Reflection on the Good Samaritan - Richard R. Crocker (Revised)
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
March 9, 2013
Luke 10:25-37, Deuteronomy 30:9-14;
Probably most of us have heard the story of the good Samaritan 100 times at least, and we have listened to many sermons on the subject. Perhaps there are some in the congregation hearing it for the first time. It would be nice if this were true. But I am assuming that all of you, like me, suffer from the problem of over familiarity. We do not really listen to the story because we have heard it so often, and we think we know what it means. So as soon as the scripture lesson starts, we may tune out. There is nothing new here for us. Only an exhortation. We listen, and we carry away from the story an admonition to “go and do likewise.’ And that admonition means that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan and be attentive to the needs of anyone we encounter – especially people we are supposed to dislike. Well, that message doesn’t gain much traction in our lives, does it? Help out anyone in need – that’s what it means to be a neighbor, right? Isn’t that what we take away? And don’t we try to do that by giving money to our church and to other charitable organizations – and by having the Friday night community dinners and giving tone Great Hour of Sharing? Now I would not for a minute discourage those charitable activities, but I have discovered after listening to the story of the good Samaritan for many years that I have been hearing it wrongly. Perhaps you have too. Because you see this story is really very surprising. And sometimes the surprise catches us. And when it catches us, it comes alive again.
We know the outline: A lawyer – wouldn’t you know it would be a lawyer? A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Since lawyers get a portion of every other inheritance, it only makes sense that they would want to know how to cash in on inheriting eternal life. Sorry – I’m being snide. Please forgive me. But it is a lawyer who asks, and Jesus says: you know all the rules. What are they? (Lawyers are people who know all the rules, and who know how to get around them.) But the lawyer answers sincerely, quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus: Your shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus says: you are right. Just do that. That’s all you have to do.
But, of course, the lawyer has another question. “Precisely who is my neighbor, the one I have to love?” It’s a good question.
To answer, Jesus tells a story that presupposes that we know that the Jews and the Samaritans were long-time enemies. Not enemies, really; they just detested each other. Like Red Sox versus Yankee fans except much more intense. There was long-standing animosity between them. So the Jewish traveler was on a dangerous journey, and he fell among thieves who robbed him and beat him. Two other Jews come along: a priest and a Levite – both holy church-going people. Neither of them stopped to help; they both were busy, on important (maybe even divine or religious) business. Then a Samaritan comes along, and he, of all people, stops to help – not only stops but goes beyond the call of duty by taking the wounded man to the hospital and paying his bill. It’s a great story. Then Jesus asks: ”Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Now here’s where it gets tricky. The lawyer answers: “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Now, you say – what’s tricky about that? It’s obvious, isn’t it? We’re supposed to help people in need. That’s what I’ve always thought: that’s what I think whenever I pass a hitch-hiker, don’t you? I think – That man‘s in need, and here I am, a Levite passing him by. What a hypocrite I am! I better send some more money to Church world Service or Doctors Without Borders.
But that’s not (as I recently realized) what the text says. Jesus asks: which of the three was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? The man who was the neighbor was the Samaritan. And the commandment is to love our neighbor. So the commandment here is to love the one who comes to aid us in our need. It is not –in this story – that we are duty bound to go out and do kind deeds. It’s that we are to love those people who show us God’s mercy and grace; to love those who help us become better people; to love those who give to us extravagantly. The command here is not to the Samaritan: it’s to the man in the ditch. The man in the ditch wasn’t a neighbor. It was the Samaritan who was a neighbor. The man in the ditch didn’t learn a darn thing from the priest or Levite; he didn’t receive a single thing from them. But from the Samaritan, he received more than he could have expected. So who was the neighbor – the one we are commanded to love? It was the one who showed overwhelming generosity. So, if we are to love our neighbor, we are to love those who show us God’s love, often in surprising ways. Now I know in other places Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and he also tells us that if we love only those who love us, there is nothing special about that. I know that we are to love Red Sox fans as well as Yankee fans – but that’s not what this story says. This story is about who is a neighbor. And it makes the point that a neighbor is someone who risks something to help us, and we are to love them. There’s no big onerous guilt-inducing duty in that. Love people who give to you. Love because you have received grace. Give because you have been given unto. Forgive because you have been forgiven There should be nothing here but joy.
