The gospel of Luke gives us a fine sequence this morning:
- A teacher of scriptural laws approaches Jesus, and queries him about what one does in order to have eternal life.
- Jesus engages the man in conversation, turns the question back on him and the lawyer says that the most important commandment in the Torah, is actually two side-by-side: love God, and love your neighbour. Jesus agrees.
- In response the lawyer asks, “well, who is my neighbour?” How far did his care need to extend? To his actual next-door neighbour? To religiously observant neighbours? Even to foreign neighbours? He wanted to know where Jesus would draw the line.
- To which Jesus basically said, “line? There is no line.” And illustrated his point by telling a story with the most outrageous hero.
Bible commentator Mark Davis reminds me, that Jesus had just been rejected by a Samaritan village, so it wasn’t just the teacher of the law who would find the hero of this story to be outrageous. In this context, Jesus knew that everyone around him – the teacher, his disciples, maybe even Jesus himself – needed to examine what they thought about privilege, and prejudice. His call rings out, not just for those folks back then, but for us right now. And it may call out even louder for those of us in religious vocations, because the two men in this parable who decided that something else was more important than helping a beaten, bleeding traveler on a desolate stretch of road were clergy, just like me.
Both the Priest and the Levite in the parable would have been from the house of Levi. The Priest had specific responsibilities in the worship life at the Jerusalem Temple while the Levite who wasn’t a Priest would have played a different tole at Temple: a teacher, a helper in certain ritual actions, a caretaker, perhaps even a judge. (Fitzmyer II:886-7). Both of them were financially supported by contributions from the rest of the community, and both had specific expectations and limitations placed on them by the community, as dictated by the Torah.
The people hearing this story by Jesus, would have understood that this was a notoriously dangerous stretch of road, where ANYONE would be wary of stopping in case it was a set-up. They would also have understood the limitations that Priests and Levites lived within: if the traveler were dead, the regulations regarding purification after touching a corpse (such as Numbers 19) would prevent these religious men from performing their duties for quite some time if they’d come into contact with a corpse. Touching the dead man would do nothing to help him, but they would be letting down the worshippers at the Temple who needed them to perform their duties. This is a limited excuse, to be sure, as the Talmud makes it clear that everyone has a responsibility to help someone who is bleeding and they didn’t get close enough to check if he was breathing, but it gives them a BIT of slack.
But those same listeners would also have understood one more thing. The way Jesus tells the story, the traveler and later, the Priest and Levite were going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, not the other way around. The religious men weren’t on their way to temple, they were on their way home where nobody was waiting for them to perform religious rituals. The direction of travel tells us, that any excuse these guys may have had, was just that, an excuse. So why would they not have stopped to help the wounded traveler? Because of the inconvenience? Because they figured somebody else had already called it in on their cell phone? Because others would be better equipped to help? Because they didn’t want to get their hands dirty, literally or physically? Because of an exaggerated sense of importance, that somebody else could attend to this man/corpse, but nobody could possibly substitute for their crucial role in Jerusalem?
In telling the story this way, Jesus wanted to draw his audience in. He wanted them to consider the excuses one could make for a Priest or a Levite, or themselves. In fact, I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t have told this story quickly; I can imagine a pause, for his listeners to add their two shekels’ worth, perhaps excusing the Priest and the Levite to begin with but on further reflection, berating them for not helping… and wondering if there were times in their own lives when they did not help when they could have.
And then someone in the story does help. A Samaritan.
It’s hard to over-estimate the shock value of this. As mentioned earlier, Jesus and the disciples had just been driven out by Samaritans but it was WAYYY deeper than that. If there is someone in your life that you completely disrespect and distrust, that is the Samaritan. If we think of huge, intractable world conflicts, that enemy is the Samaritan. If we think of broadly-held prejudices against people of a specific race or ethnicity or class, or gender identity or political persuasion or sports team or whoever generally gets put down, that pre-judged group are Samaritans. It doesn’t even matter why the Samaritans were despised – there were religious and political and historical and racial reasons all mixed together – just know that they were despised to the point that the Samaritan was in great danger just walking on that Judean road. Like anyone racially profiled in our day, he would have been guilty of “walking on the road while Samaritan” and few tears would have been shed if HE had been the victim in the story.
