The story in Luke of the Good Samaritan is one of the most-quoted segments of Scripture. It is easy to dismiss because we have heard it so many times.
The story has so worked its way into our culture that “Good Samaritan” is now a term used to describe a person who does an unexpected good deed for another. But today would-be Samaritans” need legal protection, so every state has Good Samaritan laws in place to reduce bystanders’ hesitation to assist, for fear of being prosecuted for unintentional injury of wrongful death
Few other parts of Scripture present the mandate to help others so clearly. However, are our own Jericho Roads now so dangerous that the most responsible thing we can do is to stay away from them? Are there areas in North Minneapolis we should never go to at night? Can we keep ourselves safe at seemingly harmless events such as a sports marathon? Are we safe anywhere, let alone reaching out to help a stranger?
It’s tempting to make the Parable of the Good Samaritan too neat. We see the main characters as two bad guys (the priest and the Levite who cross to the other side of the road) and one good guy, the Samaritan who stops and helps the victim.
Two bad guys, one good guy. We want to identify with the good guy although in our hearts we may find the other two characters easier to understand. They may have been late for an important appointment, scared that the victim was faking and would hurt them, or worried they were walking into a trap. And, of course, the priest was not supposed to touch blood because then he could not do his temple job for seven days. He was choosing between duty and duty. Often that is our choice as well.
However, there are two more characters in the story: one is the bleeding man on the side of the road. In his book on parables, Robert Funks says that this is the one whom we really identify with, not the moral extremes of the other three. We have all been the one with no defenses, in desperate need of help, and at the mercy of anyone who comes by – or doesn’t come by because they cross over to the other side of the road. We are like the Polish Jew during the Holocaust, the one who is waiting to see which of his friends might offer to hide him.
All of us have been reduced, in one way or another, to a state of utter need, bereft of resources usually there for us, besieged by health or family issues, robbed of our security and assumption that life is fair, sick with anxiety for someone we love, not knowing where or when help will come. These moments may come once in a lifetime, or on each day in a lifetime. Robert Funk writes, “All are truly victims, when we are truly disinherited, truly helpless, and have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. And mercy comes from the quarter which is often least expected. Grace is always a surprise.” In this parable, Jesus calls us to be open to the reality that somehow God’s grace will arrive; perhaps in the form we least expect it.
For my racist father, reduced to a level of need that embarrassed and frustrated him, it came in the form of compassionate tender assistance in the nursing home from people of color. Grace happens, even late in life.
For my daughter Emily, driving home in the storm that pounded the cities two weeks ago, it came when she panicked and abandoned her car because of the trees that were falling in the streets and ran in the blowing rain to the nearest building, a seedy-looking Quik Stop gas station in what is considered a very dangerous part of Minneapolis. She pounded on the locked door and a man let her in to the darkened room – the power out. Here she met two cordial, gracious Muslim brothers who spoke enough English to converse with her and two others who came seeking shelter as the wind and rain attacked the windows and branches continued to fall outside. Grace happens in dangerous parts of town.
When I was going through chemotherapy some years ago, the advice I received was “Look for the angel in the room.” And invariably, there was one: a nurse, a hopeful article in a magazine, a generous comment to me from someone hooked up to several machines, with a bad wig on her head. Grace happens in the most heart-wrenching of settings.
Last week, Jered used one of my favorite lines in all of literature and I use it again today in a different context. It is from the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” set in a small apartment in New Orleans. The main character is Blanche DuBois, a still-beautiful but broken and troubled woman, a faded Southern belle who has lost everything but her illusions. As she is led off-stage by a doctor come to escort her to an asylum, she takes his arm and says to him, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” In a phrase, that is what our Gospel today is about: the kindness of strangers.
It’s tempting to skirt around the uncompromising message of today’s Gospel. For example, we can follow the example of the lawyer demands Jesus demands his terms, asking, “So who is my neighbor?” Funk points out, “He might as well be asking ‘Who is NOT my neighbor? Whom may I legitimately set aside outside my concern and feel good about myself?’ He wants Jesus to address the boundaries of the term ‘neighbor’ until with a little luck it all becomes so complicated that he can go home and live as he has before with a clear conscience.
Or we can argue that our culture is so different from the first century that the story loses its force.
What we can’t argue away or negate is the reality of the victim and his suffering because we have all been that person at one time or another.
There is, however, another character in the story we have not yet mentioned and that is the innkeeper. After the Samaritan brings the man to the inn, having tended him on the road, he stays there and takes care of him overnight. Then he puts him in the care of the innkeeper, whom he promises to repay when he returns. I choose to believe that the innkeeper accepts the offer and thus a community of care has been created and the Samaritan can go about his business. No Samaritan has to act completely alone.
“America’s rabbi,” Harold Kushner, who writes about the personal reward in knowing someone’s burdens have been lightened because you were there. He tells us this: “In ancient Israel in Biblical times, religion gave people something to do when they felt burdened by a sense of falling short of the ark and disappointing God. They would bring a sacrifice to the altar in God’s temple, not to ‘balance the books’ with one good deed to offset every bad one, nor to bring God to overlook their offense. Its purpose was to acquaint the or with his or her better nature, to let them know that there is a goodness within them, and courage and power and love.” This may be why we feel good, right, when we do what is good.
You know, this is a challenging lesson for a sermon because it’s so easy for the preacher to become preachy and moralistic. “Just do good,” I tell you! I pay attention to “signs when I’m writing, indications that I’m on track or off track. Last night, after a demanding weekend of phone therapy for two needy family members, internet and phone problems all day, and a funeral that pulled pretty hard at my heartstrings, I was confident that the sermon was fine and at 9:30 I finally sat down on the porch, took off “the boot,” put the ice bag on my foot, enjoyed a sip of my raspberry lemonade, and felt the cool breezes coming in the windows. I signed, and opened to a new chapter of what has been an exquisite book on beauty by the Irish poet John Donohue.
The first words I read were these: “We grow increasingly deaf to the worn platitudes of staid authority (oh oh). These forced didactic toes no longer reach our need (John!) Notions of self-improvement have become banal and wearisome.” Ouch. On cue, Lulu the cat voiced her opinion by throwing up a major hairball with all the trimmings. On the rug. At my feet. I took these two things as a sign that the sermon needed a little revision.
I left the lemonade on the table, went to clean up after the cat (after strapping the darned boot back on) and went to the computer. What took me there (besides the signs from John and Lulu) was the concern that I was being too preachy and that people may think that goodness, unembellished, is a quaint theme that is too simplistic, irrelevant and repetitive in this culture of complexity
But In my office last night I realized again that this parable needs no qualification or apology. It’s uncompromising, in your face, and life-giving.
So let me close with this statement of the day’s theme from Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Thank You, Mr. Rosewater. It is a part of a baptismal speech that the bushy-haired, wild-eyed protagonist makes at the ceremony for his neighbor’s twins: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – Gol darn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Because we each own a piece of the road.
Robert Funk, Funk on Parables, 1992.
Harold Kushner, How Good Do WE Have to Be?
Tasha Kyle, Kyle Ryan “15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has Or Will”, 2007.