Pentecost VII, Proper 10(C)
July 11, 2010
Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Let us pray. Gracious God, as we hear once again the familiar story of the Good Samaritan read and preached, give us ears to hear anew your Word to us. We open our hearts to receive your timeless truths, not merely to give intellectual assent but to be changed by what we hear and by experiencing your presence with us. Amen.
I have mentioned evangelism for two weeks running. But just in case someone is getting the wrong idea, I also want to say that if the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody. This is because I believe that the most powerful things can happen when the church surrenders its desire to simply convert people and convince them to join solely for the purpose of increasing numbers. The old “Nickels and Noses” mentality. It is only when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the “un” and “non,” they work against Jesus’ teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, “God shows no favoritism.” Therefore we shouldn’t either. (Expanded on a thought by Rob Bell.)
One of the classic and most memorable lines from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” It is useful on any number of occasions, and I think it can be honestly said that it is part of the foundation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan which we hear in this morning’s gospel text.
How about you? Do you believe in the kindness of strangers? It is central to Jesus’ parable this morning and he is inviting us to consider it part of our calling.
Have you ever left your cell phone on a bus? How about your wallet in a cab? If you have, it is probably easy for you to call up the memory of the sense of panic that washes over you when you realize what you have done.
For a lot of us, our cell phones are a representation of our entire lives. Think about all the phone numbers and contact information, pictures, appointments and text messages that you have stored in there. Of course if you back it up often on your computer or with your wireless carrier, it isn’t that big a deal. But, given the fact that many people are too busy to make a backup plan or too cheap to buy the phone insurance, losing one’s phone is still the equivalent of leaving one’s life on a subway seat.
Defense Department analyst Alan Giese knows this. He was on his way home when he inadvertently dropped his cell phone on a Washington, D.C., street. When he discovered that his electronic life was missing, he frantically began dialing the cell’s number from another phone. He didn’t even know what time it was because, like a lot of 21st-century people, he kept time with his phone rather than a watch.
When a voice finally answered, the response was, “Yeah, I got your phone. But what’s it worth to you?”
“Twenty bucks,” said a frantic Giese. It was all the cash he had on him at the time. “My phone is my life,” he says. “If I’d needed to, I would have paid a lot more.”
What’s it worth to you? That’s certainly not the first thing you want to hear out of a “good” Samaritan. Many of us assume that there is some sort of unwritten agreement between losers and finders, and when we are on the finding end we get a special kind of rush when we’re able to unite someone with their lost valuables. The honest and heart-felt gratitude of the recipient is enough reward for most of us.
But, clearly, not for all of us. Some people look at the misfortune of others as an opportunity to make a quick buck. Let us call them “bad Samaritans.”
Bad Samaritans are focused primarily on maximizing their reward or, in some sense, recouping something of what they believe society owes them. Take the case of Los Angeles-based writer Andrew Cohn, who was cleaning up after a backyard party and found a wallet on the ground with $40 in it. “I’d just spent $500 on the party,” says Cohn. “I figured the money was the girl’s contribution.” He kept the money and left the wallet, with ID and credit cards, on the ground.
How did Cohn justify his actions? Well, he says, “If you expect someone’s going to return your wallet with all the cash, you’re probably a little delusional.” Davy Rothbart, who edits a magazine called Found, which features photos of lost objects, agrees with Cohn. “Really good Samaritans, if they find a wallet, they return it intact,” he says. “Some people find a wallet, take the money, but return the important stuff. That’s not evil.” I don’t know about you, but I do not want to misplace anything around either of these two men.
So, what does that make someone such as Cohn – a semi-good Samaritan? And what if you find a wallet but really need the money right now; does that make it okay to keep it as long as you give back the “important” stuff? Is “finders-keepers” you all-purpose ethical escape clause?
I would like to think that most of you sitting here this morning would answer a firm “No” to all of the above. In spite of the fact that we have seen a number of people playing fast and loose with the 8th commandment around here lately, we have in fact been schooled in Scriptures such as the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy 22:1-4, which instructs the Israelites on precisely what to do when they find a stray sheep or ox: You take it back to the owner with no expectation of, or provision for, any kind of reward. Whether it’s sheep or cell phones, demanding a reward from a vulnerable person are what is called extortion.
The lesson here would seem to be obvious, particularly when we compare the behavior of bad Samaritans to the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. When we read this passage a little more closely, however, we begin to see that the story has an even deeper dimension to it than just the ethics of helping. It really has to do with how we view people and, more specifically, whether we believe in the kindness of strangers.
