July 15, 2007 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
I would like to just let this morning’s text speak for itself. It’s one of the most powerful and challenging stories to come from the mouth of our Lord. The problem is that many of us know it too well. And even if you don’t know the story, you’ve heard of a “good Samaritan.” It’s a person who helps out somebody in need. Being a “Samaritan” has become a positive label in our still partly Christianized society.
So we first need to remember who the Samaritans were. They were descendants of the ten Israelite tribes conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. They were deported and scattered throughout the Assyrian empire and intermarried with other ethnic groups wherever they went. Later on, they gathered back in Samaria, the region north of Judah. Ezra and Nehemiah tell how they tried to participate in the rebuilding of the Jewish temple but were rebuffed. So they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim in the fifth century BC and it was destroyed by a Jewish ruler in the second century BC. By Jesus’ time they were regarded by the Jews as half-breeds and unclean heretics. But who are they to us?
I’ve read you Clarence Jordan’s marvelous paraphrase setting Jesus’ parable in the racially troubled South of the past century. That helps wake us up a little. But we need to paraphrase this story a little differently in almost every time and place. In Rwanda the Samaritan would need to become a Hutu or Tutsi, depending on which tribe was listening. In Kosovo, he would need to be a Serb. In Russia, he might be a Chechen. In Israel a Palestinian. In Korea, Japanese. In Iraq, Kurdish. In Belfast, Protestant, or Catholic, depending on which church you were in.
And who is the Samaritan for us? An illegal Mexican immigrant? An Arab? A homosexual? Who are the people you and I distrust and fear and may secretly despise? Who are our Samaritans?
You might think that once we answer that question we’ve got the point of this parable. Show love to the unlovable. Soften our hearts and maybe soften our borders to those so desperate to come to this country. Sit down next to that middle-eastern looking fellow on the plane and strike up a friendly conversation. Give to an organization helping those with AIDS, forgetting about how that disease might be contracted. Demonstrate truly Christ-like love to all sorts of unattractive, unpopular people. That’s what this parable teaches us. But that’s only partly true.
Yes, if you hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and go away to get your hands dirty by helping a street person or donating to an AIDS clinic or sorting groceries at a food bank, you have not by any means entirely missed the point. But there is more to remember here. The Samaritan is the helper, not the helpee. He’s the example of how to love, not of whom to love.
The point of Jesus’ story is not to help people who are like Samaritans, but to be like this particular Samaritan who helped someone. Not to love Samaritans but to be a Samaritan. And what does that mean for you and me?
It means there is a peculiar and wonderful grace in this difficult command to love our neighbors. Remember that the lawyer first asked Jesus in verse 25, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In Clarence Jordan’s paraphrase, “How do I get saved?” Jesus answered him with what the man himself already knew: Obey the two greatest commandments of the Jewish Law, love God and love his neighbor.
The lawyer’s next question, in verse 29, shows how he was struggling spiritually, how he just wasn’t sure if he could be saved. Luke tells us he wanted to “justify himself.” He wanted assurance of his salvation. He was struggling with doubt. He wanted to know if he really could do or had done what it would take to inherit eternal life, or was he lost? And Jesus’ answer is partly a challenge, but partly assurance.
Yes, the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges all of us who rest in an easy religion that demands nothing of us but good intentions and fuzzy-headed belief. Jesus did want to sweep away the pretensions of all the priests and Levites who can comfortably pass by people in need and do nothing. But He also wanted to reassure those who actually do want to keep these Great Commandments, who really would like to love God and love our neighbor. He wants us to know that it’s possible. It’s possible to be saved.
Most of you have seen the Geico ads. The bearded, thick-browed character on the analyst’s couch, struggling with the emotional damage caused by Geico’s slogan about their auto insurance, “So easy a caveman can do it.” That’s what Jesus is saying here. “Salvation? Love of God and neighbor? It’s so easy a Samaritan can do it.” And if a Samaritan can do it, so can you.
It’s the same theme in our Old Testament text. As Moses is preparing for his death, he speaks to the people of Israel reminding them of all God commanded, the call to turn to the Lord and love him with all their heart and soul. And in Deuteronomy 30:11, Moses said, “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.” What God wants is not too difficult. That’s what Moses said. It’s what Jesus said. An Israelite can do it. A Samaritan can do it. A Mexican can do it. An American can do it. A child can. Or a woman. Or an addict. Or a gay person. Or a homeless person.
Loving God and loving your neighbor may sometimes be difficult, but it’s not too difficult. Even a Samaritan, the most hated, distrusted, unloved person you can think of, can learn to love God and show love to others.
So there’s hope for you and me. As many of us struggle with all our middle-class angst and self-doubt and fears about how we will live when it’s time to retire—and I definitely include myself in that description—there is hope for us. We can look at people like Samaritans, become a little more like them, and find salvation in Jesus Christ.
Each year we work with the Interfaith Shelter. As several needy families make their bedrooms in our sanctuary for a week, we meet and interact with parents and children who might feel like Samaritans to us. They often believe in God or even have Christian faith, but seldom go to church very regularly. They may be working, but for whatever reasons they haven’t had jobs that afford what you or I call a decent living. Some of them sit outside our doors and smoke away a sizeable chunk of what they’ve earned. Their kids are often dirty and even more often misbehaved.
Yet as I’ve watched over the years, I’ve seen a curious kind of love going on among our guests. You and I may not approve of smoking, but if a guest has just two cigarettes, he will still give one away to another guest who has none. Her own children will be driving her nuts, but a mother may still gladly accept a request to watch another child for an hour or two so some other mom can take a break. A couple with barely enough gas to drive across town in their old beater of a car still go out of their way to drop another guest off at work the next morning.
In this parable, Jesus is calling you and I to learn from folks like our shelter guests, to see the Samaritans around us, and as weird as it seems, sometimes to be like them. At the moments they show love to their neighbors, they are close to what God wants, and so are we. Mark’s Gospel leaves this parable out of Jesus’ conversation with the teacher of the law, but we hear the lawyer affirming Jesus’ statement of the Great Commandments. And Jesus concludes by saying to him in Mark 12:34, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
It’s not too far from us. It’s not out of reach. So easy a Samaritan can do it. So easy, thank God, that you and I can do it. “Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus. That may not be us. He also said “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which I know is me. Blessed are you and I when we realize how poor and wretched we are, yet how close to us is the rich love of God.
May the Good Samaritan, the Great Samaritan, find us by life’s road, dress our wounds, and carry us back to the place where He dwells. May He provide all we need, paying for it with His own blood. Then in the promise of His return, may we learn to be like Him, finding the way into eternal life as we share His love with our neighbors.
Lord, make us Samaritans like you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj