That Good Old Samaritan

The following is the manuscript of a teaching Leah gave at Haven on 3/8/2015.

Though only 26 years old, Kayla Mueller had long been a humanitarian.  According to her father, she discovered as a young person that her life’s purpose was to ease the suffering of others.  She grew up in a small mountain community in Northern Arizona, but worked to bring awareness to her town of global issues of injustice.  She worked to educate community members about HIV and AIDS, she protested genocide in Darfur, Sudan, and volunteered at the women’s overnight shelter. She traveled to Palestinian territories, Israel, India and France doing humanitarian work.

And then in recent years Mueller became interested in the struggles of Syrian refugees, being introduced to the issues surrounding them by her boyfriend, who was Syrian.  So she and her boyfriend moved to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees.  And one day in August 2013 they traveled to a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, where they were kidnapped.  They were taken hostage by ISIS.  While her boyfriend was released, and fought to gain her release as well, all attempts to free Kayla were unsuccessful.  She was held by ISIS as a hostage for 18 months, and in February of this year, she was killed in the conflict there.

Kayla’s memorial service was held this weekend in her hometown.  Person after person gathered there paid tribute to her and honored her as the "Ultimate Good Samaritan".  Kayla was also a woman of faith.  She made clear in her letter to her family, written as she was held hostage, that she understood herself to be doing God’s work.  So it seems fitting that she should be remembered, by her friends, by other Christians, as well as the secular media outlets who covered her story alike, as a person who embodied one of Jesus’ most famous characters.

The parable of the Good Samaritan has a reach that goes far beyond Bible Studies and Sunday Schools.  It’s a story that has come to be a part of our collective cultural consciousness, even for those who may have never read the text the story comes from in Luke 10.  A “Good Samaritan” has become the term usually used to refer to a person who charitably steps in and helps a stranger.  Good Samaritan laws have been established in all 50 states to protect these local heroes and heroines so they might not be liable if their aid work turns out to to be unsuccessful or there are other complications that result because of it.  

Even here in San Francisco, arguably one of the most secular cities in the US, the mayor of the city just this week published a guest column in the San Francisco Examiner encouraging property owners to join his program that provides affordable housing to renters who are displaced from their rent-controlled homes by fire, earthquake, or other natural disaster, as happened to 50 families recently when an apartment building caught fire in the Mission district.  The program allows them to move into other housing but continue to pay the rate they paid before they were displaced, at least for a period of time. Mayor Lee said in his column he was looking for landlords to help him build a “robust network of Good Samaritan Property owners” to help protect the vulnerable in the city who are in need of affordable housing. 

Théodule Ribot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Théodule Ribot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So today, we are going to take some time to look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It seems an appropriate story to look at as we further consider our theme this Leap of Faith of Bursting Social Bubbles and expanding our connection to the world around us.  And though, for many of us this may be a familiar story, I’m going to ask us, as best we can to leave behind our current cultural understanding of what a Good Samaritan is, and try to take a fresh look at Luke 10.  We’re going to try to engage the story not in the context of a civil law or a children’s morality tale, but the way it was experienced by those followers of Jesus who were gathered the day Jesus told this parable, or perhaps by the early church members who first heard it when Luke’s gospel was read in the house church they gathered in every Sunday, like we’re doing here today. Try to hear it like they heard it - for the first time. And from that place, we’ll ask the question of how Jesus might speak to us through the story he told over 2,000 years ago.

This is the first of Jesus’ parables that we’re spending significant time with as a group, so a few words about parables could be helpful.  One of my New Testament seminary professors was Klyne Snodgrass, and he’s considered one of the premier experts on the parables today.  He calls parables, “stories with intent”. Parables are not simply stories Jesus told for entertainment, or to communicate simple moral lessons.  They are stories that are meant to provoke a response.  They are tools that intend to impact the listener in a way that causes them to react, and react in such a way that they must live differently.  Shock, confusion, indignation - all of these can be emotional responses that Jesus is soliciting with his storytelling but it is always towards an end.  The question for us in interpreting any given parable is “in telling this story, what was Jesus’ intent”?  What did he want to happen to his audience?  And what did he want them to do about it?

Luke is the only gospel writer to include this particular parable in his account of the life of Jesus.  So likely it’s inclusion tells us not only something about Jesus, but also something about Luke and what he thought was most important to communicate in his portrait of Jesus. By way of reminder for those who have been reading along, the context for this story is that Jesus has just sent out the seventy and seen them come back proclaiming all of the amazing things they’ve done with his power in his name.   And then we get this story.  So let’s pick it up at Luke 10, vs. 25.

