This is a nearly impossible scripture story to preach upon, mostly because we know the story too well!
A mere mention of the “Good Samaritan” and almost anyone can tell you the story point for point.
Countless gallons of ink have been spilled describing the situation, the question from the Lawyer or Scribe, and Jesus’ pressing of the question with the parable.
People have readily and often remarked on the business and busy- ness of the Priest and the Levite. There have been long explanations about the religious mandate for each of them to remain ritually clean or to jeopardize their ability to serve in the temple or wherever they are going or coming from.
The generosity and compassion from the least likely of people, a Samaritan, has been extolled. How unlikely that the one to help in the story is the one who would not normally give a good Jew the time of day if he knew that person was going to Jerusalem to worship.
Yes, we know this story all too well, so finding a “fresh approach” to the story is hard to do. We quickly reduce it to its moralistic core.
“Be nice to one another.”
“Be like the Samaritan.”
“Prove to be a neighbor to the one in need.”
That’s all very well and good; but let me just ask you one deceptively simple question.
“Why is it then so hard for us to do this?”
Why is it so hard to “Prove to be neighbor?”
There is a kind of circular logic that we engage in when confronted with the complexity of living together which more closely resembles the first question asked by the Lawyer.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus points him to the commandments, and to adhering to the law, and doing all things properly.
“You have answered rightly, do this and you will live.” Jesus says.
“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
I suspect that part of the reason why it is so hard for us to do this is that we under-appreciate how high the stakes are, both for us and for the neighbor.
We feel an ever present need to justify, to clarify, to find the acceptable edges of what is expected of us.
We don’t want to be duped by people. We don’t want to be taken advantage of by others.
We want clear guidelines and directives as to just how much we are expected to do, how far we are expected to go, and (probably most importantly) who is really worthy of our attention and limited resources.
You will find that appeals to the law can be very helpful in that. The law will produce categories and criteria to be applied. The law will set out parameters by which things can be measured.
“Love the neighbor as you would love yourself, treat them as you would want to be treated.” Now there is a measurable objective!
They should get enough, but not too much, and your own comfort level sets the standard. Good enough for me, good enough for you.
And so, the law sets about prescribing how things should be done, how many people are eligible, procedures and protocols that are “fair” and equally applied.
“See, look here, we’ve done everything according to the specs, to the regulations, to the accepted practice.”
The law will give you wiggle room to dismiss, or to overlook, or to “justify yourself.” No doubt about it.
I like to say that about Pantry donations sometimes.
You know, every can and package we receive was something that someone once bought for themselves. How noble and generous therefore to pass that along and give to someone else what you yourself once had and desired! And that sentiment appears noble and generous right up until you check the expiration date, and then you see the law at work.
“It’s probably still good… I wouldn’t eat it, but if someone is hungry enough….”
We under appreciate the stakes, and the law makes that much easier.
The lawyer wants clarification on eternal life which is, for him at this moment a future possibility.
But Jesus keeps pulling the conversation back into the present. “Do all this and you will live!”
Present reality, this moment!
Which is why Jesus tells the parable, and the remarkable thing about the parable, is that Jesus gives you NO criteria about the one who is on the receiving end.
No information about the one who was on the receiving end of the abuse, the neglect, and the ultimately, the aid.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”
That’s it, that’s all that you know about him. “A man.” You don’t know if he was a Jew, a Samaritan, or a Gentile.
You don’t know if he was a jerk, or a beloved figure in the community.
You don’t know if he was being stupid traveling this road alone, or wise in his choice of time of day for travel and just unlucky.
You just know that the man, (whoever he is) has had the crap knocked out of him and has been left for dead, and now… well indeed, now what?
Who will prove to be neighbor?
It is at this point that all the criteria one might apply to justify one’s actions is thrown out the window or thrown into one’s face by the parable.
You get to insert the reasoning for the “passing by.”
Jesus won’t tell you why the priest and Levite pass by, you have to supply it from your own larder of excuses that you think would work, that you would spin out. Most of them quite logical, and proper, and probably even legal, but of no use in the face of suffering.
Jesus does however go to great lengths to tell you the reason for the Samaritan’s actions. It has nothing to do with the Samaritans’ beliefs, or creed, training, capacity or abilities. The single indicator of whether you prove to be neighbor ends up being whether or not you are moved by this situation.
It is pity.
It is empathy that is the key, and it is empathy that proves whether you are going to treat that one (whom you know nothing about really,) as you would want to be treated, would hope to be treated.
Empathy, feeling for the other, is the mark of who proves to be neighbor.
Empathy will make you live.
Empathy will cost you dearly.
Empathy will cause you to dip into your own resources, to give aid to the one that no nothing about and that no one else would deem to touch or pay any attention to.
Empathy for someone you know nothing about will cause you to act, and to fulfill the law to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The law will not make that possible.
The law will only give you escape clauses and justifications for what you don’t do, won’t do, can’t do, and shouldn’t do.
But empathy? Feeling the suffering of that other human being? That is what makes you neighbor and that is what will empower you to care and to act.
Having pity, empathy, caring about one you have nothing in common with, –those are the attributes of God.
God has pity on our suffering.
God empathizes with our plight, so much so that he sends his own Son to intervene.
God has nothing in common with our plight, but in the Samaritan’s actions we see God’s actions toward us.
God deigns to step down into the ditch of humanity where we find ourselves, often bloody and half dead from the things this world throws at us, and God binds up our wounds and sets us up in a place to heal and commits God’s own self to whatever else it will take in the future to bring us to life.
“Do this and you will live.” Jesus says.
How high are the stakes in proving to be neighbor?
This is a matter of life and death, the choice we make to care or not to care. The stakes are high.
This is what the parable of the Good Samaritan wants to show us. It’s not just a little moralism, “be like the Samaritan.”
It is an invitation to step into the love of the divine. To care as God does, for those who are faceless, voiceless, and powerless.
It is an invitation to “prove to be neighbor”, and that is done not with words or good intentions, but rather with actions.
This Sunday morning, I’m sure you have heard the news reports (as I have,) that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be making targeted raids to deport asylum seekers and undocumented workers who have already had their day in court and have been issued deportation orders.
It is all perfectly legal.
It is all sanctioned by the laws of the land and executed by duly sworn officers.
As such perfectly legal enforcement actions take place in these communities, (perhaps in our community,) a wide variety of other immigrants will no doubt also be intercepted and gathered up as well in the process.
They will be intercepted solely because of the color of their skin and the language they speak.
The interpretation of the current laws regarding the separation of children from parents will be exercised as those duly sworn and empowered officers see fit and are commanded by current statute and direction so to do.
There will be people forcibly removed from the life they have built here, leaving behind everything, transported to a country they may not have ever set foot in before, or to a country they fled in fear because of the violence, lack of opportunity, or threat of death that drove them to our shores.
The lawyer in me will want to justify myself. “What must I do?” “And who is my neighbor, really?”
But that which is of God in me will find itself asking the deeper question, the one prompted by Jesus’ parable. “Why am I not moved to pity?”
That’s the invitation in this parable. The stakes are high, for it is about life and death, the life and death of those who are my neighbor.
This is about my own life and death, for what is done to one group for whatever “legal” reasoning, can also someday be applied to me with just a little tweak of the laws, just a little shift in interpretation.
Who will step into the ditch for me, if I do not step into the ditch for those whom God loves and chooses to die for?
The stakes are high!