A sermon preached on July 11, 2010 based upon Luke 10:25 -37.
Sometimes the challenge in preaching is to take an obscure, seemingly opaque passage of scripture and unearth hidden meanings. With this morning’s scripture, we have the opposite challenge — a passage so familiar it can be tough for the story to come to life for us. The familiarity is such that pretty much everybody in our culture is acquainted with the expression the story inspires – the “good Samaritan” — which serves as a short hand interpretation of its meaning: If you want to be good, do like the Samaritan did, caring for people we encounter who are in need.
It may be surprising to realize that the term “good Samaritan” never actually occurs in the story. Not only that, but in another Gospel story when a man addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” Jesus cuts him off saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” In this morning’s story, once again Jesus seems to be challenging our basic notions regarding “good” and “bad” people by having the guy who does the good deed be a Samaritan, a group of people that Jesus’ listeners would have routinely thought of as “bad.”
Here is an interesting detail of our story: there are five characters, four of which are identified as members of sub-groups of role and culture. The priest, the Levite, the Samaritan and the innkeeper. The only character who isn’t identified in terms of a category is the man who lies dying at the side of the road. All that matters is that he’s a human being, for God’s sake.
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid categorizing people. A census of our country is taking place as we speak, which is all about categorizing the people of our nation.
There was a funny Saturday Night Live skit recently in which Tina Fey plays a census worker who knocks on the door of an apartment. An old woman played by Betty White of Golden Girls, opens the door. The census worker introduces herself and proceeds with her questions.
“How many people live here?”
“None? You don’t live here?”
“Oh, you mean including me? Three.”
Confused, the census worker proceeds by asking the woman to describe her race or ethnic origin, to which she begins giving a rambling answer. The worker cuts her off.
“No, I mean, would you identify yourself as ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Pacific Islander’…”
“Pacific Islander!” says the old woman happily. “Let’s try that!”
The census worker asks the old woman what her name is, and she gives an usual Swedish-sounding name.
“How do you spell that?” she asks.
“S – M – I – T – H.”
Finally she asks the old woman if anybody else lives there with her part time.
“Oh yes,” she answers. “There’s Fluffy, Princess, Tiger, Socks…”
“Maam, these are people and not cats?”
“Well, sometimes when they’re lying in my lap and I look into their big eyes, I think there’s just no way of telling.”
Exasperated, the census worker gives up. “Well, we’re done. Thank you for your time.”
“Good day, sir,” replies the old woman. She turns and reenters her apartment. “Fluffy, get down from there!” she snaps. A man who appears to be a street person steps forward from her apartment.
“I was just chasing some mice,” he says, nuzzling the old woman.
When we hear Jesus’ story, our first response it to approach it like a census worker, trying to categorize ourselves and the people we know in terms of the characters in the story. Who is the priest? Who is the Levite? Who is the Samaritan?
If we let the story get inside of us however, we find ourselves responding more like Betty White messing with the categories. We realize we are, in fact all of the characters: We are the Priest, the Levite, the Samaritan. We are even the man dying at the side of the road.
In the end, the thing that distinguishes the Samaritan in this moment of time is simply that he comes near to the man lying at the side of the road. The others keep their distance. In doing so, he reminds us of Moses, who, in the midst of doing the routine of his job turns aside to draw near to a bush that was burning but not consumed, and doing so, has an encounter with the Living God.
‘Coming near’ is what the Gospel is about. God chooses to come near to us, which is the meaning of ‘Emmanuel’. God puts on flesh to draw near to us, sharing in stinking stables, aching bellies, the cold of the night, and everything else we human beings experience through our flesh and blood.
Last week our Gospel lesson was a passage that comes earlier in the tenth chapter of Luke, in which Jesus sends his followers out into the world to live the Gospel life. They are to draw near to people, finding accommodations through the hospitality of strangers. The only message they are given to proclaim is this: “The Kingdom of God has drawn near.”
Christianity is not so much a set of beliefs, rather, it’s a way of life to which Jesus calls those who would follow him. Often, however, we become pre-occupied with having the ‘right answer.” Jesus told his story in response to a lawyer who wanted the ‘right answer. ‘
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked.
Jesus doesn’t answer the question; instead, he directs the man back to the scriptures and asks him what he finds there. The lawyer says that from his reading he has concluded that what is needed is to love God and to love his neighbor.
Good answer, says Jesus. “Do this and you will live.”
Right answers in and of themselves don’t matter much. There is a big difference between knowing that love is the answer and embodying love.
So the practical question we are left with in the end is how can we move towards living more often in the manner of the Samaritan who, in that particular moment, was willing to draw near to the mystery of the other, who in this instance happens to be lying at the side of the road. In the end, this is the only sort of life that is real.
The only way to become more like the Samaritan is to recognize that we are quite capable of passing by the man at the side of road, and therefore we have no basis upon which to judge anybody. It comes from the growing awareness that we are the man dying at the side of the road.
In the end, our only hope is realizing that we’re all in this together. There is a story I once heard about a farm community in the Midwest where a young girl got lost one day out in the corn fields. As word spread, the whole community got caught up in the anxiety about the lost, little girl, and everyone joined in the search. As the sun set without locating the girl, someone realized what they needed to do. “Let’s all join hands, and make long sweeps of the fields together.” They did so, and before long they had located the girl, exhausted, having fallen asleep beneath the corn stalks.
We’re all in this together, so let us draw near and join hands. The story that Jesus told values human bodies. Bodies can feel pain and neglect, but they can also experience the sensations of beauty and love. Bodies can reach out and clasp hands.
I want to finish this morning by describing a performance art piece my son Andrew told me about that was created on the streets of Denver. I’m not sure exactly what it means or how it applies, but the images of the piece are striking.
We often think of art as being something humans do with inanimate objects, but this piece of art involved human beings as well. The designers of the piece built a clear plastic box about the height of a human being. At shoulder level on two sides of the box there was a hole large enough for a person to reach his or her hand inside.
Inside the box was a beautiful, ornate glass sphere, too large to pass through the holes.
The box was placed on a city sidewalk. The performance art piece began with someone standing beside the box, her arm extended inside. In her upturned hand was the glass sphere. If she lets go of the sphere in order to remove her arm, the beautiful sphere will fall and shatter on the sidewalk.
What happens? Well, over time another person comes to her assistance. He or she reaches into the box from the other side, takes the sphere in their hand, thereby freeing the woman to remove her arm. And so it goes.
The art piece got me thinking about a study done at the seminary in Princeton, the results of which didn’t speak so well about human beings, or at least, aspiring preachers. A bunch of theological students were told to prepare a sermon on, of all things, the story of the “Good Samaritan”. They then were told to walk across the campus to a certain building where a group of people would be waiting for them to deliver the sermon. On their way, they passed a man sprawled on the ground, feigning a heart attack.
You guessed it. The vast majority of the students passed the man in order to reach their destination on time where they were expected to deliver the sermon about the man who stopped to help the man dying at the side of the road.
In the case of the performance art piece on the streets of Denver, the impression given of human beings was more hopeful. Despite the fact that over time holding the glass sphere became rather uncomfortable, it remained held in the air endlessly, supported by a great network of strangers who came together to relieve one another. Everyone who participated in the network was involved in both offering help and asking for help. All the persons who drew near in response to a plea for assistance felt an obligation to continue to hold the sphere in the air, honoring the legacy of those who had stood there before them. No one was willing to let the glass sphere fall to the sidewalk in order to find relief.
We are the man dying at the side of the road. We are the Samaritan drawing near to do what he can. We are all in this together.