25 Now an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you understand it?” 27 The expert answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind , and love your neighbor as yourself .” 28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 

29 But the expert, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, but when he saw the injured man he passed by on the other side. 32 So too a Levite, when he came up to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. 34 He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever else you spend, I will repay you when I come back this way.’ 36 Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 The expert in religious law said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” So Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” 

So before we get to the parable itself, we need to look at the setup, because certainly that is key in understanding the intent of Jesus in telling this parable.  The account begins with Jesus fielding a question, but it’s not coming from just anyone.  The text tells us this person is an “expert in the religious law”.  Now it isn’t totally clear whether this person is nefariously trying to trap Jesus or simply engaging in some scholarly-type back and forth, but either way, this is one of those places where Jesus brilliantly responds by answering a question with a question.  Rather than playing into the law expert’s hand, whatever his intention is, Jesus punts the question back at him.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. 

And Jesus responds with, “how do you understand the law?”  It’s as if he’s saying, “Well, you’re a legal expert; shouldn’t you know?  Why don’t you tell us what you think?”

Now what the legal expert responds with is impressive, it even seems so to Jesus.  He reaches for two different laws from the Hebrew Bible, laws that occur among many, many others, in two different places of Scripture, one in Deuteronomy and one in Leviticus, and he lifts these two out as the core essentials around which the law itself is built.  

The first statute he grabs is commonly known as the shema, and it was a central verse that observant Jews prayed twice a day.  Deuteronomy 6:4 reads, “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”  Shema is the Hebrew word for “Listen” which is why this verse was called the shema.  But the passage goes on.  In verse 5, it reads, “You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.”

So this is the first statute that the legal expert correctly identifies as central.  The second comes from Leviticus 19, in the midst of a series of laws dealing with issues of justice. Verse 18 reads, “You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” 

It’s as if what the man is saying is, “there are thousands of statutes throughout the Torah, but if you had to boil them down, they come to this.”  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  And he does this well.  Elsewhere in scripture, we have folks asking Jesus similar questions and Jesus himself brings together these two laws and proclaims them as the core truths.  This happens consistently enough throughout the gospels that students of the New Testament have given this pair of Old Testament laws a name: the love command.  But here, in Luke 10, Jesus doesn’t need to state the priority of the love command.  The legal expert gets that himself and Jesus praises him for it.

But, as this man demonstrates in his next question to Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” the love command, taken at face value, can be problematic.  Its problematic because loving God and neighbor whole heartedly is easier said than done.  Clearly this guy thinks it’s impossible to actually live, at least without some parameters.  So here, the legal expert seeks to clarify the parameters, in an attempt to “justify himself” Luke tells us.  Well, what does that mean?

There was a group of Jews in Jesus’ day, which this man may have been apart of, that held the opinion that the obligation for loving the other only need extend toward the righteous.  If Jesus, agrees with this point of view, than no doubt, this guy feels he is set, “justified before God” because at least he knows how to love other righteous people like him, or so he thinks.  So perhaps that’s what he’s looking for from Jesus when he asks the question.  Assurance that he’s doing what’s expected of him.

But of course Jesus is not about to let him off the hook.  Instead he’s going to use this question, “Who is my neighbor?” to teach a lesson, and out comes our parable.

The story Jesus chooses to tell is about a man, whom we can presume to be a Jew, walking from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Now this would have been a meaningful setting to everyone in Jesus’ audience.  The 17-mile desert road that descended about 3,300 feet from Jerusalem to Jericho was treacherous, winding, and a favorite haunt of robbers.  This was a dangerous place to be, and everyone there would have known it.  Think East Oakland, or the Tenderloin in San Francisco.  This is a place where what happened to this man would not have been a shock.  It might have even been expected.  He’s attacked, he’s robbed, Jesus says he is left half-dead.

And then in the midst of this scene come a parade of three passer-byers, one at a time.  The first is a Priest, one of the special class of Jews who minister on behalf of all the Jews in the temple, making sacrifices there.  And the priest, seeing the man lying half dead in the road, keeps his distance and passes by on the other side of the road.

