Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 30:9-14
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:1-14
I remember a sticker on my grandparents’ motorhome, a red circle with a picture of a man with a halo. It said, “Good Sam’s Club!” I wondered what good deeds my grandparents had done to deserve being admitted to this exclusive group. I had no idea that anyone can purchase a membership that reduces the cost of staying at an RV park! The character of the Good Samaritan is so well known—it has been adopted into our culture. Everyone, Christian or not, knows what a “Good Samaritan” is. Google “Good Samaritan” and you’ll find hundreds of images and videos. There is Good Samaritan Hospital, of course. Anyone can be a good Samaritan, just by opening a door for someone or smiling at them or serving in a soup kitchen for a couple of hours.
I think the story of the Good Samaritan appeals to us, because we like to help and feel good about ourselves, not that there is anything wrong with that. But usually when I hear this story, I feel guilty. I think of this story almost every day when I pass someone on the street carrying a sign, pleading for money or food or work. I think to myself that I need to help that person, get to know that person. That’s what Jesus would do. That’s what Jesus calls me to do. Yet, day after day, again and again I don’t do it. I feel ashamed of myself. I feel ashamed of my country that we don’t provide the support people need to live. I judge, and say to myself, “They must have burned all their bridges not to have anybody to help them.” I feel guilty about my own inaction. I feel angry at our government which has abandoned the mentally ill. I feel helpless to make any real difference. I feel smug that our church has a pantry that at least does something to help people in our neighborhood. When I see a person who is suffering, I feel convicted of selfishness and greed which makes me feel even more guilty and afraid and even less likely to help. I get into this never-ending cycle.
In some ways the story of the Good Samaritan is so well known, that we can’t really see what’s going on. Let’s take a closer look at this interaction. This important man, this lawyer is asking a question of Jesus. “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” This is an “I” question about something personal to him. Certainly salvation is a question for individuals to work out for themselves. I can’t affect someone else’s salvation, can I?
Or can I? I know, when I get into my guilty, judgmental, and smug cycle I get focused on me again and I get stuck. Some have said selfishness is the root of sin—we make idols of ourselves. And when it is about me, it can be so isolating and helpless because I can do almost nothing by myself. So is the lawyer even asking the right question or a helpful question?
Jesus is moving all of us, this morning, from the “I” to the “we.” First he asks about the law. The law comes from outside ourselves and gives us rules to help us make good decisions. It takes us from a selfish question, to consider the opinions of others—toward the “we.” If I am seeking eternal life, or a good restaurant, or perfect teeth, it might be good to consult others, and even consult experts. The law is like the Angie’s List or E-How or Better Business Bureau—the expert on good ways to get things done. The law begins to take us from the selfishness and helplessness of the “I” to the wider view of the “we.”
The man knows just what the law says, to the letter. He has recited this since he was a child. He knows it forward and backward. But he wants more than a saying. Maybe he wants Jesus to tell him he’s a good person. Maybe he wants any onlookers to know how wise he is. Maybe part of him is really wondering who his neighbor is. Whatever the reason, he asks. “Who is my neighbor?” It is easy to see neighbor as immediate family and friends. It is easy to see the person living on each side of you as neighbor. The smaller we draw the circle, the more likely we’re going to be able to actually do the loving thing.
What Jesus does is expand the circle wider than any of his audience would have expected. It is hard for us to imagine. What would be the equivalent today? A muslim in a hijab is walking by and is the one to come to the rescue, a biker in drag is the one to stop and help, an undocumented immigrant who doesn’t speak English is the one to come to the aid of the person in the ditch, a teenager, an old person in a wheelchair—all these would have been about as expected as the Samaritan. These are my neighbors.
This story invites us to play each part in the story. In one instance we might play one part and in another instance, we might play another, but the point is there are multiple roles and each depends on the other.
I feel guilt and fear and smugness, when I put myself in the role of the people who walk by uncaringly. I am that person plenty of the time. But sometimes I am the person who stops to help. When I think of times I have been able to come to the rescue, I feel deep joy welling up. I feel tears of thanksgiving that I was at the right place at the right time.
And when I think of times I was in the ditch, I feel an immense sense of thankfulness that someone stopped to help me, even at their extreme inconvenience.
I get to be three people at once rather than just one. In this way the story invites us to go from the “I” to the “we.” It gets at the complexity that we face as people, our mixed motives, our mixed experiences of power and vulnerability, our mixed emotions when faced with choices.
This story reminds us that salvation (another word for healing) is not about me. I depend on others for help. Eternal life is not about me. My life depends on other people. It always has and it always will.
The life of the man in the ditch depended on his neighbors. Literally he needed pulled out of the ditch and cared for or he would have died.
The life of the priest and Levite that pass by depend also on their neighbors. Were they really living when they passed by? The laws of the time would have dictated that they don’t go anywhere near a corpse, which is what they may have truly believed they were seeing. Likewise, you’re not going to see me approaching any naked, bloody, men in ditches. At least, I can call 911 on my cell phone now, which they didn’t have the chance to do then. But how many people do I pass by on a daily basis, because I have a schedule to keep, people to see, meetings to attend, and better things to do? Is that really living? Is that really doing my job as a pastor, as a neighbor?
This story reminds us why we’re here. We’re here to show mercy. We’re here to spread love and healing (salvation). Our schedules and routines are supposed to help us do that, not get in the way of that.
Ultimately, this story is about what Jesus does for us. We are the ones in the ditch. We’ve been left for dead by our own doing and sin, by mean people, by the natural course of events. Others in our lives have failed us. They have walked on by, or even pushed us in. It is Jesus who walks into our lives and comes to our aid. He is a stranger. We have rejected him. He’s not like us. He’s that biker, that teenager, that Middle Eastern man that we’ve written off and walked past any number of times. Surprisingly, the ones we’ve relied on pass on by, but he’s the one who stops and renders aid at great personal expense to him. Not only does he pull us out of that ditch, but he gets us the help we need, turns our life around, and pays the full bill for complete healing.
Eternal life—we think of it as heaven that we will go to after we die. I’ve heard it said many times, eternal life starts today. It has no beginning and no end. Maybe it would better be called “unlimited life.” How can I inherit unlimited life? I can’t. You can’t. Unlimited means it has to go beyond you and me. It doesn’t stop. How can we inherit unlimited life? As Christians, we know it comes through Jesus Christ and his gifts. It takes me and you, it takes Jesus. And it doesn’t stop there. Just as Jesus reached out to us in the ditches, unlimited life goes beyond us to those in even deeper the ditches. When we remember how we have been helped and saved by others and by the grace and mercy of God, we can reach out to others in the ditches, not from a sense of guilt and shame, but out of a sense of gratefulness and joy for all God has done for us.