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On recognizing and needing our Good Samaritans

A sermon on Luke 10: 25-37.

[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.]

I want to start off today by sharing with you my own Good Samaritan story.

Not a story where I acted as the Good Samaritan, but where I was the beneficiary of grace and care from an unexpected source.

Thankfully, it’s a much less dramatic story than the story Jesus tells. I am fortunate enough to have never had the experience of the traveler in the parable of being physically assaulted, robbed, and then left to the mercy of strangers.

I have, however, been the victim of a theft that felt pretty devastating at the time.

I was twenty-two years old and I was on a one-week, 3-city trip to visit graduate schools.

I was also newly engaged. Tyler had proposed just a week before with a beautiful ring that we had designed together, and I spent a significant portion of the first half of my trip staring at my left hand with stars in my eyes.

That was until, late in the evening at the Pittsburgh bus station, I foolishly took off my ring in the public bathroom to wash my hands and forgot to put it back on in my rush to get back to the luggage I had left unattended.

I went back about 5 minutes later when I realized my mistake, but it was gone, never to be seen again.

I reported the theft to security (who gave me no hope it would be returned), and I called Tyler (who gave me incredible reassurance that I was marrying the right man from the way he responded)… but my eyes were still pretty teary when I boarded the overnight bus to Boston.

And that’s when I met my Good Samaritan.

He was an older, African American man who was softly chanting in Arabic out of his Muslim prayer book.

Now – for you to really understand this story, I need to set some context about where I was in my life and faith at the time.

I had been raised (and homeschooled) in the (big E) Evangelical subculture of the North American Christian church, which included LOTS of sermons and youth group conversations about how anyone who was not a born-again Christian was going to hell.

I had also been taught that as a young female I was a potential victim for any predatory man I might encounter, so I needed to constantly be on my guard in public spaces.

I had graduated about 9 months before from a private Christian College with definite fundamentalist leanings and something like a 95% white student population.

And, while my mom had definitely made an effort to quietly counteract the prejudices I was exposed to through my formative years, I was only just starting to nudge my foot out of the insular, fear-based, limited worldview that had shaped most of my life experiences to that point.

To put it simply, my seatmate was a person I was primed to treat with suspicion if not outright judgement. Not at all the person I would look to for any kind of comfort.

BUT, I cannot imagine a better stranger to have sat beside on that journey.

He noticed my tear-stained face, of course, and asked me what was wrong.

And I was so emotionally vulnerable in that moment, so in need of compassion and support, that I somehow trusted him with the story of my loss and my self-recrimination for being so careless.

And he was so incredibly kind!

He received my renewed tears with gentle care, expressing such genuine concern and understanding,

And then he shared his own story of healing with me. Of his younger self trapped in meaninglessness and addiction, and his encounter with the Nation of Islam while in prison that turned his life around.

He shared with me about his faith, which was nothing like what I had been told… a faith that was oriented toward devotion to God and service to his neighbors.

He never said a word that suggested that my tears over a lost ring were shallow, nor did he compare the struggles I had shared with his much more devastating life experiences.

But his open-hearted welcome or my teary self was still perspective altering for me. In a subtle, but profound way, he saved me that night.

This experience will always be my Good Samaritan story, because it was such a direct and poignant lesson for me of exactly the perspective shift that I think Jesus was trying to offer with his parable.

I say “perspective shift” rather than lesson, or model, because this is the first thing that we need to understand about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

For all that the story ends with “go and do likewise,” I don’t believe that this teaching is primarily about exhorting charitable behavior. Rather, it is a call to reframe the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with strangers on the most fundamental level.

The initial framing of the exchange in Luke 10 is set-up by the legal expert to cast himself as the one who will offer love and mercy to his neighbor.

What must I do to gain eternal life?

And, once Jesus responds with a question to which the expert gives the textbook answer: well then, who is my neighbor?  