Next comes a Levite.  Levites were like a tier below priests in terms of their religious importance.  They took care of administrative details in regards to temple worship, not the sacrifices themselves, but they were still a special religious class of Jews.  So when the Levite passes by, he, like the priest, chooses to pass by on the other side of the road and doesn’t get near the injured man.

Now given the context of the location and what it would have meant to Jesus’ audience, for many, the response of the Priest and the Levite, could have been understandable, even if their actions were regrettable.  Listeners in Jesus’ day might think, "If I was walking on that road, I’d want to do nothing to ask for trouble, but just try to keep my eyes focused ahead of me and get where I’m going as soon as possible".

Furthermore, there were purity laws concerning handling a corpse to factor in.  Jesus said the man in the story was “half-dead”, which means presumably he looked pretty bad; he may have even been unconscious.  Whatever the case, he was clearly near death and from a distance it may not have been obvious that he was still alive.  Observant Jews, and most especially priests, had strong restrictions they had to follow regarding touching corpses.  So perhaps they were staying clear to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean, assuming the man was dead.

The problem with these justifications for inaction of the Priest and the Levite is that they overlook important exception clauses; exception clauses that for this man, turn out to be a matter of life and death.  Yes, to touch a corpse would make one ceremonially unclean, but all Jews were mandated by the law to attend to an abandoned corpse.  In this case, the abandonment of it should nullify any restrictions against touching it.  And if this person was dead and left to lay on the side of the road alone, it would seem that should qualify as an abandoned corpse that someone needs to attend to.

Furthermore, the possibility that this person could have been alive, as indeed he actually was, should have trumped all other concerns.  For it was commonly understood that to save a life was the highest value, and this value should always come above purity regulations.  Ancient Jews had an “ends justify the means” way of dealing with the law when it came to saving life, and thus the priority should always be rescuing another over maintaining purity.

In the same passage that told Ancient Jews to love their neighbors as themselves in Leviticus it also said this:  You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake.  But neither of Jesus’ first characters, despite their prominent positions in the Jewish community, seem to heed this moral mandates. They keep their distance, and they leave the man to die.  And then we see the final man to come down the road.

No doubt, the listeners in Jesus’ day are expecting Jesus to reach for a common Jew, a layman, like most of them, as his example of one who loves well.  This would have been a typical story formula of the day: Priest, Levite, common Jew.  Perhaps many of them are sniggering with their own judgements of the religious class as he tells of the Priest and the Levite and their failure to help this man.  But they figure the hero of the story will be one with whom they can identify.  Until Jesus makes a hero out of the last person they’d expect: a Samaritan.

So to really appreciate the shock factor here for the Jews who would have heard this story, we need to know a bit about who the Samaritans were.  The Jews looked down on the Samaritans, viewing them as illegitimate worshipers of Yahweh because they were a sect that shared much of the same origins of faith as they did, but came to different conclusions and expressions.  They were seen by Jews as another race and a vastly inferior one at that.  Their ancestors had intermarried with Assyrians, so they were seen by many as half-breeds.  Samaritans also generally looked with hostility on the Jews.  So for the hero of this story to be a Samaritan, of all people, would have put the Jews to shame.  In the story, two supposedly devout Jews who pray the shema daily, giving themselves regularly to Yahweh in worship, completely miss the point of what it means to be faithful to Yahweh. But the person Jesus’ audience views to be a heretic, having incorrect beliefs and worship practices, as well as questionable ethnic heritage, is the only one who truly follows the command to love his neighbor as himself. This Samaritan comes to the aid of a man that culture would dictate should be his enemy.  But the Samaritan doesn’t treat him that way. He looks at the wounded man and is moved with compassion, compassion that leads him to care for his fellow-man; to care for his neighbor.

Fred McFeely Rogers was a music composition student in the early 50s when he came home on break from his college in Florida to his parents home in a  small Pennsylvania town, and discovered that they’s acquired a new invention: a television.  Fred was fascinated with the new device and from that first moment of discovery, he knew he wanted to be a part of using this medium in a unique way.

Fred married a fellow music student and the two eventually had two sons.  Not long after Fred’s college graduation, he began working in public television, initially as a composer and puppeteer for a kids television show.  Fred was displeased with the way television programs addressed children and he wanted to be a part of changing that.  So in his off hours, Fred started attending classes at the local seminary as well as child development classes at the local university.  In 1963 Fred Rogers graduated from the seminary and was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church of the USA, not to serve as a local church pastor, but to reach out to and serve children and families through the medium of television.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood began in 1968 and taped its last episodes in 2000.  His amazing 33-year run impacted scores of children as he spoke gently and kindly to them, bringing dignity to their experiences of the world and reassuring them that they were special just as they were.  The legacy of the show continues on in the second-generation show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, currently on PBS.  It’s one of our kids’ favorites. 

