July 10, 2016
Thursday night, as the reports were coming in about a sniper targeting police at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Phoebe had a good friend over. They hadn't seen each other in a while, and their animated laughter was a sharp contrast to the news of the tragedy unfolding in Dallas. Phoebe came in and told me she was going to give her friend a ride home. I responded with my usual caution for her to drive carefully. But then I added, "Come straight home." I repeated that a few times before they left.
That doesn't sound all that strange or out of the ordinary. What parent doesn't send their teenage driver out of the door with those kinds of words? But when I told her to come straight home, it wasn't because I was afraid for her safety behind the wheel, it was because I was just afraid. I was gripped with a fear for her that went far beyond my concern that she might get distracted or give in to the temptation to text while driving. I was afraid for her and for her friend because I was sending them out into the night and into a country I no longer recognize. It's not that I don't know or recognize racism. I do. But never before have I felt that we were teetering on the edge of a full-blown race war.
I was afraid for Phoebe, for her friend, for my son, in a way that I never have been before. And I realized that I was getting a taste of what my friends who are black feel when they send their kids out into the world. It's what they feel when they say goodbye to their spouses in the morning, and when they get in the car to go to work or grocery shopping or just out. Will they be targeted because of the particular melanin that determines the color of their skin?
The horrific violence of this past week, the senseless deaths of two black men and five white police officers, has been almost more than I can bear. It's been more than most of us can bear. It adds to our collective heartache over the massacre in Orlando, the one year anniversary of the massacre in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, and the daily violence that seems to have become the norm. And into this heart sickness comes this familiar story found only in Luke's gospel: The Good Samaritan.
To say that the story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one is an understatement. Hospitals and nursing homes and clinics bear this name. There are Good Samaritan laws. When a stranger helps someone out in a time of need, that person is referred to as a Good Samaritan. When a stranger returned Zach's lost wallet this spring, I wished that I could meet that Good Samaritan so I could thank him or her. The Good Samaritan is a story we all know ... well. However the problem with a story so well known as the Good Samaritan is that we make assumptions about it; we domesticate it. It is a good story about helping other people whether we know them or not, and that's it. Maybe if this story came from another source, that would be the total of its meaning. But this isn't just a story. It is a parable. It is a parable told by Jesus. Jesus didn't offer these parables as bedtime stories. He told them to make a point. He told them to make people think. He told them to surprise, and yes, shock his listeners. His parables weren't pablum. They packed an intellectual and emotional punch. The parable of the Good Samaritan is no different.
My source for this sermon is Amy-Jill Levine's book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Many of you will recognize her name from her lecture series you've watched in your Sunday School class. Levine is professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt. Fluent in both ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, Levine begins each chapter on her chosen parables with her literal translation of them. Our modern translations tell us that "a lawyer" stood up to test Jesus, and "a man" was going down to Jericho, and "a priest" was going down that road, and "a Samaritan" came near him. But the literal translation is "some." I understood this as not just a quirk in the language, but that Jesus was making the point that the man who was robbed could have been any man. Just as the lawyer and priest could have been any one in their professions. And the Samaritan could have been any Samaritan. Nowhere, in our translations or in hers, is the word "good" used. It's a title that we've added to this story. But as Levine points out, using the word "good" is condescending. It's like describing a Muslim or a Jew or a person of color as a good Muslim, Jew, person of color, implying that while most of their ilk are far from good, this one is.
So some lawyer stood up to test Jesus wanting to know about eternal life. Jesus used the Law -- supposedly the lawyer's speciality -- to answer his test. What does the Law say? The lawyer responded by quoting the Law.
"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."
"That's correct," Jesus told him. "Do just that, and you've got it!"
But the lawyer wanted to justify himself. He wanted to prove himself, which is never a good thing when your purpose was to test Jesus. So he pushed Jesus more and asked, "And who is my neighbor?" Levine points out that what the lawyer really wanted to know was, "who is not my neighbor?" Where are the boundary lines between who is my neighbor and who isn't? I get that I have to love my neighbor, but who do I have permission not to love? Jesus answered with our parable.
