The Good Samaritan – July 14, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Track 2)
Once again this morning we have heard the parable we all know by heart: the story of the Good Samaritan. The story is simple: A Jew walking the 17 mile rocky and desolate road from Jerusalem to Jericho is beaten up by robbers and left on the roadside to die. Two professional Jewish religious leaders, a priest and a Levite, pass the beaten man and ignore him. A Samaritan layman, whom Jews regarded with great antipathy, sees the beaten man, is moved by compassion for him, binds up his wounds, carries him on his donkey to a nearby inn and pays not only for current costs but guarantees future costs as well.
This story is offered as a response to the second of two questions from a lawyer in a group who is listening to Jesus talk to his disciples. At first the lawyer asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question: “What is written in the law? The lawyer correctly responds that scripture says one should love God and his neighbor as himself. Jesus says: “You got it right, now go do what the law says.” The lawyer then asks his second question: “Who is my neighbor?“ And Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan.
There have been many, many sermons about this story that between them manage to analyze every one of the characters in the story including the robbers. Other sermons point out that the nature of neighborly love displayed in the parable is practical and realistic and at the same time lavish and extravagant. These qualities of practicality and lavishness together provide a vivid example of God’s love for us. God’s love for us is lavish and practical and this practicality and lavishness becomes the measure of what our love for others (our neighbors) should be.
For myself I am content with a simple answer to the lawyer’s second question: “Who is my neighbor?” Anyone who needs me is my neighbor regardless of race, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc and even political persuasion. Anyone whom at the given time and place I can help with my active love is my neighbor and I am his or hers.
For me this parable is also important for a reason other than the answer to the lawyer’s question. This parable is important because of how it is constructed, how it is presented. The whole story in today’s Gospel is driven by questions. The lawyer asks questions. Jesus also asks a question. The story leading up to the parable is not an intellectual debate or a didactic lecture. It is a model for us of how working together with others we can find meaning to words and experiences in life. Honest questions prime the pump in the search for meaning and faith.
When our children were growing up we had a book they liked entitled “Jonathan.” It begins: “Jonathan was Four the World was filled with Wonder.” It is a book filled with questions: “Where does the fire go when it goes out?” and What makes the rain come down the rainspout?” and “Why does it thunder?” As I have reflected on this book, I think it illustrates a central fact of life: namely that growth, intellectual, social, religious, and moral brings questions and the struggle to find answers to these questions leads to growth, intellectual, social, religious and moral. And there is no end to this routine as long as we live. Questions lead to answers and answers lead to further questions. There should perhaps now be a new book for me: Richard is in his Eighties and the World is Full of Wonder: with questions like: What and where is The Cloud? Why is Artificial Intelligence important?
Of all the tools in the toolbox of life, genuine questions, the answers to which will lead to deeper knowledge, closer relationships, and fulfilling faith, are among the most effective. By revealing the humility of the person asking them, questions invite others into relationships, engaging them in a common search. The answers to questions frequently lead to yet further questions. Science depends on this process, as does the sturdiness of our faith.
For us as a congregation of Christians this insight that genuine questions are the vehicle for growth in faith has special meanings. It legitimizes doubt, because doubt begets questions. There are probably some of you here today who, like me, have doubts about some aspect of traditional Christianity. There is no need to hide or deny these doubts, or feel guilty about having them. To the contrary growth in faith requires us to explore the questions that bother us when we try to articulate our faith. With this in mind, let me return to the story of the Good Samaritan and ask some questions. In our lives today, given the ability the media has to confront us with information and pictures of hundreds of persons in need in our country and abroad, how shall we decide which “neighbors” we will help? How are we to translate today’s story about one man caring for one other man so that it also applies to groups that are in need : undernourished children in our cities, exhausted families fleeing homelessness and hopelessness, parents of children killed in school shootings, rural farmers who have lost their farms to flooding? And when we have figured out how to make this translation, we will be confronted with yet another question: how are we to select which of those many legitimate needy groups that plead with us daily for help we will support or should we argue that this is the job of some level of government to address and we will just pay some more taxes?
I don’t have the simple answers to these questions. I am not certain they are even the right questions. Assuming they are correct, I do believe that the answers will be found in the midst of the conversations we will have with each other and our friends. The questions in the parable of the Good Samaritan launched an extended discussion in the Christian Church about caring for human beings who are in need. This conversation continued throughout the middle ages and it continues today. Like the initial parable, today’s conversations are driven by questions that challenge all of us to explore how our answers to the questions can be expressed through our actions toward our neighbors that exhibit both practicality and lavishness.