At the heart of Mr. Roger’s show, as well as Daniel Tiger’s, is the concept of neighborliness.  Daniel Tiger starts each show exclaiming, “Hi neighbor!” to the children watching.  Mr. Rogers of course has his famous song asking,  “Will you be mine?  Will you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?” But beneath his sweet demeanor, I believe Fred Rogers knew that his question was a powerful and quite subversive one to ask.

It’s an invitation, offered without qualification.  The person that Mr. Rogers, or young Daniel Tiger, is encountering through the screen is assumed to be, by their very nature, a neighbor, whatever their class, whatever their race, whatever their orientation.  It’s an inclusive concept, and one that was very intentional on the part of Fred Rogers. 

“The underlying message of the Neighborhood," he said in an interview in 2000, "is that if somebody cares about you, it's possible that you'll care about others. 'You are special, and so is your neighbor'—that part is essential: that you're not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.

You’re not the only special person in the world.  The person you are with is loved, too.

Isn’t this at the heart of what Jesus is communicating with the parable of the Good Samaritan?  Jesus ends the story by once more lobbing a question back at the expert. “Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The question he asks him is not, “which of these three was a part of the man’s social group”?  If that was the question, the answer would have likely been the Priest or the Levite.  Or Both. But Jesus knows that being a neighbor is not about social identity.  It’s about demonstrating love and empathy.  It’s about identifying shared humanity.  It’s about personal connection.

I imagine the expert in the law to be a bit sheepish here.  He can’t even bring himself to say “the Samaritan” when he answers Jesus’ question.  It’s as if Jesus pointed out to a contemporary religious fundamentalist that an atheist was more godly than someone like him.  But Jesus isn’t trying to spare anyone’s feelings here.  He’s trying to solicit a response. Because he cares about this guy.  He knows that head knowledge is not good enough.  This guy has the right answers, but what good are they if he isn’t living them out? Jesus’ parable is a tool to force this man and other observant Jews like him to wake up and change their behavior if they really want to experience the good life that Jesus has for them.  This I believe is the intent of Jesus’ story, for the listeners that day, and for us, as well.

So what are we waking up to?  What is the change Jesus was seeking for them and for us?  I have a few thoughts. 

First, Jesus was asking his followers to stop drawing boundaries around love.  I believe the legal expert sincerely wanted to honor Yahweh, but the irony of his question is that it demonstrates to Jesus and to us how little this “expert” really understands about what that means.  The question reveals the man’s attempt to draw a line around who you need to love.  But what he missed was that the very drawing of that line was a profoundly unloving act.

Jesus could have demonstrated a point about being selfless without choosing a Samaritan as his lead character.  But he did choose the Samaritan because he knew the impact that character would make on his audience because of their personal and cultural bias.  Jesus was confronting that bias head on by showing them a different picture of a Samaritan then they were able to see, and making that Samaritan the one they should emulate.  “Go and do likewise.”

Yes, helping a stranger is a worthy application of the text.  But this story is about more than helping strangers.  Helping strangers is an expression of the greater call.  The call is to recognize the humanity in every person, even those our biases tell us to dismiss.

We are in a cultural moment right now in the United States, where more and more people are starting to be aware of issues of internal biases and systemic biases and the way those biases inhibit our ability to  be neighbors to one another.  This is what #blacklivesmatter is all about.  Ad Council just released a video dealing with these issues this week that has been going viral. You may have already seen it, but I think it is so connected to what we’re talking about it bears repeating.  Let’s take a look

So we examine our biases, and we call others to do the same.  We invite our friends, as we’re given space to, into the uncomfortable place that the expert had to step into of recognizing our blind spots.  And we do this, not out of judgment, but because like Jesus, we genuinely care about seeing others experience the fulness of life that God has for them, and that can’t be found in bubbles reinforced by biases.

The second thing I think this passage calls us to is this:  We need to allow our lives to be interrupted.  This Samaritan was not just out monitoring the highways looking for wounded victims.  He had somewhere he was going; he had something he was supposed to do; just like the priest and the Levite probably did.  But unlike the two of them, he was willing to dispense with his plans and change his agenda to serve the person in need.  He did not allow his important plans to take priority over the stranger he encountered.  No, he stopped what he was doing, and caring for the man, at great personal expense, even, became his new priority.

