Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 14, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
The story of the Good Samaritan has been allegorized, analyzed, and moralized, and dramatized. It has inspired painting, sculpture, poetry, and film. The colloquial phrase “good Samaritan,” meaning someone who helps a stranger, derives from this parable, and many hospitals and charitable organizations are named after the Good Samaritan.
The shock value of the story is lost on us who are reading it in the twenty-first century. The surprise is that Jesus would introduce a Samaritan as the role model—as the “good guy” who does what we’d expect the priest and Levite should have done.
Portraying a Samaritan in positive light would have come as a shock to Jesus’ audience, typical of his provocative speech in which conventional expectations are inverted. You may recall that a few chapters and Sundays ago, it was a Samaritan village that refused Jesus and his followers hospitality—a huge blunder in the ancient Middle Eastern world.
Samaritans were the most despised of all peoples. Calling someone a “Samaritan” was considered a huge insult. If we want to hear the story as the crowds in Judea did, just change the label “Samaritan” to one that reflects prejudices with which we are all too familiar. Who would be the last person that the world’s conventional judgment suggest we trust with our life if we were lying in a ditch bleeding to death?
In the time of Jesus, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for its danger and difficulty, and was known as the “Way of Blood” because of the blood which is often shed there by robbers. It’s possible that the priest and the Levite wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible they thought the man on the ground was merely faking, just acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to lure them there for quick and easy seizure.
And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
The victim has no name, one of a number of characters in the Gospel who remains anonymous. We know nothing about him except that he was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves who beat him and left him half dead. Jesus doesn’t tell us that he was a decent person or that he was a scoundrel. All he says is that he desperately needed help.
In the dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer, Jesus does not answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” but rather the question “Whose neighbor are you?” The answer is “Everyone” because Jesus does not limit the commandment of love as the lawyer probably wanted him to do like to those tied to him by blood or communal association.
Yes, we are everyone’s neighbor but the sermon Jesus preached to the lawyer and the crowd around him was not meant so much to instill guilt about what they do or don’t do, but rather to remind us not to confuse our philosophical or theological conversations about love with the doing of love. In more contemporary terms, this story tells us not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk by helping the other, the stranger we meet on the road of life, especially the most needy and even the unlovable.
The real issue is not so much who is my neighbor but who acts like a neighbor when, in fact, our neighbor may be our enemy. The deeper meaning to this Gospel is found in the extravagance with which the Samaritan cared for the man left to die. It is an invitation for all of us to be healed and caressed and comforted by the extravagant love of God.
Who among us has not felt like we were left by the roadside at some point in our lives? In time of trouble, don’t we all seek a place of safe refuge—no matter who we are or on what road we are walking; a place where broken sojourners may rest and be refreshed; where those of us who have been beaten up by the world or robbed of our peace and security, or who sometimes feel more dead than alive can check in and be bathed in the healing grace of our loving God?
This is yet another Gospel in which Jesus proclaims the radical hospitality of God and which opens up a window for us to recognize the depth and breadth of God’s compassion for each of us and the extent to which God so freely offers that to all.
Jesus used the example of a Samaritan for its shock value for his audience. Here’s another: this week the Klu Klux Klan blanketed a neighborhood in Milford with flyers in an attempt to instill fear in that community. A channel 8 news poll that evening asked “Are you offended by the KKK?” 42% said they were NOT offended. 42%! In liberal Connecticut!
Does that perspective infect some institutions of our society like the justice system? Our schools? The Church? Is this old story of the Good Samaritan still relevant? Do we need to hear it and retell it? To one another, to our kids? To embrace it? To “Go and do likewise?” Is it not for victims of violence still a matter of life or death? ‘Nuff said?