It is perhaps a defensive follow-up question… a justification of his decision to ask the first question, considering that he has revealed that he already knew the answer. But it also exposes a few assumptions:

First, the expert assumes that he is the one in the position to do good to others.

He is the one self-confident enough to try to earn eternal life.

And he is the one seeking “guidance” on how to follow the greatest commandments, because clearly it is his neighbors who need his care and service, not the other way around.

Second, the expert assumes that the identity of “neighbor” has limits. The question “who is my neighbor” presupposes that someone exists who is not in the neighbor category.

Jesus, of course, recognizes the assumptions behind the questioning, and so he decides to respond with a story that does not, in fact, answer the question… at least not in the way that legal expert asks it.

The question was “who is my neighbor?” (who do I need to love as myself?).

Jesus tells a story of incredible self-giving love, and then asks “who was a neighbor to the man in need?”

The story, and its concluding question, reframes the conversation by challenging both of the expert’s assumptions.

First, it casts the expert in the role of the man in need, removing his presumption that he would, of course, be the one acting from a position of power and magnanimity.

He asked “who is my neighbor,” but to answer Jesus’s question after the parable of who acted as a neighbor, the man has to align himself with the one in need, the one who received a neighbor’s care and compassion.

Second, the story itself rejects the assumption that the category of neighbor has negotiable limits… because if anyone would have CLEARLY fallen outside the bounds of those we are obligated to love, for the legal expert, it would have been a Samaritan.

This can be hard for us to really understand because the phrase Good Samaritan has taken on a meaning the exact opposite of what it would have meant to Jesus’s first hearers.

So, to help us understand the shock value of this story, and the challenge it confronts us with, I want to read an extended quote from commentator Debie Thomas. She writes:

“Who is the last person on earth you'd ever want to deem "the good guy?"  The last person you'd ever want to ask for a favor — much less owe your life?  Whom do you secretly hope to convert, fix, impress, control, or save — but never, ever need?

May I throw out some possibilities?  A progressive Democrat is robbed, and a far-right Republican saves her life.  A racist white cop is robbed, and an African-American teenager saves his life.  A transgender woman is robbed, and an anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An outspoken atheist is robbed, and a Bible-thumping fundamentalist saves his life.  A border patrol agent is robbed, and an undocumented immigrant saves his life.”      

Thomas continues on, “I don't mean for a moment to trivialize the real and consequential differences that divide us politically, religiously, racially, or ideologically.  I dare not do that — not when those differences are even today costing people their lives.  But the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans in Jesus's day was not theoretical; it was embodied and real.  The differences between them were not easily negotiated; each was fully convinced that the other was wrong.

So what Jesus did when he deemed the Samaritan "good" was radical and risky; it stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to dream of a different kind of kingdom.  He was inviting them to consider the possibility that a person might add up to more than the sum of her political, racial, cultural, and economic identities.  He was calling them to put aside the history they knew, and the prejudices they nursed.  He was asking them to leave room for divine and world-altering surprises.”[1]

I don’t know if I can define the encounter with my seatmate on the greyhound bus as world-altering, but it did at least shake some of the assumptions I had never thought to question before, and radically expand my understanding of “who is my neighbor.”

It forced me to examine and reject prejudices that I had thought were grounded in faithfulness (or that I had never really thought about at all).

And, perhaps more importantly, it challenged me to recognize that loving my neighbor is not about me generously reaching out from my position of advantage to offer love to those less fortunate.

It is about knowing that we are all on equal ground, each sometimes able to help and sometimes needing the help.

And that, I believe, is the truth at the heart of Reconciling in Christ.

It is the love that can only spring up when we all see each other…

in all the diversity of our skin color, and sexuality, and gender, and abilities, and neurotypes, and – yes – even our different faiths…

as beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image.

All called to love each other.

All needing each other’s love.

All equal neighbors.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Debie Thomas, “Afflicting the Comfortable,” posted 07 July, 2019.


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