What Happens Next?
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Deep in the interior of Haiti stands a huge, modern medical complex known as the Good Samaritan Hospital. The news this week described a person who sacrificed himself to save others in a mall shooting as a “Good Samaritan.” Beverly Gaventa sums up the common use of this term: “To be a good Samaritan is shorthand for helping once a week at the local soup kitchen, going out of one’s way at the Christmas season to see that food baskets get delivered to the neediest people, sacrificing five Saturdays in a row to work on a Habitat for Humanity house.” In other words, a “Good Samaritan” is someone who helps others in need.
And who can argue with anyone performing an act of human decency and kindness in our frequently harsh world? When I hear “Good Samaritan,” I recall the July 4th speech made by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He said, “We must dissent from indifference. We must dissent from apathy. We must dissent from fear, hatred, and mistrust . . . We must dissent, because American can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” So, let’s give a loud shout out to all those Good Samaritans in our land!
But before we do, perhaps we need to hear a warning from the marvelous preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor. She warns, “The problem is that anyone who loves this story has probably misunderstood it.” Anyone who tells someone to be like the Good Samaritan is “completely forgetting that he never was and never will be one of us. He was the enemy. He belonged to the other side.”
Before Jesus tells this parable, he engages in a lively debate with an expert in Jewish law. The lawyer asks Jesus, “What must one do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus listens to his question and then bounces the question back in the lawyer’s court. “What does the law say?” asks Jesus. The lawyer smiles and gives an A+ answer. In short, he says, “Love God and love neighbor.” Jesus applauds the lawyer’s response and says: “Do this and you will know what it means to be alive.”
The lawyer, though, is not finished with Jesus. He asks a follow-up question, one that was hotly debated then and maybe is even more hotly debated today: “Okay, then, Jesus, so just who is my neighbor?” I suspect his real question was: “Who isn’t my neighbor? Who am I free to exclude from my concern?” Carl Sandburg was once asked, “What is the ugliest word in the English language?” After much thought, his answer was “exclusive.”
At this point, Jesus decides it is time to tell a story, one that we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jay referenced the story in his sermon last Sunday and upon reading it again, I am struck by its scarcity of details. We hear about robbers and a victim, but who were the robbers and who was the victim? In the Greek, the victim is not identified as a male but simply as a human being. In Jesus’ parable, any human being could be lying by the roadside, beaten and in need. We are not told the victim’s name or hometown, race or religious preference either. As I said, details in this story are scarce.
Then a priest comes along. Oftentimes, sermons on this parable chastise the priest as a religious hypocrite, someone who speaks for God but walks right past a wounded human being in need. Some sermons try to defend the priest for making a tough choice. After all, if he had had any contact with the victim, assuming the victim was bleeding from his wounds, the priest would be ritually defiled and could not do his work. So, he makes a tough choice knowing that his responsibilities to the whole synagogue outweighs the needs of one wounded person.
The trouble with these two fascinating takes on the priest is that Jesus says nothing of the sort in the story. All the parable says is that a priest comes, sees a wounded person and he passes by that wounded person. Why did he not stop and help? Why did he pass by? Jesus does not give us a single clue. Again, details are scarce in this story.
Then a Levite comes along. Levites were from a tribe in Israel assigned to teach and preserve sacred scripture. The script here remains the same. An unnamed Levite, headed somewhere we are not told where, does exactly what the priest does. He comes. He sees. He passes by the wounded person. Jesus, how about some details?!
So far no one in this story has a name – not the robbers, not the victim, not the priest and not the Levite. Then Jesus introduces a new character who also is without a name, but he really does not need one. Jesus tells the lawyer everything he could ever want to know about the new character when he says that the character who stops to help is a Samaritan.
For most people today, that means almost nothing, so let me fill in a few blanks. Samaritans were Jews who after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., intermarried with Gentile Assyrians. Samaritans worshiped God in the temple, just not in the Jerusalem temple. A Palestinian Jew did not invite a Samaritan home for dinner and a Samaritan Jew did not invite a Palestinian Jew into her home either. Jesus tells this parable to a Palestinian Jewish lawyer, who is sure, if he is sure of anything, that a Samaritan is good for nothing and is surely not his neighbor.
As Jesus moves along with the story, we finally get some details. The Samaritan stops to tend to the wounded victim and he does so with extravagant abandon. He spends more than two day’s wages on this wounded victim and he promises to pay for any additional costs. Jesus never mentions the Samaritan’s name, only the quality of his mercy.
When the brief story is over, Jesus looks the lawyer in the eyes and asks, “In this story, who was the neighbor?” The lawyer has no choice but to answer, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus, then, repeats his earlier words and says, “Go and do likewise.”
This week, I have asked myself which character am I in this story. Which character are you in this story? Is it possible that you and I are not the priest or the Levite or the so-called “Good Samaritan”? Is it possible that you and I are the beaten and broken, victims awaiting help from someone, from anyone? For who among us has not been victimized at some point in our lives, beaten down and desperate for help? Who among us has not watched an illness strip away an otherwise healthy body or cripple an otherwise bright mind? Who among us has not lain by the road, beaten by racial or gender biases or age inequalities and wondered if anyone would ever stop long enough to notice and to care?
On any other day, a Jew who had been beaten and robbed in Palestine would not look for help from a Samaritan, this one or any Samaritan. But once beaten and robbed, victims become incredibly impartial. They tend to lose interest in their helper’s political party or social class, their gender or religious identity. Victims don’t care about any arbitrary wall by which you and I fence off neighbors and rationalize our lack of mercy. Victims know the tangible truth of Robert Frost’s line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (“Mending Walls”).
If you are not so sure about this, then just ask victims of social neglect waiting under an overpass on your way home today and hoping to find safe shelter tonight, just ask victims of social neglect passing up breakfast and lunch today in hope that they might find a way to eat a dinner tonight, victims of international neglect living in bombed-out apartment buildings in Kiev without electricity tonight. And, the victim list goes on and on and on.
Victims are going to call anyone who stops to help them “good,” even people who on any other day they would instinctually hate. Barbara Brown Taylor again wisely observes, “A single act of mercy has the power to call a whole history of against-ness into question.” She argues, “You have to tell a different kind of story before a different kind of future can unfold.”
You and I never hear what happens to the lawyer after Jesus tells him this parable. We never know if the two words “good” and “Samaritan” ever pass his lips. This parable, though, like every parable told by Jesus, invites us to write our own ending. So, in my ending, I hope that the lawyer walks away a little less certain about who is good and who is not, about who we should help and who should help themselves. I hope this story sparks a new desire in the lawyer not to acquire “eternal life,” but to live life fully every day. I hope this story inspires the lawyer – and each one of us – with “the power to change the world, one ditch at a time.” (Barbara Brown Taylor from a sermon, “The Right Answer,” preached on July 13, 2013 at the Riverside Church in NYC).