Sermon on the Good Samaritan
St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Pentecost 8C
July 14, 2013
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Amos 7:7-17; Ps. 82; Col. 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
So we’re in a scene from Encounters, our teen faith program we’re doing with the Game Loft, the First Church and the First Baptist church. In our modern-day parable, Ethan, a dreamy teenage boy is set upon after school by a group of kids who push him around, rough him up, taunt him, grab his Dungeons & Dragons book and stomp on it, and leave him in a bruised and sorry state. The teachers leaving the school building ignore him. The janitor asks him to move. It is Antonio, the troubled hispanic kid from the other side of the tracks, who stops to help him, brings him home and offers him some sympathy and a snack. Help comes from an unexpected source. The teachers and the janitor are good people. Why don’t good people stop and help?
Part of the answer to that bothersome question may be found in an experiment on Princeton seminarians documented in Malcolm Gladwell’s first best seller, The Tipping Point.(1) Seminary students were given a lesson with this parable of the samaritan as its focus. They were then told they were to walk across campus and present this lesson to others. On the way there was a set-up — a person obviously in need was planted in their path. Did they stop and offer help? The researchers figured their chosen vocation, and the fact that they had just finished talking about the parable of the good samaritan, might tip the responses in their favor. But in fact there was one critical factor that made the difference. Half the students were told they were late for their next appointment, the other half were not. Of the ones who did not believe they were late, 63% stopped.
Of the half who were told they were late, only ten percent of them stopped to assist.
Distractedness, not paying attention, having too much on your mind, and not seeing what’s right in front of you, having your own mind’s agenda. How we move from a habitual preoccupation with ourselves to a profound concern for others has a lot to do with being awake as we move through our day. And the parable points out that it is possible to think too much, to make it too complicated, too cluttere with relative concerns. For the priest and the levite, who probably thought the naked man was dead, he would have been ritually unclean, and thus touching him would have made them unclean.
But I think this text actually shines a light on deeper and greater challenges, and in fact our Encounters scene hints at it. As we know this is a parable, which means Jesus made it up, a teaching tool to point to a deeper transcendent truth. First, let’s look at where he locates this parable. Jesus starts his story by saying “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” in the time of Jesus, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for its danger and difficulty. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, on the day before his death, described the road to Jericho:
I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about [and here I’m going to correct Dr. King, 2100 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about [ 846 feet below sea level]. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
However, Dr. King continues:
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Dr. King’s sense of the danger helps reveal the ethnic and cultural distrust and prejudice that pervade this parable. Jesus is speaking right to the heart of longstanding enemies. The tensions between Jews and Samaritans ran deep. It is so strong here that the lawyer cannot even bear to say the word “samaritan,” but merely “the one who showed him mercy.” And what about today? Jericho is a Palestinian city in the West Bank. You cannot travel from Jerusalem to Jericho on this most direct route between the two cities. Today there’s a wall.
The things that divide people. The things that perpetuate the illusion that another person is somehow different from us, this most basic obstacle in our life of faith. Jesus is using this parable as a teaching on the law. The lawyer has asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. What must I do to obtain a deeper intimacy with God? Jesus asks “what is written in the law?” What follows is the most basic and grounding of teachings in both Christianity and Judaism. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” This is it. This is the if-you-don’t-get-anything-else-about-faith-get-this essential, foundational law.
This is the teaching on that law. Fred Buechner says that there are two kinds of law. There is the law of things as they should be, and there is the law of things as they are. “Do not steal” is an example of a law that is aimed at the way things should be, projecting a view of what right relationships should look like in practice. The law of gravity is an example of the law of things as they are. It is a law because it is so, and no amount of wishing or ignoring it will change the fact. Go ahead and jump off a building and you’ll see. So what kind of law is “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”? Is it a law of aught-to-do, as in “you ought to love God and your neighbor as yourself” or a law of is-ness, or both? It sounds like an injunction, to love God and your neighbor as yourself. But it also expresses an essential truth, the truth that my neighbor is myself. That any sense of separateness is an illusion. Whatever I think separates me from another — race, circumstance, intelligence, skin color, culture, whatever — is temporary, relative, circumstantial, and ultimately, meaningless, or more precisely, beyond meaning. Perhaps every one that crosses our path in this earthly life, every person, or species, or anyone else we might unconsciously see as somehow “other” is our soul’s opportunity to cross those boundaries, to grow more deeply into a realization that ultimately there is no other. Perhaps this is the deep truth we are put into these earthly bodies to figure out, one annoying person and one circumstance at a time, every single day.
This parable is about crossing those boundaries. This is made clear by the twist at the end. We think, going along, that the question the lawyer asks (looking to limit his liability, if you will — who am I responsible for, exactly? let’s nail this down) when he asks “who is my neighbor?” We think we are being set up to answer the question, “the person in the ditch.” But the enemy is the one who extends help. Jesus asks “who was the neighbor to [the person in the ditch”?] He spins the lawyer around, he spins us around. Jesus invites us to consider when we are the person walking by and doing nothing out of fear or distractedness, when are we the person who sees and stops to help, and, when we are the person in the ditch. We are each of those people at times. We have times when we’re feeling on top of things, times when we are moved by compassion to assist another, and we all spend some time in a ditch. And the hardest thing, for us, may not be extending help, but receiving it. Acknowledging our vulnerability. So you’re in some kind of trouble. Would you accept help from a scary looking teenager covered with body piercings and tattoos? someone who looked like a member of al-Qaida? How about — this was the one that stopped me in my tracks — someone you think has wronged you and against whom you’ve carried a burr of resentment under your saddle? What would I do if that one offered to help me out of a bind? I invite you to think about from whom in your life you would be very hesitant to accept help.
The law says “love your neighbor as yourself. Not “as much as yourself,” but “as yourself.” Love your neighbor recognizing that your neighbor is you. The Kingdom of God breaks into our world and challenges our presuppositions, our values, closed options, set judgments and established conclusions.. This parable is an indictment of any barriers of separation we would put up. To love God is to love neighbor is to love self is to love God. It is all one. To be awake is to know this as true, and to live it. AMEN.
(1)New York: Little, Brown, 2000.