Mosaic of the Good Samaritan, Vienna Austria.
Studies have demonstrated that one of the ways our minds work is to save information or store an impression of places that we’ve been, particularly places that we spend a lot of time, such as rooms in our home, offices, perhaps our churches, and so forth. If it weren’t for this ability to store the memories of places we frequent, we would experience every entry into a space as though it were the first time.
This familiarity, while saving effort and preventing us from overtaxing our minds, also leads to the phenomenon of missing small changes in our environments. A book or magazine is moved, someone replaces a lamp, chairs are at different angles, or perhaps something more pronounced has occurred, like a room sporting a fresh coat of paint. Such changes may escape notice when we initially enter a place with which we are intimately familiar, and only enter our awareness when our attention is drawn to a particular detail.
There seems to be a similar phenomenon that occurs with stories with which we are familiar. We allow the details to fade out, because we remember the overarching narrative. We know what the point of the story is because we have heard it over and over again. The problem with this shorthand understanding of meaning, particularly when dealing with one of Christ’s parables, is that we can internalize incomplete or false understandings. When approaching a parable of Jesus, no matter how familiar, it is important that we listen to it with new ears, and seek to allow Jesus’ instruction to form us, as it formed his original listeners.
Although we can no longer assume everyone in our culture is familiarity with the parables, it is safe to assume that people who regularly attend church, especially those who attend church in liturgical traditions such as ours, are familiar with many of them. And of all the parables, one of the most well-known is that of the The Good Samaritan. And I would be willing to suggest that for many of us the point of the parable of the good Samaritan is that we are ourselves to be Good Samaritans; in other words we are to be good people, kind people, people who treat folks well and help those in need. And we’re not wrong.
This is indeed laudable, and is I would say part and parcel of forming a Christian character. But there is more to this parable than a calling to be kind. The call to kindness does not exhaust its meaning. Instead, it is a challenge to us from a few directions: a challenge not only to be merciful, but about those to whom we should extend mercy, and from whom we are willing, or should be willing, to receive it.
We tend to focus on the content of the parable itself–and rightly so–it is important, and it clearly strikes against some universal human tendencies. But while the content is important, we need to remember the context. As Walter Brueggemann writes “The question at the beginning is: eternal life. The answer at the end is: Mercy. [...] The story functions to change the subject away from life with God to life with neighbor. [...] Jesus’ story changes our life-question by plugging us into a world of violence. The subject is a street mugging, which seems far from eternal life. the great gospel questions are worked out midst the concreteness of brutality and nowhere else, brutality we work on each other, brutality we observe but in which we are, by our humanity, implicated” (Bruggemann, “A Zinger that Changes Everything, “ The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, 7).
It takes place in the context of violence. People will often make comments about Jesus and his teaching that reveal their evaluation of him as naive; that they believe he sees the world through rose colored glasses, that his teachings are nice, but not practical: “That Jesus, isn’t he nice. Love everyone… that’s a nice idea, too bad it won’t work in the real world.” But Jesus is not naive. He wasn’t whipped and nailed to the cross because he was ignorant of the human condition. This parable begins in violence, and it’s intended to show us how to live as disciples in the midst of a violent world.
The man is beaten and left in a ditch. Here comes the priest, and then the Levite–both of whom the listeners may have expected to help–only for them to see the man, and pass by on the other side, the implication being that they go out of their way to cross the road and avoid him. Their reaction highlights a failing we have all likely experienced, the tendency to allow our priorities to be turned on their head, for our closely held values to be eclipsed in the moment.
It can be hard… we talk about tyranny of the urgent, but there’s also tyranny of the trivial. Or at least, of the less important over what is of greater importance. Most things in life are fundamentally not emergencies, and yet we act as though they are, to the extent that sometimes we miss the actual emergency. Scholars debate whether the purity codes had anything to do with the fact that both the priest and levite avoid the man in the ditch, but regardless of the specifics, the parable implies that whatever they were doing was enough for them to avoid fulfilling the great commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They saw… and they passed by on the other side, leaving the man to his fate.
In contrast, a third person passes by and sees the man, and responds in a completely different way. Jesus’ listeners, like us, would’ve been trained to listen for the third example, the “rule of three” being a common device. Perhaps they already had in mind who it might be who would keep the spirit of the law and offer aid to the man. A Pharisee perhaps. If a respected priest and a respected levite passed by, perhaps a Pharisee (and remember, they were well respected), someone who devoted themselves to the study of the Law, would give aid.
But the third person, the one who offers aid, isn’t a better follower of the Law. At least from a Jewish perspective, he’s not a follower of the law at all; he’s a despised Samaritan. The priest and the levite are said to have seen the man. But then they avoid him. They haven’t really seen him. They looked at him, but they did not see themselves in him. In contrast, the Samaritan truly sees the man, sees his plight, and is moved with compassion and empathy, which motivate him to give aid.
And this reality brings us to the second issue the parable highlights: We often don’t really like to consider who our neighbor is. It is about who we should offer aid to, and the fact that we are called to extend mercy,
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man [...]” Jesus asks ”The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)
but it is about much more than that as well. When we ask who our neighbor is, we are not only challenged about extending mercy to all–a proposition that most Christians would at least claim to strive for–but also about who we are comfortable extending mercy to us. One commentator on this parable noted that it might be better to call it the Parable of the Man in the Ditch. Everything in the parable points to the fact that everyone involved, save the Samaritan himself, is Jewish. How might Jewish people of the day have felt about the idea of receiving mercy and charity from a Samaritan?
