There are two lessons to be gleaned from this story Jesus tells about the robbed man, the priest and Levite who pass him by, and the Samaritan who is kind and caring, the hero of Jesus’ story. The first lesson is a theme to which Jesus returns again and again in so much of his teaching: his preferential option for the other, for the stranger, for least and the last and the lost person. In Jesus’ story, this is not just the poor robbed man left half dead along the road but also the Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans despised one another. They regarded each other with a virulent kind of antipathy, each convinced that the other had abandoned or defiled or defamed God’s revelation to Abraham. Jews and Samaritans did not share worship, did not share a table, did not share conversation, would never touch one another, and for principled, religious reasons. The point Jesus is making is not just about mercy. If so, the hero of Jesus’ story could have been a fellow Jew. A victim was left half-dead along the road, and a kind Jew – a Jewish man or woman, a lay person, say, or a poor person themselves – stopped to help. No, that’s not Jesus’ storyline, because there’s more going on in his story than just mercy. Jesus’ story is about love for strangers.
In the Hebrew Bible, the person who is the other, who is the stranger, is given special reverence.[i] This is counterintuitive, then and now. Most of us are most drawn to people most like us. But the Scriptures give us quite a different and higher vision. As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in 1 verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to “love the stranger.”[ii] And so we read, for example in Book of Exodus:
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[iii]
And in Book Leviticus:
“When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. [iv]
In the Gospels, Jesus repeats and magnifies this welcoming the stranger, and Jesus doesn’t exclude anyone… including our most despised. Jesus’ generous welcome to everyone is remembered in the Greek as philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.”[v] Philonexia is the opposite of xenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for hospitality. We read, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Let love of brother and sister continue; do not forget the love of the stranger (philonexia).”[vi] Philonexia, not xenophobia.[vii] Jesus’ mission is to break down the dividing walls of hostility between people – between us and whomever we might judge as different, as inferior, or damned, or disgusting, whomever we find to be a stranger – to be strange – because of their race or religion or class or color or gender or orientation or markings.[viii] Everyone belongs, in Jesus’ estimation. And so, for a Jew, Jesus picks the worst possible example of a hero for his story – a Samaritan – to press his point about inclusion.
The second lesson in Jesus’ story is about mercy. And here I’ll make a qualification. If we were to take Jesus’ story of this good Samaritan as a kind of normative template for how we are always to navigate in the world, we will miss the mark. Now I know the good Samaritan gets such good press in the Gospel according to Luke. Who am I to impugn the actions or motives of the good Samaritan? So I won’t. Rather, I want to extol the virtues of the priest and Levite who get very bad press: the priest and Levite who pass by to the other side of this man who has been beaten and robbed. I admit that I identify with them. In my lifetime I have passed by many people, many, many people who are in great need. They may not be bludgeoned by robbers, as in Jesus’ story, but they are clearly wounded by life. Something has happened to them, and we need go no further than the streets surrounding us in Harvard Square to find such poor souls. Whether they have struggled with substance abuse, or mental illness, or joblessness, or some kind of terrible trauma, whatever, they are clearly in need, a good many of them standing or sitting or lying beside the roadway.
Here’s some of my story. Just out of college, I worked in international development. I remember doing some work in Haiti where I experienced a level of abject need that I found absolutely overwhelming. I had never before seen such poverty and suffering. I returned to the States intent on simplifying my life, giving more and more away to those in need, eating less, sleeping less, working more. It was my intentional identification with these dear, so-poor people I had come to know in Haiti. Less for me was more for them. I remember waking up one morning realizing my own downward spiral was mostly fueled by guilt because of my many privileges as a white, North American male in good health and with the benefit of some education. I was atoning for my guilt by practicing incredible generosity meanwhile making myself as miserable as many whom I had met in Haiti. It was a kind of passive suicide, and I was miserable. And so were my colleagues and friends who had to put up with me. It’s as if I took the action of the good Samaritan as inviolable marching orders, always, and with everyone in need. Finally someone intervened and told me Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan wasn’t the only story in the Bible.
My point is twofold. I think we need a practice and we need a prayer. We need to pray our lives, acknowledging both the dignity of our own life and the dignity of other people, especially those in need. A prayer to discern how to steward this gift of life entrusted to each of us. And we need a practice, how then to live in a world filled with God’s children in need. A practice how we are to respond with great generosity, how we are to lay down our lives for others, especially those in need. It’s all very temporary, life on this earth. All that we have we hold in trust. We need to hold it very reverently. Not clinging. Not to hoarding. Being ready to part with it sooner rather than just later. We all need a way of praying and practicing our lives that acknowledges our own place in life, and that allows, encourages, and enables others to live, also.
If you are out of practice, a way to begin is to pray the front page of the newspaper. Pray the front page of the newspaper as if you would looking into a family photo album. We belong to one another, strange as some may be to us. We who are children of God read the stories, see the pictures, of these other children of God. We’re all like cousins to one another, with whom Jesus intends we spend eternity.
Momentarily, as we draw our focus to the altar, we will be invited to pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, what we call the Lord’s Prayer. There is this phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ kingdom comes to be on earth by all of us taking up our distinctive responsibilities as builders of this kingdom. And so, we need to pray our lives. And we also need a practice, how we live among the poor and needy, those who are to us least or last or lost. What is your plan and your practice? We cannot all do everything; but we all can do something, something profound, to share what Jesus was all about.[ix] His life’s mission was “to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to show to others God’s favor.”[x] All of us have a different constellation of gifts, a different reach, a different cultural heritage, a different ability to connect with people, different resources, a different ground on which to stand and navigate. What’s your plan? We all need a plan to embrace where our own lives touch and transform the world which God so loves.
Which brings me back to Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan whom Jesus extols as a worthy neighbor. The good Samaritan clearly does what is good, and right, and helpful. I suspect that all of us here have our own version of being a good Samaritan, whether it be some particularly significant experiences in our life, or whether this is an ongoing pattern how we respond to need. I can identify with the good Samaritan, as I’m sure all of you can. But I can also identify with the priest and Levite who passes by on the other side of the road. What’s their story? From where had they just come and where were they going? We don’t know. I want to think that the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story were also capable of being very good neighbors. Maybe each one was on their way to the next accident scene. Maybe they just came from one? We don’t know. We never know. What we can know is the truth of our own lives: all that we are and all that we hold is gift, entrusted to us for a very short while on this earth. The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Be prepared to give away what inevitably is taken away at death. Have a plan that fits your life. Let your plan spring from your prayer, that all of your life be hallowed. In so doing, to share in what Jesus has in mind to build for now and for all eternity.
[i]Ironically, both Jews and Samaritans revered the Pentateuch as sacred scripture.
[ii] Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity Of Difference; How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations.
[iii] Exodus 23:9.
[iv] Leviticus 19:33.
[v] Philonexia comes from the Greek roots philos, a friend or neighbor, and xenos, foreign or alien.
[vi] Hebrews 13:2.
[vii] Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger, for “what you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46).
[viii] See Ephesians 2:4-18.
[ix] This alludes to the teaching of Oscar Romero, sometime Archbishop of San Salvador, who was martyred March 24, 1980. He writes:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
[x] Luke 4:16-22, Jesus quoting from Isaiah 61.
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