Psychologists say that how you perceive strangers is a measure of how you perceive the world. If you believe that most people are intrinsically unethical and that they’d put the screws to you if given a chance, then you’re much more likely to put the screws to someone else if, say, you find a wallet or a cell phone or, as in Jesus’ story, if you find him or her battered on the side of the road. People who see strangers as outsiders, as enemies or as something less than themselves will default to treating them that way, rather than as equals, or, to use Jesus’ term, as “neighbors.”
The key to this parable is thus the question that prompts it. A lawyer asks Jesus, “[W]hat must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a question about ultimate rewards. For a first-century Jew, “eternal life” meant the life of the age to come, the ultimate covenant blessing that was in store for God’s chosen people. The lawyer perceived himself to be a member of the covenant community who, like many of his people at the time, held clear ideas about who was within the covenant boundaries set by the Torah and who was outside – who were friends and who were strangers.
Jesus questions him about the Torah law, and the lawyer gives the right answer – the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:5, which was about love for God, and its companion piece from Leviticus 19:18 about loving one’s “neighbor” as oneself. The definition of neighbor is the sticking point for this lawyer, so he presses Jesus for a legal opinion. Luke says the lawyer wanted to “justify” himself, which is a way of saying he was concerned about defining his “neighbors” as follows: “My neighbor is a fellow Jew, i.e., someone who lives within the covenant boundaries of Judaism.”
When asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer was really saying, “You’re talking about our own people, right?” Like many of the people of Jesus’ day, the lawyer apparently had big issues with strangers. This should sound familiar to those of you who have been following the ongoing debates within the Anglican Communion over matters of gender and sexuality.
Jesus responds with this story, one that has become so familiar to us that we miss the scandalous implications of it for people such as the lawyer. A man is on his way down the Wilderness Road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which implies that he is a Jew, when he gets set upon by robbers who beat him and leave him for dead. A priest and a Levite, who should be obvious “neighbors” to their fellow Jew, both pass by on the road and in the act of passing, refuse to offer help. Maybe they had good reasons; for example, their involvement with a battered body might make them ritually unclean to work in the temple. Although Jesus doesn’t elaborate on their reasons for not wanting to get involved, the fact that these two are representatives of the Torah and its covenant rituals and boundaries is very significant. The priest and the Levite – and, by association, the Torah and the sacrificial system – fail to act in order to save one of their own.
Who is the person that does act to save the beaten person? A Samaritan, a stranger and an enemy of Israel. To most first-century Jews, “good Samaritan” would have been a laughable oxymoron, as these half-breed people with their own temple were considered pariahs. However, this Samaritan stops, renders aid and takes care of the Jewish victim’s expenses. He does what the victim’s “own people” won’t do for him.
Although you have probably most often heard this story preached from the perspective of the Samaritan who helps, Jesus hammers home the point from the perspective of the victim in answering the lawyer’s question with a question of his own. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” (v. 36)? The stunning answer was, of course, that the Jew in the ditch discovered that the Samaritan was his neighbor and that the others – both those geographically, ethnically and religiously similar – were not.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer’s question was the same as that of the rich young man in Luke 18:18-25, and Jesus’ answer is essentially the same: You must learn a new way to be God’s covenant people and a new way of understanding God’s kingdom. And, for starters, you must redefine your definition of “neighbor” to include the stranger and the outsider. Jesus would live that out by spending time with the outcasts and, interestingly, the tax collectors who made their living essentially by extortion! Following Jesus means we are called to “[g]o and do likewise” (v. 37). We are called to see others not as simply labels, not as good or bad Samaritans but as people who deserve our presence and our help.
As people of God we are never to play “finders-keepers,” nor are they to see themselves as being more deserving or better than anyone else. When it comes to the kindness of strangers, we tend to get what we expect. If we’re kind and helpful to people we don’t know or who are in trouble, in every circumstance, then we are more likely to see that kindness returned. Even if we don’t receive reciprocal care and help, we know that God has called us to love the stranger regardless. That’s what it means to be God’s people.
Things do have a way of coming back around to justice eventually. Some would call this karma. Take Andrew Cohn, for example. A few hours after he replaced the now cash-poor wallet back on the ground, the owner knocked on his door. Cohn opened the door to find a drop-dead gorgeous woman standing on his porch. Although she was sad her money was gone, she was glad to have her wallet and credit cards back. She was so glad, thought Cohn, that maybe she’d agree to go out with him.
The problem was that he didn’t get her number, and a mutual friend wouldn’t give it to him. The friend’s reason? “You can’t ask out a girl if you just took her money.”
We can hope that maybe this guy will someday get a life, find eternal life and be a good neighbor.
Or to put it in a larger perspective, Martin Luther King Jr., in his April 1967 address “Beyond Vietnam” at New York’s Riverside Church, said: “We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”