural way to hear this parable in our society. The goal is to love people…to treat others with dignity, to care for those we like and dislike, to care for those we agree with and those we disagree with, to care for those who are rich and those who are poor, and to care for those who look like us, and to care for those who don’t.

This idea has merit…it is simple to understand while hard to do all the time…and yet if we try treating each other better, odds are we’ll learn more about each other, we’ll find that our lives are more enriched, and we’ll feel better about ourselves and about things in general.

All and all, it’s a good thing.

It might even had been the answer the lawyer was expecting when he asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Or, in other words, “Who am I responsible for?”

Let’s look closely at the story, and try to imagine how people them might have heard this. On first instinct, people might have been surprised that the Priest or the Levite did not stop to care for the beaten man. However, there’s both a practical and a storytelling element as to why they did not. The Priest and Levite, presumably on their way to temple, would have made themselves unclean by helping the battered man. What is their primary responsibility? To care for the temple of God. No one else was allowed to do this particular job. Even though one can argue that the more important thing to do was care for the beaten man, it is easily argued that this was not the primary responsibility of the Priest or the Levite.

And here’s the storytelling device. The responsibility of the beaten man belongs to the one passing by who is not expected to help. It’s not the Priest or Levite, whom society would like to handle these sort of things, but the random passerby who upon seeing the situation takes it upon themselves to tend to the beaten man.

Ultimately, this telling of the story would expand not only the concept of “who is my neighbor,” but would also make clear that neighborly action does not belong to those who specifically “work for God.”

Yeah, I think it’s exactly what the lawyer was expecting. Come to think of it, I bet this story was a common one around Jesus’ time…with the common moral being that it’s not just about Priests and Levites caring for neighbors, but about everyone caring for each other.

There’s on problem: in Jesus’ telling of the story, it didn’t quite go down like this. Hearing this parable with modern ears, we miss the monkey wrench…the major glitch…the curve ball! Jesus did something completely unexpected…but it’s hard for us to relate to it today.

My belief is that, when other Jewish storytellers told this story back in Jesus’ time, or before, it was the everyday type a person who stopped to help: a farmer…a baker…perhaps a servant…or even a youth.

But in his story, Jesus makes it clear that it’s not just anyone who stops for the injured man, but a Samaritan!!!

I’m not sure you and I can’t really understand how shocking and horribly offensive this must have been for those listening to Jesus. The level of hate there for Samaritans was intense, and multilayered.

It is my sincere hope that there is no one in your life that you hate with that much passion. That there’s no one that has been so dismissed from your life. And yet, if I understand the parable correctly, that was the amount of hate that was present in the context of Jesus’ story.

The Samaritan walking the road to Jericho had reason to move through quickly. He was in enemy territory, and his experiences overall of Jews simply could not have been good.

Seeing the sight of this beaten person moves the Samaritan. Perhaps is the Samaritan’s gut that wrenches at the sight of the violence. Perhaps it is seeing someone so helpless and in need that moves the Samaritan to act. Perhaps it is a sudden realization that he can right here and now make a difference. Who knows?

But for one moment, the Samaritan no longer sees the hated Jew, but a human being. He sees his neighbor in need, and he realizes his ability to do something about it.

And, in addition, the beaten man accepts his help. The proper response to the Samaritan’s willingness to help should have been “Get away from me!”…expressed in more colorful language. But that’s not what happens. Perhaps he was unconscious and unable to speak, but for one reason or another help is allowed and received. We don’t know if in the end he was grateful for or full of resentment towards the Samaritan who helped him. That’s up to us to decide.

However, it’s clear who Jesus thinks our neighbor is.

Not everyone accepted this as good news. I imagine that it’s with clenched teeth, not impressed approval, that the Lawyer admits that the one who was a neighbor to the beaten man was “The one who showed him mercy.” In my mind, the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the hated name, “Samaritan”, due to being so angry and shocked.

In the context of its first century audience, this story is as radical as they come!

If we are to live fully into the idea of loving God and our neighbor with everything that we are, then we have to include the most difficult and unlovable people we have encountered in our lives. That includes, for example, those in authority who have made poor choices…it includes those who make us really uncomfortable…it even includes those who we’ve spent moments or more hating.

We don’t have to accept their behavior, and we certainly don’t have to agree with them, but we cannot dismiss our neighborly responsibility towards them.

That’s really difficult, and yet, it’s life-giving good news.


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