With this parable, Jesus pushes us in our prejudices – that is, any situation in which we pre-judge, based on stereotypes, or generalized past encounters, or what our friends have told us, or something learned from social media. Jesus names our human tendency to imagine who our enemies are, who we can’t and shouldn’t trust, who is “lesser than.” He names those societal structures that consistently favour one group over another, the built-in advantages that dominant cultures give themselves in order to stay dominant. Knowing that his audience would have been told from childhood that Samaritans were no good, Jesus calls them on that, with a Samaritan hero who goes well beyond what was expected in this situation of dire need.
In our time and place, Jesus also uses this timeless story, to engage us in our disengagements. The Priest and the Levite, relying on their status and their self-importance, let go of the most basic human responsibility and leave a bleeding man to die. Even if they had been heading TO temple rather than HOME FROM temple, none of the excuses for their inaction are sufficient; ignoring human need has never been God’s intention. And while we might go through our entire lives, and never come upon a situation of such immediate need as the one Jesus describes, it’s hard to go through an entire day without being pressed down by the world’s problems. We live in an era of compassion fatigue, so bombarded with news of terrible things going on in the world every minute of the day that we are overwhelmed by it. As Rev Canon Andy Bryant pointed out this Easter Sunday at Norwich Cathedral, until about 70 years ago, when we saw someone in need we could actually reach out and help them, but since the advent of Newsreels and then Television and now the Internet, we are constantly shown images of dire situations beyond our ability to help, other than perhaps making a donation online. We know we can’t do everything, but as the notifications of bad news keeps bing bing bing-ing our smartphones all day long, they act as a disheartening chorus of reminders that there are terrible things going on in the world and we should do something about it – all of it.
And in the midst of all that, Lord Jesus, what shall we do? What is a faithful response to all of this? Here are four ideas.
The first, is a very personal one. Four years ago, when we first considered getting involved in refugee sponsorship, we realized that if there is an advantage to living in a world where things are as messed up as they are right now, it’s that there is no shortage of starting points. So instead of getting overwhelmed by trying to respond to all of this chaos, all of this injustice, all of this suffering, choose your starting point, and do something. Choose one thing to make the world a better place, by paying attention to what moves you at a gut level. Disciples of Christ Bishop T. Garrott Benjamin Jr. put it this way: if you are looking for the place where God is calling you to act, follow the tracks of your tears. For that which moves you to tears, will be a place where your heart meets God’s.
Another response, is to go beyond the personal. None of us is capable of doing it all, we can find partners in the actions God calls us to do. As a congregation, as committees or ministries or working groups we find others who are moved to tears by the same things, and get engaged, and stay engaged. Or if this language about something “moving you to tears” isn’t clicking for you, take another path: find something you are curious about or would like to know more about, that we’re already engaged in, and add your weight to that.
A third response, which can be personal or corporate, and it comes through the ancient tradition of confession: owning where things are right now, how that is contrary to God’s intention, and my personal piece of that brokenness. Do I have groups I dismiss or diminish, like the animosity toward Samaritans? If so, time to release that to God’s loving care. Are there immense issues in this world that infuriate or frighten me, like climate change? Don’t stop working on the big issue, but own your personal carbon footprint and make it smaller. Are there places where guilt or shame for past actions or inactions is thwarting you? Find a way, on your own or with others, to find a new and healthier path. In all of these, owning my part of the overall picture and finding a sustainable, accountable way forward, is a faithful response.
And while it might not be wise to put a bit of a caveat on all of this, please do remember the importance of Sabbath, down time when we can enjoy the gift of life rather than just grinding our way through it like a 168-hour-a-week job. However you choose to respond to the issues raised by the Parable of the Good Samaritan needs to fit within a healthy life that does have boundaries, between our own needs and the ever-present needs of others. The actions we choose in response to injustice, together or as individuals, will be so much more full and robust if it is held within the healthy intention of the Divine. Doesn’t mean we can just pass by a wounded traveler on our way home from temple, but it does mean we get to take a breath.
One day, Jesus said, a man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Those who were expected to help did not, and the one who did help was, well, a shocker. Hear these words, disciples of Jesus, as a call to engage in holy surprises, as we work with God toward a world that is just, fair, and freed from the vice grip of prejudice. May this be so, Amen.
Benjamin, Dr. T. Garrott, Jr. Videotape presented at Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership. Garden Grove, CA., 1999.
Bryant, Rev Canon Andy. Easter Sunday sermon, unpublished. Norwich Cathedral, 2019.
Fitzmyer, Joseph. Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke. NYC: Doubleday, 1985.
For further reading:
Swaity, Sharilee. https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Unscrupulous-Lawyer
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.