Our scripture lesson this morning hinges on a key question: “Who is my neighbor?” Like the lawyer in this story, we all know that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. But that is a mighty vague command. There is no way that I can love everyone in this whole world equally. So who is my neighbor?
Dr. Amy Robertson, Director of Life Long Learning at Congregation Or Hadash in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, tells a story about herself that helps examine our ambiguity and uncertainty about the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Once I running some errands with my young children. When I came to a stoplight, an old man crossing the street fainted and fell to the ground. I got out of the car to make sure that he was alright, and asked him if there was anything that I could do for him. He said, “Well, my brother only lives around the corner from here. Do you think that you could drive me to his house?” And she said, “Sure!”
However, once I was in the car with my children in the back seat, I began to have second thoughts. “What if I picked up a murderer? Am I putting my children at risk by helping this stranger.” (https://www.biblewormpodcast.com/)
The story ended well, but I tell it because I think that we can all relate to her thoughts. Being a Good Samaritan involves a certain amount of risk. Am I required to be a Good Samaritan to everyone? Where do I draw the line? Who, after all, is my neighbor? The lawyers question is a good one that we all have to wrestle with. But instead of giving us a straightforward answer Jesus tells us a parable to help us wrestle with the issue.
So let’s take a closer look at this story. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was a notoriously unsafe road. In 17 miles, the road climbs 3,000 feet through steep and rocky terrain. It was a perfect place for brigands to assault and rob travelers. Consequently, most people travelled in groups. This man, however, risked the journey by himself and paid the consequences. It would be as though someone ventured into a bad neighborhood at night all by himself. Something bad was bound to happen.
After he is mugged two other travelers pass by: one a priest, the other a Levite. We often paint these two religious officials as “bad” people. If the Samaritan is “good,” we reason, then these folks must be “bad.” Mitzi Smith, professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA points that the parable itself offers no moral judgement of any of the characters in the story. She says.
In the so-called parable of the “Good Samaritan,” no character is described as good or evil. All people are capable of doing good and/or evil. Ultimately, Jesus asks which character in the parable was a neighbor to the man who was robbed and assaulted. (Mitzi J. Smith, Working Preacher 2.21.21)
If anything, Jesus chose these two characters precisely because they were good people. We are not meant to judge them, at least initially, but to identify with them. We have more in common with the priest and the Levite than we care to admit.
I’m sure that the priest and the Levite had very good reasons for passing by. Think of all the excuses that they could have used:
- “I don’t know first aid.”
- “It’s a hopeless case, anyway”
- “I’m only one person; the job is too big.”
- “Someone else will be along soon.”
- “I’ll tell the next police officer I see and they can help him.
- “This road is too dangerous for me to stop and help the man.”
- ”He might be a decoy for an ambush.”
- “I’ve got to get home and see my family.”
- “It’s probably his own fault. He shouldn’t have been travelling through such dangerous territory on his own.”
It’s always easier to blame the victim than it is to help her, but that’s the way it is with human nature. If something bad happens to you, it must be your own fault. If someone is taken in by a scammer and loses their life savings, we say “They shouldn’t have been so greedy.” If children are taken from their parents at the border and placed in holding facilities, some people will say, “Well the parents should have known better than to drag them all the way to the border.”
And yet you should notice that the priest and the Levite were also travelling by themselves; the same thing could have happened to them. If they had been mugged, I doubt that their first thought would have been, “It’s my own fault.” They would have blamed the robbers (as well they should), and not themselves. That’s the way it is with us, however. What we condemn in others, we excuse in ourselves.
There is one other reason that the priest and Levite passed by. They had no emotional or social connection to this victim. Suppose these two travelers had recognized the victim as a priest or a Levite. Suppose they recognized the victim as someone who lived next door to them in their hometown, or as a distant relative from their family. Do you think they would have stopped then? Of course they would! There would have been a connection that obligated them to offer aid.
But the traveler had been stripped of all his clothes and so was totally anonymous to them. You can tell a lot by what someone is wearing, whether a suit, a work uniform, or just pair of jeans. But this person had no clothes, and so he was totally anonymous. They had no clue about who he was. For all they knew he could have been a tax collector or a Roman and so they felt under no obligation to render help.
You see, at root two things kept the priest and Levite from stopping—their own fear and his anonymity. When you have no emotional connection to a victim it is very easy to let your fears take over and keep you from taking action.