A man, any man, every man, was going down the 18 mile, steep, rocky, treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by a gang of armed robbers, who beat him, stripped him, and left him to die. A priest, any priest, was traveling down that road. He saw the man, crossed to the other side and kept going. A Levite, came along a little later and did the same. Then a Samaritan, came after them. But when he saw the man, he stopped. He cared for him on the spot. Then he put him on his animal and took him to an inn. He tended to the man there. The next day he had to leave, but he gave the innkeeper money to take care of the man promising that when he returned he would repay the innkeeper whatever he spent out of his own pocket. Jesus finished his story by asking the lawyer. "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" "The one who showed him mercy."
What really happened in the parable? It would have been no surprise to the people listening that the man was robbed. It was a dangerous road. Robberies were common. What about the priest and the Levite? They were part of the clergy of that time. Why didn't they stop? One reason, and it is a reason I've given, is that they could not touch a potential dead person because it would make them unclean. But the Law allowed, demanded even, that someone who was hurt must be cared for no matter what. The Law also demanded that a corpse should be treated with the utmost respect. So the priest and the Levite had a duty to help. As far as being unclean, they were traveling down from Jerusalem, away from the temple. Purity restrictions would not have been pressing. The truth is, they failed. They failed. They saw a person in desperate need and they failed. Perhaps they were afraid; afraid that it was a trap, afraid that they would be harmed. Whatever the reason for their fear and hesitation, they failed.
That failure most likely shocked Jesus' listeners. But then came the kicker. Levine describes something called "the rule of three." That means that when two subjects are listed, like the priest and the Levite, then the expectation was that third subject was next. They would have expected to hear about a third person finding the beaten man on the road. But they would not have expected the one who showed up: some Samaritan. A person no Jew would have expected to stop and offer aid. If Jesus would have said that a fellow Jew had stopped to help, they would have smiled and gone on their way. But it was a Samaritan, and their jaws dropped.
As I see it, it's about perspective. For that audience, the shock was that a Samaritan stopped. Today, it would be if a Christian audience heard that a member of ISIS stopped to help a Christian, or vice versa. Or, considering this past week, it might be that a black man stopped to help a white cop, or vice versa. From any of these perspectives, the person stopping to help would have stunned the listeners. It surely stunned the lawyer. Who was the neighbor? The one, the unexpected one, who showed mercy.
Looking at this parable through this lens of shock and surprise makes me realize that far too often I have been that priest and that Levite. I've failed to act out of mercy because I have been paralyzed by fear. I have to reckon with my sin of failure, and I pray not only for forgiveness but that I won't let that kind of failure happen again. However, what concerns me more today is our collective failure. I'm not pointing the finger of accusation at our congregation alone. I'm thinking of the Church with a capital C.
In his response to the violence of this week, our denomination's newly elected Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson wrote that racism is "a cancer" in our country. It is a cancer of injustice, and historically the Church has responded more like the priest and the Levite than like the Samaritan. Nelson called on our denomination and on the Church as a whole to step up and lead the way in eradicating this cancer. This cancer of racism, along with all the other "isms", is contrary to the gospel and contrary to the kingdom of God. We are called to love as the Samaritan loved, to be a neighbor as the Samaritan was a neighbor.
It is a fearful task, I know. Yet in a few minutes, we will come to this table together to share a meal which followers of Jesus have been sharing for centuries. Before we actually partake of the bread and the cup, I will lift them up before you and call on us to take them in remembrance of Jesus. This kind of remembrance is not just an honoring of him or a memorial in his name. We are called to remember Jesus, to remember what he said and what he did and what he sacrificed. We are called to eat the bread and drink the cup, not merely because of tradition or ritual or expectation, but so that we may gather up our courage and find the strength to do what he did; to speak truth to power and put our lives on the line for the sake of God's children.
I believe that through remembering him, we will find that strength and that courage. We will live up to our calling to be a neighbor, to show mercy, to go and do likewise.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"