Michael William Schumacher
When I went back to my sermon for this gospel text from 2013, I was shocked to learn that I mentioned in it the not guilty verdict George Zimmerman received the previous day in his trial over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The lectionary has moved through three years since then and America’s culture of violence and idolatry of guns has brought us to a place that none of us could have imagined on July 14, 2013. With the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the shootings of law enforcement officers in Dallas after a protest rally, our hearts are raw with emotion—with fear, anger, grief. I want to take a moment and allow you to sit in silence with those emotions.
As a nation, as Christians, we are like the man in the parable who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, was robbed and left for dead. We are bloodied by our wounds, self-inflicted though they may be, and are lying prostrate, immobile, unable to help ourselves, to bring ourselves out of the ditch of violence and hate and racism and make our way to a place of healing and hope. As we lie in our pain and our self-paralysis, politicians, pundits, and religious leaders walk by, unwilling and perhaps unable to anoint and bind our wounds, and carry us to a place of healing and hope.
We need this parable today, not because of its usual interpretation as a moral lesson to encourage us to reach out and help those in need. We need this parable today because like most parables, when we hear it anew, it challenges us to our very core.
First, the setting. A young lawyer approaches Jesus, and to test him, asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replies, “What is written in the law of Moses? What do you read there?” Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with his own question, “What does the law say?” And the lawyer responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Note Jesus’ response, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you shall live.” While a similar exchange occurs in Matthew and Mark, Luke makes a significant alteration in his telling. Luke puts the right answer in the mouth of the lawyer. In the other two gospels, Jesus responds with, “Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
If the story ended here, it would be one of those few occasions in any of the gospels where representatives of the religious establishment agree with Jesus publicly. But the story doesn’t end there. Luke continues, “But the man, wanting to justify himself, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Even now, however, we might read this as a debate over the interpretation of the law: 1st question, what’s the most important commandment? 2nd question, what does the commandment mean? Define the terms.
Only now does Jesus tell the story, and if you think carefully about it, it doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s question. Even Jesus’ question to the lawyer at the end, seems somewhat off-topic, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Off-topic, because it requires an imaginative leap. The lawyer was hoping that Jesus would define the limits of the category “neighbor.” Instead, Jesus’ story exploded those limits and the category.
You know that Samaritans were reviled by first-century Jews and that the feeling was at least somewhat reciprocated. There was a set of complicated reasons for this, partly religious, partly ethnic. Samaritans regarded only Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as authoritative, the Word of God. They had a built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, outside of Jerusalem, in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem. They were suspected to be the result of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish populations. Jews regarded them as impure and unclean, as heretics. Interaction with them made Jews ritually impure.
But the story is not about a Samaritan falling into a ditch and being helped by a good Jew. The story is about a man (whose religious and ethnic identity is not specified) who is robbed, beaten, and thrown in a ditch. He lies there suffering while two representatives of the Jewish religious establishment pass by. He lies there suffering. Does he even hear them as they walk by? Has he abandoned hope? Can he cry for help, even moan in pain? He lies there and a Samaritan comes to his aid, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. We can be certain that he welcomed the Samaritan’s actions; we can’t be certain how he would have perceived the Samaritan had they encountered each other in different circumstances.
The lawyer, too, gets the point of the story. Who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The one who showed mercy. The priest and levite walked by. They saw the man and did nothing. The Samaritan came by and he sees, too. But he also takes action. He is moved with pity, a phrase that’s used only two other times in the Gospel of Luke, once of Jesus when he meets the woman grieving the death of her son, and once in the parable of the Prodigal Son, to describe the father’s response on seeing his son return.
The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response forced him to completely rethink the very notion of neighbor, to include those who were not by any stretch of the imagination, his neighbor. We, too, are challenged by this parable to think about neighbor differently.
Who is our neighbor? It is not just those who live in our neighborhoods, people of similar economic and social class. It is not just people who look like us and share our values. Jesus challenges us to see everyone as our neighbor. That’s a task of re-imagination that is possible with God’s grace.
But there’s something even more important here. Even to use this language of “who is my neighbor” somewhat misses the point. The parable’s force and energy is not focused in the actions of the Samaritan. The action and drama begin with the man who is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and is mugged. For him, the question was not, “who is my neighbor” but rather, “who is neighbor to me?” And it turns out that the answer to that question is not a representative of the religious establishment, but a member of the most group most reviled by first century Jews. His neighbor was his sworn enemy.
We do it all the time. Our gaze is averted from the homeless people who walk our streets. When we see a black teenager in a hoodie walking down the sidewalk towards us, we might look away, or walk a little more quickly, or make a wide berth. We don’t see a neighbor. We see a problem or a threat. The same is too often true if we encounter a Muslim.
Some of us feel fear and anger when we see a police officer in uniform and for some of us, those feelings might be justified. Philando Castile had been stopped 58 times by police in the few years before that last, fatal stop for driving with a broken taillight. We need to acknowledge something else—that law enforcement officials, police officers are frightened and fearful as well.
Our nation and our city are in crisis. The racism and violence on which our nation were founded and which have persisted for the four hundred years since the first Europeans settled here has left a gaping wound which threatens to destroy us.
The story of the Good Samaritan is not about helping those in need. It is about breaking down the barriers that divide us. It’s about us seeing Christ in the reviled Samaritan who like Christ, was moved with pity when he saw someone in need. It’s about us seeing Christ in the man who like Christ was stripped, and beaten, and left for dead. It’s about us seeing like Christ, seeing our neighbor in the homeless man who sits on Grace’s steps, seeing our neighbor in the boy in the hoodie who is walking down the street. It’s about seeing like Christ, being moved with pity like Christ, and acting like Christ. May we, with the grace of God, have the eyes of Christ, the hearts of Christ, and the hands of Christ.
Lord have mercy on us.