I hope I have made it clear why this story has become surprising to me --- and maybe to you too. But just to be safe, I want to drive it into the ground. The story is surprising because it does not say that the neighbor we are to love is the person in need. It says that our neighbor, whom we are to love, is the person who helps us. The neighbor is the person who helps us.
I will conclude with three brief stories that illustrate this point.
First, remember a story familiar, I expect, to all of us – Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the story of Jean Valjean. Most of us know it form movies and the musicals. Few of us have read the 1900 page French novel. It is a work of fiction, of course, but still, if you know it, it is a powerful story and you remember how it starts. Jean Valjean, a thief, has been a prisoner in the galleys for 19 years, convicted for stealing bread. Upon release, with no place to go, he seeks shelter from Bishop Myriel, and, in the night, he steals the Bishop’s silver. He is apprehended the next day with the stolen silverware, but when the police take him back to the Bishop’s residence, Bishop Myriel insists that he had given Valjean the silverware, and, indeed, he says Valjean forgot te silver candlesticks, so he gives those to the starled prisoner as well. So Valjean is now a free man, with resources. The Bishop urges Valjean to go and make something of himself.
Who is the neighbor in this story. The one we should love? It is not Valjean, the thief. Rather, it was Bishop Myriel who helped him. And Valjean, who had benefitted from grace, was set on a new path. The rest of the story is incidental, but heartbreaking. What is important here is this: the neighbor was the one who helped Valjean and thereby transformed his life. And we are like Valjean; when we receive grace, unmerited favor, we are to love the one who showed it to us, and then, perhaps, we may become channels of grace for others.
A second illustration:
I went to Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The first week-end we were there, entering students were required to participate in an experience called “The Plunge.” I am sure it would not be required now. What this plunge consisted of was that each of us was allowed $5. We were dropped off in various parts of the city of Nashville on Friday afternoon and told to return on Sunday afternoon. We had to fend for ourselves for two days on the streets of Nashville, not returning to our homes, with $5.00. I, like most of my class-mates, wandered around, became exhausted, spent one night sleeping in shrubbery at the state capitol and the next night on a construction site, making conversation timidly with anyone who seemed friendly.
The next week, of course, we compared notes. This was in 1970, a time when of unrest and deep strain in American society over the war and civil rights. Things in Nashville were still largely segregated. My divinity school class, as I recall, was almost entirely white. Each of us told how we managed; some gave up and came home. Many of us asked for shelter in churches, and were denied. But one student, who had been dropped off in a black section of town, reported that he had approached a family sitting on their porch. He told them that he had no place to stay and need shelter for two nights. He was invited in and spent, he said, a very comfortable and educational week-end. Who was his neighbor? Not the person he went out of way to help: it was the person who helped him.
What we are talking about, you see again, is grace. It is something given to us in our need, not because we deserve it, but because simply because we are. And the person who gives it to us is our neighbor – the person who shows us grace, and who thereby shows us God. Our neighbor is the good Samaritan, the one, the unexpected one, who shows us God’s grace.
What we have been talking about is grace, and Lutherans, of course, are all about grace. So I will conclude with a Lutheran story. It’s about how hard it is to really understand grace. I had this Lutheran pastor friend, who once told me about a sermon he preached about grace. He told me that he preached his heart out, saying over and over and over again that salvation comes from God’s free grace, not from anything we can do to earn or deserve it. Then, when the congregation left after the service and were shaking hands with him, one parishioner said to him, “Fine sermon, Pastor. You’re right. In the end, it’s what we do that matters.”
Grace. William Sloane Coffin often said that many people have just enough religion to make themselves miserable. I think that’s because we understand religion as duty rather than as grace, and so we are motivated more by obligation than by gratitude.
Over and over and over again I have heard the story of the good Samaritan and drawn from it a maxim of duty. Now I see that it is really a story about grace. Our neighbors, the ones who show us God, are the ones who show us grace. And we respond in gratitude, for gratitude is all we can offer – to God, and to each other. Amen.