The Word This Weekend – July 14, 2019
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
“But a Samaritan, while traveling (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho) came near (the man beaten nearly to death); and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
The parable of the Good Samaritan. This weekend we will again be challenged by this surprising and radical picture of compassion and mercy. The story: an encounter on a dangerous desert highway between two men who would by any measure be deemed enemies, drawn together by the mortal need of one and the caring heart of another. Amazing!
We may have heard this parable and its context many, many times, but it bears repeating. An expert on the religious morays of the day challenges Jesus to identify God’s preeminent command. His response: Love God entirely, and your neighbor as yourself.
This disarmingly simple riposte elicits a question from the lawyer: “All right, Nazarene, that’s one for you. But, tell me, who is my neighbor?” And in that challenging question we find the cause for one of Christ’s most enduring parables, and a question that ought to continue to haunt and challenge any one of us who would seek to live as an ethical and compassionate member of the human family.
“Who is my neighbor?” This is no simple question, but a query that runs about as deep as any human question can. For the people of Jesus’ day, in the divided and divisive world of First Century Roman Palestine, the question gets right to the heart of the fault lines of religion, politics, ethnicity and culture. The “neighbor question,” in my view, would almost certainly have been answered in the negative. You know what I mean, because we tend to answer such questions by negation in our own day as well. We tend to address such questions by identifying who is not our neighbor rather than who is. And, in this broken world, the list stretches out long and harrowing:
- Those who are not members of our tribe (by whatever measure we use)
- Those we don’t like
- Those we have come to fear
- Those we don’t understand or accept
- Those whose choices or self-understanding we reject or loathe
- Those who are, you know, “those” people!
In Jesus’ day, the those could have been Romans -- whether billeted military, pagan traders, members of the imperial aristocracy, and so on. They might have been collaborators in the hated industry of the Empire’s taxation efforts, even more loathsome because of their bloodline among the chosen people. Add to the list the “sinners” – those who by lifestyle or behavior were scorned or criticized as blemishes on the body politic of a righteous nation. The list of those people was long indeed, as extensive as our personal or cultural “enemies list” might be today.
But chief among these descriptions of the those would have been the hated Samaritans. Then, as now, upstanding and religiously attentive people reserved a special disdain for their ethnic cousins, sandwiched between the northern region of Galilee and the southern territory of Judea. For hundreds of years the cultural divide between these ‘pseudo-believers’ and their righteous neighbors had been stoked and reaffirmed over and again. “They’re not like us.” “They reject our holy place and our holy traditions.” “They’re worse than pagans, because they should know better.” How can a truly righteous person accept and welcome such people as kinfolk, as neighbors, with the spurious contention that their articles of faith and following could rival or challenge our own. “My neighbor? Never, not those (spit) PEOPLE!”
And that’s where the razor’s edge of Christ’s parable really cuts the deepest. Because, as Jesus tells it, the half-dead man on the desert road doesn’t get a vote on who his neighbor is likely to be. He’s so far gone that he can’t consciously choose anyone to be his neighbor or rescuer. A Samaritan traveler simply runs across him on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho – in which direction we just don’t know – and stops to offer help. Religious leaders have already skirted the challenge, whether because of religious priorities or simply through a refusal to “get involved.” But not this Samaritan. Unbidden by the nearly dead victim, he is driven solely by compassion. The Samaritan willingly involves himself in an act of rescue. Because, simply, he cares.
You know how the story proceeds. The Samaritan performs his roadside triage, hauls the man on his own beast to the nearest waystation (and there weren’t many on that stretch of road, not then and not today either). To the innkeeper this traveler commends the rescued man, with a solemn promise to return to pay his bill for whatever care the poor sod may require. And off he goes, continuing his journey, leaving a man who was beyond any hope, save for the mercy of someone he’d never have accepted as a brother, or even as one worthy of a sip of water on that destitute trail of tears.
Jesus totally turns the tables on that religious expert, as he turns the tables on us. Instead of addressing who we might choose to be our neighbor, he asks instead who has been neighbor to that sad soul in need. The lawyer’s defeated reply comes haltingly and grudgingly – “well, I suppose the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus’ concluding challenge: “Well, that’s how you should behave as well.”
I’m stunned, and so should you be as well. Stunned I tell you. Because, in that simple response, we are forced to see just how misbegotten our notions of neighborliness turn out to be. We want to choose the who, if we’re honest. Who we must love, who deserves our compassion, who we will be moved to help or befriend or welcome. And, instantly, we invoke our personal or societal “enemies list” to pare down the options.
Except, in the Nazarene’s way, the question is never “who is my neighbor?”, but, finally, “who isn’t?”. The Christ -- who bends low to befriend and rescue all earth’s children, who washes the feet of friends, who cleanses the hearts and bodies of hated foes, even to his crossbound death – will have none of our lists and our reservations. We may cross the road to avoid those we deem unworthy – and we’ve gotten to be pretty expert at drawing the lines and building the walls between “these” and “those.” For him, and for all who would dare follow him, the list grows as short and simple as his words from Calvary’s Tree. “Father, forgive them, forgive them all, for they don’t understand what they do.”
This is a tough one for me. Isn’t it tough for you? Isn’t this the simplest (and most daunting) equation of caring anyone ever laid before us? If they’re breathing, they’re your neighbor. And, if they are, aren’t you the neighbor they have been waiting for? Not a scandal-ridden life to be judged, or a waywardness to be demeaned, or an “other” to be hated or ridiculed or demeaned or demonized. No, just a neighbor needing a neighbor, a fellow traveler in life’s journey brought into view and needing to be assisted and cared for and befriended. Just like the Christ has assisted, cared for and befriended you.
Most days, if I’m truthful, I run to the other side of the road. Maybe you do as well. The path of the Samaritan is hardly well worn, and scores of unfortunates lie bleeding on the tapestry of our fears and bigotries. On days like that, I struggle to remember the other character in Jesus’ story – not the erstwhile religious, not the desperate victim, and certainly not the compassionate Samaritan. No, I cleave to the person of the Innkeeper. All he is asked to do is to receive and assist the suffering, prone form of the wounded unfortunate. “Take care of him,” says the Samaritan, placing those coins in my hand, with only the promise that whatever else I may spend or invest in him will someday be repaid. He doesn’t demand that I fully emulate his virtue. He doesn’t even command that I check my biases or fears. He simply bids me care for the soul he has dropped in my lap, unbidden and probably unwanted.
Be neighbor. Even if you don’t want to, and even if you’re scared to. Even if every drop of inherited hatred and judgment mitigates against it. Whether you have come to hate or fear what the neighbor might do or might believe or might do on the street corner or between the sheets. Be neighbor, as the strange and unbidden Christ has been neighbor to you. Because his virtue, beyond all we might possess or imagine, promises a payment in full.
With You in God’s Good Work,