July 14, 2017 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Summer is a wonderful time for reading whether on the beach or while on the porch in the evening with a cool breeze blowing through; it’s a great time for stories to be told and shared within families and among friends during our vacations or simply when we allow ourselves the time to just relax. Our reading from Luke today is one of the many stories Jesus shared as part of his ministry of preaching and teaching. The passages around this story help illustrate Jesus’ hopes for community; he often shared parables and stories to make a point, to help people take something away with them as they made their ways back to their homes and their daily lives. Much like preachers today, he was probably often thinking of a way to provide clear examples to illustrate his meaning…and so we have our story of the Good Samaritan, which I trust is a story that most people would be able to re-tell, even if you weren’t raised reading the Bible. Let us pray, Loving creator, we gather here to listen, to reflect, to be challenged and comforted. Be with us now in these moments and continue to inspire us to live lives faithful to your hopes for our world. Amen.
“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks. We may also ask, “To whom am I neighbor?” And what’s the answer here, the one who is my neighbor is the one who shows compassion; that’s what religion is meant to be about. Living a spiritual life is not about how much you know, and it’s not about how much you do. It’s essentially about how compassionate a person you are.
Some of you may have heard stories about Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey, who served as mayor of Newark before he was elected to the Senate. “After his election as mayor, instead of living in posh, mayorly quarters, he continued to live in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city to better stay connected with the people. During a 2010 blizzard that paralyzed the city, Booker grabbed a shovel and got to work.” (Los Angeles Times, 2012)
He put himself right in the middle of people’s lives in the community in which he served as Mayor for seven years. He still lives there, at least when he is back in New Jersey. He wanted to be with the people and in some way to understand what it’s like, what people are going through…and not just for a day, not for a week, but as a long-term commitment to better understand what people’s lives are like day to day. And like a good neighbor, he has showed up for people in times of need, including in 2012 when he raced into a burning home to help save a woman from a fire. It is clear that choosing to live where he does has had an important impact on how he thinks about politics and policies as well as compassion and care for others. Life experiences can change us; we can choose to be open to experiences that open our hearts to others, that remind us that even in the midst of good times in our lives, others may be struggling or vice verse.
When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he says, this is what I’m here to explain. This is what a life of compassion should look like…somebody meets someone who has been victimized; they feel the pain of that person and it moves them to do something about it. That’s what a follower of mine should do in one’s life. The broad story of Christianity is this. You might imagine it told in a short comic strip. Jesus is with God and sees this little planet where people are living, this amazing experiment of the human race, but something is wrong. Jesus decides to come into the world and live in it, be part of it, to learn compassion by walking with those who are in pain and struggling, those feeling left out and marginalized. His time is cut short, and perhaps he is thinking all the time, “How am I ever going to help people better understand compassion?” As a teacher, he decides to tell stories that give people a better understanding of what the point of life is.
We might say that the story of the Good Samaritan is really one of the highlights of Jesus’ entire teaching career. People remember it; young people remember it and it’s told again and again. The concept of a Samaritan in Jesus’ day would not have been the person who would have stopped to help; Samaritans and Jews were enemies, but in the aftermath of this story, The Good Samaritan has become synonymous with one who is compassionate.
Writer Debi Thomas shared some wonderful reflections about this Luke passage in a recent commentary I read titled, Afflicting the Comfortable. She notes that Jesus’ parables are so familiar to us that they don’t always present a new challenge. Jesus told this story in response to a question he received from a lawyer in the crowd one day who asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response, Jesus asked him what the law says about this question, and he replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Great, he can quote this, but then the lawyer wants further clarification and so he poses this central question to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
In her analysis, Thomas goes on to say, “I wonder if what the lawyer really means is, “Who is not my neighbor?” As in: how much love are we talking here, Jesus? Can you be specific? Where should I draw the line? Outside my front door? At the edges of my neighborhood? Along the religious and cultural boundaries I was raised with to keep me pure and holy? I mean, there are lines, aren’t there? There must be lines. We can’t be neighbors with everyone!”
The listeners to this story at the time of Jesus and in our time are invited to place themselves in this story. On our worst days, we might admit that we easily could have been the Levite or the priest who just walks on by, and on our best days, we hope we would have been the Samaritan, the one to stop and take the time out of our day to really feel the person’s pain and be present to him.
What if this story is actually a reversal story and we’re meant to put ourselves in the role of the victim in this story? If we consider the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans in the time of Jesus, we have to understand that these two groups disagreed on almost everything; they truly disliked the other; they understood their faith in very different ways; they hated each other, so for Jesus to place the Samaritan in the role of the hero in this story would have been scandalous to the people of his day.
If we had been the one robbed and beaten, who might we imagine to be the absolutely last person on earth who would reach out to help us out? As Thomas writes, “Is there anything we can do in our 21st century lives to recover the scandal at the heart of this parable? Because its heart is a scandal. Think about it this way: Who is the last person on earth you’d ever want to deem “the good guy?” The last person you’d ever want to ask for a favor — much less owe your life? Whom do you secretly hope to convert, fix, impress, control, or save — but never, ever need?”
“So what Jesus did when he deemed the Samaritan “good” was radical and risky; it stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to dream of a different kind of kingdom. He was inviting them to consider the possibility that a person might add up to more than the sum of her political, racial, cultural, and economic identities. He was calling them to put aside the history they knew, and the prejudices they nursed. He was asking them to leave room for divine and world-altering surprises. “ (Debi Thomas, Afflicting the Comfortable; Journey with Jesus.net)
As we move through our lives, we are taught certain values from our parents; as we grow into adulthood, we make choices based on the values that we have embraced from family, from friends, from life experiences, and from spiritual teachers, hopefully including Jesus…as people of faith, as people trying to follow his ways. We try to learn the lesson of what it means for our hearts to go out to those who are in need….and it’s not easy and it’s something we have to keep practicing throughout our lives. I think that it is often when we are at our lowest points whether due to illness or emotional pain, divorce or job loss, that we can better understand what compassion means; I’m sure that many of us can remember people who showed up for us in difficult times; perhaps some whom we never would have expected. In turn, when we see another in pain or struggling or suffering, we may respond more urgently to their needs and reach out without judgement, to extend a hand, to extend support and concrete help. Thomas writes, “What shall we do to inherit eternal life? Do this. Suffer the vulnerable-making affliction of this. Recognize yourself in the desperate victim, and allow the one you hate the most to snatch you back from death. Do this and you will live.” (Debi Thomas, Journey with Jesus)
Of course, it is impossible for me to preach about being a good neighbor without agonizing about how to respond to what is going on in the detention centers in some of our border states where migrant children are being held in our name, in all of our names. In recent weeks, there have been deeply disturbing pieces in the major newspapers that document appalling stories of abuse and conditions not worthy of any human being. Who is our neighbor? Certainly these powerless children are neighbors calling to us, afflicting our comfort, and demanding that we speak, that we act on their behalf. If they were our children, would we not want the same in return?