Caring Neighbors (Jul. 4-11)
July 2, 2010
Sunday, July 11
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Ever-faithful God, whose being is perfect righteousness: reconcile us in your Son with the helpless and the needy, with those we would ignore or oppress, and with those we have called enemies, that we may serve all people as your hands of love, and sit at the feet of those who need our compassionate care. Amen.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
All Readings For This Sunday
Amos 7:7-17 with Psalm 82 or
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 with Psalm 25:1-10 and
Colossians 1:1-14 and
1. What do you think went through the mind of the Samaritan in this parable?
2. What is "a higher righteousness"? How do you define "holiness"?
3. How might you retell this story in a way that would make your stomach churn?
4. Are there people for whom you have a hard time feeling compassion?
5. How are our lives structured in a way that keeps us from noticing those in need?
by Kate Huey
It seems like a very familiar story about showing compassion even for people we may not want to treat well: a nice little story with a nice little moral, especially for those of us who like to do good deeds for the needy. The story certainly doesn't make our stomach churn or offend our sensibilities; in fact, we tend to hear it with a satisfied ear, as if we believe we would surely do what the "Good" Samaritan did when he was moved by compassion to help the victim of highway robbery. At least, we'd like to think we would. In other words, we put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan, and it's comfortable there.
Taking a second, longer look at this text, however, will lead us to feel as if we are in unfamiliar territory, on dangerous ground. To begin with, we have to deal with all sorts of perplexing problems: for example, was the question put to Jesus by the lawyer in sincerity, in respectful argument (what we might call a fruitful debate), or did it involve entrapment and shame? Maybe the answer to that question is less important than Jesus' answer to the lawyer's question: faithfulness has to do with what we do, not just what we say. We might hear this as an ancient version of "walking the talk"; in fact, Richard Swanson translates Jesus' final instruction to the lawyer ("go and do likewise") with the word, "walk," because the Hebrew words for "walk" (halak) is used to speak of doing Torah. This prompts some interesting questions about grace, and about salvation being equated with accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Jesus doesn't mention these when he instructs the lawyer to "go and do likewise."
And of course there is the question of the Pharisee's attempt to "justify himself," which we may hear with different ears than a Jewish audience of Jesus' or Luke's day did. "In such a context," Swanson writes, "'be justified' ought rather to be translated as 'be strictly observant', which means to live a life shaped by Torah, a life which points to the goodness of God and the possibility of safety." We don't know what was in the heart of the lawyer, but it seems reasonable to hear in his question a request for at least some boundaries for his neighborhood. It certainly might make things more manageable.
There are those who justify the priest and Levite as they passed by the victim, since they were supposedly bound by the Law not to touch a corpse. Sharon Ringe is not convinced: "Since both are said to be traveling from Jerusalem, concerns about ritual purity needed for temple service, or about the urgency of their public responsibility, provided no excuse." And there are even laws and interpretations of the Law that support an obligation on the part of the priest and the Levite to help the man in the ditch.
Who's the good guy here?
But the more important point is the purpose of these two characters in the telling of the story. According to Stephen J. Patterson, Jesus' audience, with their strong feelings against the religious elites, would have expected such indifference to human suffering. Jesus was specific in saying "a priest and a Levite" because they were the first two of a standard triad in those days, and the third person was always "an Israelite." That's what the crowd who was overhearing this conversation would have expected to hear: the "good guy" was surely going to be the everyday Israelite. Instead, they're shocked and probably deeply offended that the hero coming around the bend is a hated Samaritan. And the earliest Christians hearing this story would have remembered a few verses back (9:53), when a Samaritan village had refused to welcome Jesus. "They were half-breeds," Charles Cousar writes, "who had refused to participate in the restoration of Jerusalem and had aided the Syrian leaders in their wars against the Jews." Notice that the lawyer, even after this moving story, couldn't bring himself to say the word, "Samaritan." This was a most unexpected and unwelcome hero for either audience to consider.
The Samaritan doesn't let the Law, or fear, or the knowledge that he is hated keep him from what Cain Hope Felder calls a "higher righteousness." Doesn't Jesus call us repeatedly to a "higher righteousness"? In our aspirations for holiness, we may miss the heart of the Good News and the Law: "At what point," Rebecca Kruger Gaudino asks, "does the quest for holiness violate God's commands to love?"
A risky, costly recognition
I think the most moving words, and the most challenging ones, written about this text are Stephen Patterson's title for his reflection: "You Need Your Enemy." Jesus seems to have it all backwards: when asked what we have to do, he tells a story about "us," lying there in the ditch. That's the place we ought to find ourselves in when we hear this story. We're lying in the ditch, and we need our enemy to have compassion on us, no matter what. And that's not all: this isn't just about us as individuals; it's also about communities. According to Bernard Brandon Scott, "Not just individuals have to cross the line, but communities have to cross the line. Yet the crossing of that line always begins with the first Samaritan whose heart is moved by a Jew. Such people are initiating a new world for all of us." While we find it satisfying to practice local, personal "charity" to individuals in need, Jesus seems to be teaching us that it's also important for whole communities and groups and nations and classes to recognize in "the other" our sisters and brothers, even if this recognition is a risky and costly one.
The purpose of all this? To "inherit eternal life," which we are inclined to equate with "earning a place in heaven." But Barbara Brown Taylor puts it much better: "To hear Jesus talk about it, eternal life also means hitting the jackpot now; eternal life means enjoying a depth and breadth and sweetness of life that is available right this minute and not only after we have breathed our last…Let the summer showers of God's love soak the seeds of your right answers so that they blossom into right actions and watch the landscape begin to change. Just do it, and find out that when you do, you do live, and live abundantly, just like the man said."
A preaching commentary on this text can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For further reflection
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
Always do what you are afraid to do.
Shirley MacLaine, 21st century
Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.
The Dalai Lama, 21st century
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.