I had a hard end of the week.  I was behind on my sermon prep, having had a number of activities and visitors in from out of town early in the week, and by Thursday night it was crunch time.  But Thursday was also the day that Elliott took his third fall at school in two weeks.  Three interruptions to our day for things that didn’t end up being a big deal, or so it seemed. By the time I got the call from the school yet again on Thursday that Elliott had fallen again and hit his head again, I was kinda done.  As it turned out, after a while this time Elliott felt fine so they sent him back to class.  We heard no more complaints from him that day until that night when he was laying in bed trying to go to sleep.

Now this wasn’t necessarily cause for alarm.  Somehow, when it’s time for bed, my kids always have something wrong with them; some reason they need to get up, or they can’t go to sleep.  So forgive me, but when Elliott started complaining of his head hurting that night, I rolled my eyes.  But it kept happening and kept getting worse, and soon he was crying and moaning and saying he thought he might throw up.  So Jason called the pediatrician.  And as we described the situation, the doc on call was clearly on the fence, but thought the prudent thing to do would be to take him to the ER rather than wait for the next day.  It was almost 11 pm and I was in the midst of my important sermon writing.  I was also very tired.  So now I was annoyed, frustrated, indignant even at the thought of heading to the ER.  And then I realized how stupid that was.

My son was in pain.  My doctor was telling me how to care for him.  And I had a choice - to prioritize my need to write, and then to sleep, or to prioritize my son and his health.  So I left the sermon writing and the comfy bed behind and we headed to children’s Oakland.  We were there till 3:30 that morning.  It wasn’t fun.  It was painful, but in it I was reminded that I need to embrace the interruptions, in the same way Jesus did, and the same way he wanted his followers to.  The need of my son to be cared for was way more important than my own agenda.

We need to allow our lives to be interrupted.

Finally, I think this passage calls us to choose relational connection over personal safety.  At our core, as human beings we have a primal desire for self-preservation.  Babies cling to the mother that feeds them.  We cling to that which keeps us alive.  But if we really care about living a life that’s connected, connected to our center of Jesus, and connected to the people that inhabit this world with us, we need to let go of the idol of personal safety and security. 

This is the blind spot that this legal expert seems to have.  His primary concern is knowing what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.  At it’s core, his is a question of self-concern and self-preservation.  But if the very answer to the question involves giving one’s whole self to God and to others, then we have two motives in conflict.  People who are being served become boxes to be checked off, rather than persons to be known and cared for.  If one is to truly give themselves over to love of God and love of neighbor, they have to let go of self-concern.  This here, this story, this is the illustration of what Jesus said to his followers only a chapter before in Luke 9:  “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was assassinated.  It’s a famous speech, usually referred to by one of it’s most famous lines, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”  Listening to the speech is haunting, because in it, Dr. King seemed to have almost a prophetic sense that he was not going live to see the end game of their fight for Civil Rights.  He declared that he had peace with that because from his metaphorical mountaintop, he believed God had allowed him to see that his people would make it to their Promised Land, even if he wasn’t there to enter it with them.

In that last speech, King was urging his listeners to support a strike of Memphis sanitation workers as part of their struggle for equal rights for African-Americans.  And he spoke of Luke 10 as he did so. Listen to an excerpt of King that night.

You know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. 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?" That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?" Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

That’s the question. King called his followers that night to live a kind of “dangerous unselfishness”.  Like he lived.  And in that dangerous unselfishness, he was killed, less than 24 hours later.  He practiced what he preached and he paid a cost for it.  The Samaritan was brought down.  But look at how many neighbors he saved.  Look at the legacy he left.  He chose connection, he chose people, over safety.

Kayla Mueller chose people over safety.  Jesus Christ chose people over safety. Now I’m not asking anyone to be foolish or reckless with their humanity.  We’re not all called to be martyrs.  But we are all called to be neighbors.  We are all called to say, "I am special and so are you".  We are all called to face down fear and put our hope in something bigger.  We are called to love God with our whole heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourself. 

So when you find yourself afraid to show love, afraid to reach out, afraid to lay down bias, or time, or safety - remember the Good Samaritan, remember Kayla Mueller, remember Martin Luther King Jr., remember Jesus and “go and do the same”.  Amen.