As Jesus continued with his parable he introduced a third character—the Samaritan. Now the Jews really hated Samaritans. Recently Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican representative from Illinois voted to impeach Donald Trump. In response, his family felt betrayed and wrote him a nasty letter accusing him of joining the “devil’s army.” Part of the letter reads. “It is now most embarrassing to us that we are related to you. You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name!” Regardless of whether you think Trump should have been impeached or not, I think it’s fair to say that the Jews would have felt the same way about Samaritans as the Kinzinger family now feels about him.
So for Jesus to put a Samaritan in the story would have been absolutely shocking. Since Jesus has talked about two high status religious leaders who failed, the audience would have anticipated hearing about a layman who got it right. But instead of a modest lay person Jesus introduces a despicable Samaritan. It would be as shocking as if he were talking about the 3 Stooges and called them Moe, Larry and Osama Bin Laden. Just the mention of the Samaritan would have been a shock and a slap in the face.
Let’s compare the response of the priest and the Levite to that of the Samaritan. Both the priest and the Levite saw the man, but their seeing is a superficial seeing. They see him with the mind but not with the heart. They make a rational choice based on a perceived threat and decide to practice social distancing. They avert their eyes and pass by on the other side of the road.
Contrast this with the Samaritan. The first thing we notice is that the Samaritan came near to him; no social distancing for him! The priest and the Levite apparently perceived the man from a distance, but I’m willing to bet that they didn’t come any closer than 15 feet to this man. They never got close enough to make a good evaluation of the mans’ identity or his needs.
Interestingly enough the Samaritan comes near before he “sees” the man. Now that doesn’t mean that Samaritan didn’t see him from a distance. I’m sure that when he was twenty or thirty feet away, the Samaritan saw this man lying in the road. But instead of keeping his distance, he came near to the man. He walked up to him, knelt beside him and looked at him deeply.
And there is an important lesson here: To see someone, you have to come near to them. As long as you hold people at arm’s length, you will never see them the way that Jesus sees them. I once spoke to a man who was homeless and who was now running a ministry serving homeless people. He told me that the hardest thing about being homeless is that nobody sees you. They almost always avert their eyes and rarely speak any word, let alone a kind word, to the homeless. The result is that though he lived in Manhattan, a city of 1.63 million people, he was all alone. Nobody acknowledged his existence.
The second thing that we notice about the Samaritan is that when he saw the wounded man, he was moved with pity. The Greek word here for pity is σπλαγχνίζομαι which literally means “to feel in the gut.” The priest and Levite seemingly felt nothing except perhaps fear and revulsion. They did a cold risk assessment of the situation and decided that it was too dangerous or inconvenient for them to do anything.
The Samaritan however had a visceral reaction; his gut was stirred to compassion. If we want to follow Jesus we need to have compassion. One hymn puts it this way. “Let your heart be broken for a world in need. Feed the mouths that hunger, sooth the wounds that bleed.”
The third thing we notice is that Samaritan put his compassion into action. He bound up the man’s wounds, put him on his donkey and put him up in an inn. He gave the innkeeper the equivalent of 2 full days of wages which should have been enough to get him lodging for a couple of weeks. He did all of this at great personal sacrifice for himself. Surely Jesus will say to him at the Last Judgement “Come, O blessed of my Father inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
At the beginning of this story the lawyer and we along with him asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Retired army chaplain Neil Donovan says
On the surface, the lawyer is asking who he must love. However, at a deeper level, he is asking Jesus to define the boundaries so that he will know who he is not required to love. If he can determine who is his neighbor, he will also know who is not his neighbor.
Jesus could answer, “Everyone is your neighbor.” Instead he tells a story that encourages us to shift our focus from the fence to the neighbor on the other side. When our eyes are focused on the fence, we cannot see our neighbor clearly. However, when we look at the neighbor, we will hardly notice the fence.
We would all like to have some hard fast rule that guides us in how we respond to those in need. We want to care about those who are inside our fences and exclude those who are outside. This parable tells to look past the fences and just see the neighbor. (https://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/luke-1025-37/)
But doesn’t that leave us in danger of being played and used? I suppose that it does. So let me offer three practical guidelines to help us live like Good Samaritans.
- Develop a predisposition to show compassion. That was the distinguishing characteristic of the Samaritan and one that we Don’t make rules about who you will help and who you won’t help, about who is worthy and who isn’t. Ask God to give you a soft heart to see those who are in need.
- Jesus to show you who you should help. We are not in charge of our own lives, Jesus is. If God sends someone your way who is in need of help, then you need to be listening to God and to respond with a generous heart. You can’t decide ahead of time whom you will help but you can trust God to show you when it is time to help. You should always be praying, show me, God, who needs my help and give me wisdom to find the best way to help them.
- Don’t erect fences, look over the fences to see your neighbor.