The Good Samaritan
A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Back in 2012, as many of you know, Kelly and I visited the Holy Land for the first time. I remarked at the time somewhere or other that it felt like the Bible went from being greyscale to millions of colors, as I was finally able to see with my own eyes where the stories of the Old Testament and of the life and work of Jesus happened. Finally I was able to walk those same places. Perhaps that makes me someone who is a little too like the Apostle Thomas, but seeing these things for myself was definitely very helpful.
One of those geographical locations was the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which we traveled a little of. It takes in the Judean wilderness, which is bleak and forbidding. A baking, rocky, mountainous desert. In short, about as unlike the lower Hudson Valley as you can get.
One thing that really struck me forcefully on that road in Judea was the gradient, which is incredibly steep. Jericho is one of the lowest places on earth. It’s five times lower than Death Valley in California if that helps to contextualize it. Jerusalem, on the other hand is 2500 ft above sea level. So it is an arduous walk – particularly if you are going from Jericho to Jerusalem, but also the other way, too – walking steeply downhill is exhausting work, working against gravity.
Desert wildernesses are inherently fraught with dangers in and of themselves. You don’t need me to tell you that. The heat saps you. The dust chokes you. The sun burns you. The scorpions and snakes snap at your heels.
But the Judean desert had other dangers, too. We don’t get to use old-fashioned words like brigands and cut-throats very much these days but these wilderness places were where outcasts and villains of that hue hung out.
Some were organized criminals, knowing that the only main road between two major urban centers such as Jerusalem and Jericho was a place to get easy rich pickings. They would use tried and tested methods for snaring their victims. Sometimes simple surprise. Sometimes simple force. Sometimes they used decoys and distractions. Pretended to be in trouble or need themselves.
Some weren’t organized criminals, but fugitives or opportunists driven perhaps by greed but more likely by desperation. People for whom robbery might be the only way to stay alive that day. Survival of the fittest. The law of the jungle.
So the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and back had, we can assume, a certain reputation. It was a necessary evil for many, but was somewhere that people would do their best to avoid if at all possible and only undertaken carefully and cautiously. Like with all his parables, Jesus uses vivid, everyday situations that would be visceral, shared experiences. They would need no explanation, as they do for us. They would be etched into the collective cultural experience. They would be shorthand that everyone would understand. If Jesus was telling parables today, they would start, ‘a young man went on Spring Break to Vegas….’ We’d all understand the context right away.
They would know the gradient, the heat, the dust, the desolation, the desperadoes. They would also know that doing that 17 mile journey alone the man might as well have had a sign on his back saying ‘please rob me now’. Having the man set upon would have surprised no one.
Jesus’ story had other well-known characters, too. The priest and the Levite.
The priest’s main role in life was to minister at the temple in Jerusalem, but many lived in Jericho. There were so many Temple priests that they had to organize a rota system to do their priestly thing, and they only got to do it a couple of times a year at most. So there was often bound to be a priest or two somewhere on that road. Since Jesus tells us the priest was going down the road, this means that he was going back to Jericho, which meant he had already done his duties in the Temple in Jerusalem. If he’d been going to Jerusalem for his big week of priestly duties, perhaps some might have excused his behavior on the road more readily – keeping himself ritually clean of the robbed man’s blood.
The Levite was a member of the tribe of Levi. They were akin to religious aristocracy. All priests were Levites. Although not all Levites were priests. But the point was that they were guardians of the Jewish religion and what we would understand as established pillars of society. People looked to them as arbiters of faith and morals and how to act ethically in a particular situation.
We all know the story. The man sets out on his journey. He is attacked and left for dead. A priest walks past in the same direction and gives him a wide berth. A Levite takes a slightly closer look but still gives him a wide berth.
So far, so un-extraordinary. We might think the priest and the Levite behavior shocking, but Jesus’ hearers wouldn’t have been nonplussed – the Priest had to keep ritually clean, that was his obligation. The Levite took a look but might have been worried that the man on the ground was a decoy, a trap by the robbers to attack him. Perfectly reasonable behavior.
And so Jesus has his audience with him. They understand the context and the characters. They can identify with them. And when Jesus introduces his next character, they treat it the same way. You can almost imagine the reaction. Like when the baddy appears on stage and everyone boos. Samaritans were the butt of Jewish ‘boos’. They were originally Jews but had intermarried with non-Jews and been ostracized by mainline Judaism and effectively exiled to the point where Samaria, an area sandwiched between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, was where they had been pushed into. They were collectively distrusted and disliked by the Jews. So when Jesus introduced the Samaritan into the story, they must have thought, ‘Oh, yeah. A Samaritan. What’s he going to do. As if we don’t know.’
And this is where Jesus’ brilliance as a master of morality-tales kicks in. He uses a familiar context, he uses stereotyped characters, and then he puts in an unexpected twist. He makes the Samaritan the good guy! It’s hard for us to imagine how scandalous this would have been. But when we stop to consider that Samaritans were shunned and excluded and even the subject of liturgies that petitioned God to not grant them salvation, one can see how Jesus’ provocative and wholesale rehabilitation of them would have been almost revolutionary.
The rest of the story we know, too. Samaritan performs EMS and takes him to safety, pays his medical bills and ensures his recovery.
And so we come to our conclusions. This story is about who our neighbor is, right?
I can wager that pretty much every sermon we’ve heard on this story concludes this way. It’s about who our neighbor is. Right? And I’m going to conclude the same thing and sit down. Right?
Wrong. Sorry, you’ve got to listen to me a few moments more. Because although it does deal with the question of who our neighbors are, I think that, much more fundamentally, it deals with what neighborly behavior looks like.
If the answer to ‘who is my neighbor?’ is ‘anyone who needs help’, that’s all well and good. But there’s still something that troubles me about that. Administering care to someone in can easily involve an unequal relationship. The recipient can become an object of pity. And that’s different from being a neighbor. What does the story say? It says that the man’s neighbor was the one who showed mercy to him. It doesn’t translate easily from the Greek, but ‘mercy’ here is more akin to ‘love’ than simply ‘pity’ or ‘care’. It is a recognition of a shared humanity with another person, the establishment of an equal relationship.
What else characterizes true neighborly behavior? The priest in the story probably wasn’t a bad person. But he was so worried about breaking the rules that this clouded his sense of shared humanity with the man. The Levite was so worried that he might be attacked himself that he placed his own safety above sharing his humanity with the wounded man.
Sharing our common humanity with others might involve breaking the rules. Sharing our common humanity with others might involve putting ourselves in obvious danger. Sharing our common humanity might put us in situations that common sense would tell us were neither rational nor sensible.
You know, something that has helped me a little bit to realize this was an article I read written by a priest colleague of mine from Durham, NC. She told the story of CS Lewis on his way to a meeting with a colleague. He gave some money to a street beggar, and the colleague made the usual objection: "Won't he just spend it on drink?" Lewis answered, "Yes, but if I kept it, so would I."
Lewis’ witticism points to an important truth, it seems to me. He shared his common humanity with the beggar he encountered. You could argue that by giving him money he was setting up an unequal relationship. A ‘have’ giving to a ‘have-not’. And this would have been avoided by not giving him money? I think not.
I realize that this sermon has already gone on too long. But I want to finish with this thought. When we leave the security of our church buildings and head out into the community, meeting people where they are in their everyday lives, the massive danger is that we, the church people, are always the ministers and the people we seek out always remain the ministered-to. Is this really what being good neighbors looks like?