naming the Samaritan today

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, Luke 10:25-37

It is often helpful to reframe the stories of the gospels into our own contemporary understanding. To take the story from 2000 years ago and make it relatable to current events, cultural understanding, language that we use and relate to now. This can be especially useful when we talk about those stories that are so familiar to us. Even if you’re not a part of a worshiping community, even if you’re an avowed atheist and have never set foot in a church, the story of the “Good Samaritan,” is one that is instantly recognizable and has had deep cultural impact. It has come to stand for those who help others in need. It has become a protection for those that offer help. It is a story of morality, of ethical action, of how we are supposed to respond in a given situation. But, does our cultural understanding of this story match the historical context of this parable as offered by Christ to a Jewish lawyer, utilizing a traditional Jewish moral story structure? Are we able to connect today to how truly radical and shocking this story would have seen to this lawyer, to all who were gathered to hear from Christ? Is it possible to “update” this story to match the societal roles and expectations of each of these three actors, the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, and still have the revolutionary impact, the surprise twist ending that is offered here?

The more I thought about this task, of updating this story to a current cultural understanding, I wondered if I could do it justice. For a story that is so ingrained in our understanding of the world, for a story that we are so sure we know the point to, how can we assign current cultural and societal roles to these three actors? When we think we know how the story goes, how can we reconnect with the radical nature of this story as heard by faithful Jews in a predominantly Jewish culture (at least as far as they interacted with)?

Honestly, I probably cannot do it justice. Jesus was an expert at taking expectations and subverting them. And, I’m not sure there is a whole lot we can do to subvert expectations in our society today, at least not to the level we’re willing to think about.

But, that was sort of the point of what Jesus was sharing in this story. Forget what you think you know. Forget who the heroes are supposed to be. Listen to the point that is deeply ingrained here in this story, it’s not just one of subverting expectation, of being merciful, of going beyond the expectation of care. This story is about our desire to see ourselves as the hero, and being so very wrong. This story is about what it truly means to follow Christ.

A lawyer asks Christ “Who is my neighbor?” And Christ, of course, does not answer that question, but rather tells a story about what it looks like to truly see your neighbor and love them, with your whole heart and mind.

The Good Samaritan: 2019

A homeless man was going down from Longview to Vancouver, a road notorious for its danger, known locally as “the way of blood” for the threats and promises of violence made against the homeless, and fell into the hands of angry locals, who stripped him, beat him, yelling “go home!,” (the nuance of which was completely lost on them) and went away, leaving him half dead. 

Now by chance a local pastor was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 

So likewise a local politician, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

An undocumented immigrant traveling the road came upon him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him into his car, drove him to a hotel, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two hundred dollars and gave them to the manager, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the angry locals?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This story has many layers to it.

Do the priest and politician pass by the man on the side of the street because they have no desire to help, or do they dare not offer assistance to someone so hated in their local community for fear that it is a trap and the attackers lie in wait to attack once more any who would show kindness and mercy to this man?

Either way, what does it mean when someone else, someone who is also hated and despised in our local community, puts their own life in danger to stop and offer kindness and mercy to care for this person who has been left for dead? And not only offer it in this moment, but to ensure that they will receive whatever care is necessary for a full recovery, covering the cost of their care (including their hotel stay) out of their own pocket.

Now, my “updating” may not be perfect, it may miss some of the nuance that existed in the original telling of this story, but it begins to paint the picture that this story that Jesus told is not simply about helping someone once they’ve come under attack. It is not simply a story of ethics or morality. It is imperative that we don’t allow our cultural absorption of this story dominate the truly radical message that Christ is offering here.

In his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his own version of this story and interpreted the ending as such: “And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” This built upon previous reflections of this story, including from “A Time to Break the Silence,” “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

These reflections by Dr. King point to how the moral teaching of this story is more than simply “Be a good person and help those in need.” Jesus’ subversion of expectations in this story is so much more than a simple story of morality, so much more than a trick question posed by a highly educated lawyer looking to trap Jesus in a question of the law. This story of the Good Samaritan calls us to examine our own personal responses to what is happening all around us today and ask, who is actually loving their neighbor? Who, when presented with the opportunity, is showing love for their neighbor and living the life that Christ has called us into, a life that subverts expectations, goes against societal norms, that tasks us with transforming the dangerous road so no one is attacked to begin with.

Tomorrow, I am answering a call from Chaplains on the Harbor for Diocesan Clergy to join them as they help their worshiping community, their neighbors, their friends, as the City of Aberdeen extra-judiciously shuts down and clears out a homeless encampment present in Aberdeen. The City of Aberdeen is certainly not practicing any part of the Good Samaritan model, not the least of which would be the generally assumed cultural understanding we all have of it. There are easily over 100 residents (not to mention the at least 600 homeless that already live on the streets of Aberdeen) in the encampment that is being swept away, and the city has only made concessions for a temporary space for 40 of those residents to live in a cramped parking lot with only 100 square feet per site (in order to illustrate that size I have set up an example in our parish hall).

I’m not being the Good Samaritan tomorrow, I don’t think I’m going out of my way or putting myself in immediate danger to help someone that I should for all intents and purposes leave on the side of the road. But, I have to help my neighbor, I have to love my neighbor, I have to support all of my neighbors, including my friends and colleagues who are desperate for help in the face of unchecked power. I ask that you pray for the residents of Aberdeen, the homeless and housed alike. I ask that you pray for all who come together to help tomorrow, in the spirit of the Good Samaritan. I ask that you pray and reflect on what it truly means to be the Good Samaritan, today, here in Longview. To ask, how can we change the narrative so this story isn’t even necessary? How can we ensure that not only would all be willing to help any victim, but that we remove the possibility of victims in the first place? Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, we can answer these questions and know that through the power of our prayer and action we can change our community. Amen.

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