"The Good, the Bad and the Neighbor"
As a parent I’m always on the lookout for one of those teachable moments, when you have an opportunity to share a lesson that may be important to the development of your child. The background to this story is that I’ve been reading a lot about bullying in English schools—touch kids pushing around weaker kids. It can be pretty bad sometimes, and I think it’s my job to make sure that Ian isn’t either the victim of it or the perpetrator of it. In particular, and I thought this was strange because it’s not a significant problem in the US, kids with red hair seem to get picked on at school here...a lot.
So a few days ago I was on the bus with Ian, and I saw a young woman with pretty red hair. I pointed her out to Ian and said something positive about her hair. He looked up at me with scolding eyes and said:
“Ahem, Daddy. You’re married.”
I can’t quite describe the intensity of that particular moment of panic.
Did anyone else hear?
Was there anyone from the church on the bus?
Where was Julie?
I decided to store that one under the ‘no good parental deed goes unpunished’ file.
Our text for this morning is in Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan.
25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'[a]; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b]"
28"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
29But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
30In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two silver coins[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
36"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
37The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
In CA you see a lot of recreational vehicles or RVs—campers, trailers and the granddaddy of them all, the fifth-wheel. A fifth wheel is so big that it has to be pulled by a full-sized pickup truck, usually with an enormous V-8 engine. Remember V-8s?
People who travel in these trailers have a mindset all their own. There are little communities of huge vehicles up and down California and all across the United States. They pull into a spot with full hookups for water and drainage and electricity—some even have cable television so you don’t have to miss ESPN or HBO or the Cooking Channel when you’re out on the road. My sister and her husband have a trailer that sleeps at least 7 people, with a bathroom and shower, kitchen and storage for bikes and boogie boards and patio furniture.
On the back of a lot of RVs you see a sticker with a friendly looking cartoon character named Good Sam. It’s the logo for a club—the Good Sam Club—which pledges to stop and help stranded fellow RV travelers, rather than just passing them by. It’s a nice club, doing very nice and helpful things, and it’s also a complete misreading of this important parable. We’ve turned the Good Samaritan story into a feel good story about being helpful, and that has taken all the shocking, radical power out of it. What’s really happening in this parable?
It seems as though Jesus was always being tested. Someone who knew the Bible really well would try to trick Jesus into making a mistake—betraying that he didn’t know or didn’t follow the Jewish Law. People tried to test him a lot. He was undefeated, by the way.
In this little exchange Jesus and the Lawyer agree on the OT understanding of what it means to be a good person—to be a good Jew: Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. But then the lawyer asks Jesus the big question: Who is my neighbor? What he was really asking was Who isn’t my neighbor? Who do I not have to care about, not have to love, not have to serve in God’s name.
The whole tone of the question betrays a dysfunctional view of people, as though they could be divided between those whom we care about and those we are absolved of caring about. It also betrays a spectacular misunderstanding of who God is and how he sees his creation. The lawyer wanted to pick and choose who got his attention, but Jesus was about to show him a different way.
And so Jesus tells a story—it’s a popular one. After the man is beaten and left for dead, a Levite and a priest, representatives of the privileged clergy class in the first century, pass by the person in need. But a Samaritan helps the man out.
It’s important here to understand just who the Samaritans were back then. They were people of Jewish origin who had intermarried with their Assyrian conquerors. They used a trimmed down version of the Scriptures, and didn’t follow the entire Jewish Law and food rules. They were considered to be only slightly better than Gentiles, and weren’t even allowed to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem or associate with good Jews. They were outcasts. They were hated. They were completely separated from proper Jewish society.
So back to our story. This expert in the Jewish Law approaches Jesus to test him and says, basically: How do I get to heaven? Jesus responds with a question: What does the Bible say? Like any good Jew of the day he cites the Big Passage, Deuteronomy 6:5, Love God and love your neighbor.
But at this point the guy won’t let up—the text has a very interesting statement right here: ‘But he wanted to justify himself.’ Don’t miss that line—it holds the key to the passage. He wanted to justify himself. All through his ministry Jesus has been trying to help people see that only God can justify—that hoping to justify ourselves—to make ourselves clean before God through our own power—is a battle we can’t win.
When the lawyer asks Jesus who is neighbor is, it’s as if he was asking ‘Can you tell me a story about a good Jew?’ And Jesus responds by saying: ‘Not really, but let me tell you about a Good Samaritan.’
It’s almost impossible to describe how offensive this story would have been to Jesus’ audience. I spent part of this week thinking of examples or modern day equivalents, and even they were too offensive to share today. It was as though when Jesus was asked for an example of what a good person was like, he chose the most hated person imaginable as his model.
The twist in the story is that a question designed to draw limits on the love and community we’re supposed to show, produces an answer that calls us to do the opposite.
What does that mean for us?
First, notice that Jesus doesn’t soft pedal anything here—he doesn’t make the Samaritan the victim, so we could feel sorry for him, though even that would have been too shocking for most of Jesus’ listeners. He makes the pariah into the example, he makes the outcast the hero. This is a lesson for us in the judgements we make about other people. We’ve all got a type of person we don’t like, that we don’t think matters, that we assume God doesn’t care about. I won’t run through my list, but if I’m honest with myself I know it’s there. The basic message of this parable is that being a good neighbor doesn’t always have much to do with status—with being in the right club—with being from the right country. By showing us that the marginalized person can be the hero of the story, Jesus prompts us to see everyone in a different way.
Second, it’s important to remember that our neighbour might not just be someone in need—might be our partner in faithful ministry. This is key. The Samaritan wasn’t just the good guy in the story, he was the one who fulfilled the commands God had given to his people—he was the one who was living and acting in a way that God intended for all of us. He wasn’t allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Samaritan lived the faith that the proper people had rejected.
I found some things packed away this weekend that I’d forgotten about. This white band on my wrist is one of them. It represents the One Campaign, an effort across religious and party lines to encourage wealthy nations to devote 1% of their annual budgets in support of AIDS research and poverty relief in Africa. It’s not a Christian organization, in fact, there are a lot of people involved with the One Campaign that life lives we wouldn’t think of as Christian at all. And yet, they’re doing it—they’re doing the work on behalf of the poor that we’re all called to do. Last week Rev Jesse Jackson reminded all of us that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. When someone you disapprove of does something God loves, you’ve had a Good Samaritan moment.
In the end the most important lesson of this parable is that we shouldn’t spend another second on wondering who our neighbor is or isn’t. So much time is wasted deciding who we agree with and who we don’t—who we’ll associate with and who we won’t—who to blame for the world’s problems and who’s in the clear. It’s not about who our neighbors are or aren’t. The call of this parable on each of our lives is to make sure that we live as good neighbors, that we live as people who represent and model the love and mercy of Jesus Christ to those around us, that we serve and give with the same reckless abandon the Samaritan showed in providing care for the wounded man.
This parable is about so much more than just being helpful. It’s about how Jesus Christ helps us break down the walls that divide us. It’s about how the gospel changes our values and calls us to a new way of life.
I’ll still try to help Ian learn to avoid petty stereotypes and racism, once I figure out how to do it without looking like I’m on the prowl for redheads. But the real lesson I want him to learn is that the love we’re called to show as followers of Jesus doesn’t know or care or pay attention to the racial or ethnic or economic or even religious boundaries we’ve created. If we learn anything from the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s this: Our divisions shouldn’t prevent us from being instruments of God’s love and mercy and good news.
If Ian can learn that, then he can grow up to be a good person—a mirror that reflects God’s love to this world. If we can learn it as a church community, then so can we.