When we interpret this parable only as though we will always be the ones in a position of offering aid, we miss a good deal of the point. The parable is to help us recognize that the one who has mercy, and the one in need of mercy, are our neighbors–that is, everyone. But when Jesus says to the man presenting the question “Go and do likewise” he is saying to him “go, and be willing to learn, even from a Samaritan, how to be a better follower of God.” And beyond that: “Go, and be willing to receive mercy, even from one you would have called unclean.”
We have probably all asked ourselves if we’d be willing to extend aid to anyone in need, and we’ve likely recognized Jesus’ challenge to do so. The question for us as we leave here with today, I believe, is this: From whom would we be uncomfortable receiving mercy? The answer to that question will present to us a new area of our lives that is ready for the scrutiny of the gospel.
The Good Samaritan
And while I don’t know about anyone here specifically, I can say that our society, our world, has a lot of work to do in this area.
This is one reason I like to contrast the two renderings of The Good Samaritan that I’ve included in this blog post. In the one above, the Samaritan is a pleasant figure, and the whole scene is presented beautifully. In contrast, the image to the right presents the Samaritan as a Quasimodo-like figure, almost grotesque, and it depicts in a visual way the visceral negative reactions Jews of Jesus’ day would’ve had to receiving aid from a Samaritan, to being told that a Samaritan was their neighbor, and that they were therefore commanded to love them as a central tenet of their faith and obedience to God.
How would he have felt, that man in the ditch (assuming he was conscious), to be laying there, praying for help, to see his people, first a respected priest, then a levite, pass him by. Cross over the road to avoid him. Only to then be helped by a despised Samaritan.
Who is our neighbor? Who would we rather not receive aid or care from? Who do we fear appearing vulnerable with? Who is grotesque to us?
This morning (July 14, 2013), when I got in the truck to come to church, the first three stories on the news dealt with this type of division.
The first related to the court case out of Florida, where George Zimmerman was found not not guilty. I learned about the verdict last night when social media blew up with thoughts and opinions. Reading them, I was all the more grateful not to have a television, and not being tempted to listen to the thoughts of the talking heads. I know there are diverse opinions right here in this room about the case–I’ve talked with some of you about them–and I don’t need to get into that. None of us were in the neighborhood that night, and none of us were (physically) in that courtroom or the jury’s deliberation room.
That said, I don’t think anyone can honestly deny the deep divisions highlighted by this case. The anger, frustration, alienation and sadness that stands like a chasm between many of us in our society. The verdict reminded me of a picture I saw on a Facebook friend’s wall, maybe six months ago. He’s the pastor of a black church. In this picture many of his congregation’s adult members (it could’ve been all, or it could’ve been a quarter, I don’t know, but it was a lot of people) were wearing hoodies, and the caption read “do we look suspicious to you?”
That is illustrative of alienation, anger, and sadness . It’s undeniable.
As a pastor friend of mine (@rev_david) from Texas put the question: “Who was Trayvon Martin’s neighbor? Who will be George Zimmerman’s neighbor?”
Who is our neighbor? Who will we be neighbor to, and who will we allow to be neighbor to us?
The second story was about the death of seven UN peacekeepers in Darfur, a region of Sudan that where the people have endured a genocide.
The third was about bombs going off outside of mosques in Baghdad Iraq.
Who is our neighbor? This question echoes across the whole earth among all people and in every nation. Divisions may not be punctuated by IED’s and RPG’s everywhere, but people still suffer and people still die all over the world because of our inability to see the truth of Christ’s teaching. A teaching that stems not from naiveté, not from looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but from reality. The reality of human sin. The reality of alienation. The alienation of humanity from God and from one another.
I’ve mention Canon Andrew White to you before. He’s the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. He shared the following comment this morning:
We prayed and hoped for less violence but in the past 12 hrs it has only increased. Scores have been killed in post Ramadan parties, the terrible thing this time is that most of the killings this were directed at the Sunnis and their Mosques. Adding to the fact that we are in a Civil War. Today we look with churches around the world at the story of the Good Samaritan. We ask the question “who is my neighbor”. My neighbor is the other Sunni, Shia, Christian. (Help us Lord to live as one)
The question: “Who is my neighbor?” is always relevant because we always need to be reminded.
How do we get beyond this division? I don’t have a magic formula–and how I wish I did–but I believe we have to start with the small things. We can start where the Samaritan did, with really seeing the man in the ditch and being moved with empathy and compassion. We can start with seeing ourselves in others and seeing them in us.
We can start with actually being neighbors in the more general sense, for one. Recognizing one another in everyday interactions. Saying hello, helping each other in small things, building up the muscles of fellowship to handle the weight of greater adversity. As Wendell Berry writes in The Art of the Common Place:
For a human, the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and one’s self as a neighbor within it. I am sure that virtues count in the neighborhood–to “love thy neighbor as thyself” requires the help of all seven of them–but I am equally sure that in a neighborhood the virtues cannot be practiced as such. Temperance has no appearance or action of its own, nor does justice, prudence, fortitude, faith, hope, or charity. They can only be employed on occasions. “He who would do good to another,” William Blake said, “must do it in Minute Particulars.” To help each other, that is, we must go beyond the coldhearted charity of the “general good” and get down to work where we are.
The great task given us in this parable is nothing less than that of getting down to work where we are, and with the people God has placed in our path, and in whose path we have been found. Amen.