The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C)
14 July 2019
O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee, and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Every time I preach on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of a member of a reviled minority, a stranger in a strange land who at great personal risk came to the aid of a privileged man whose own kind just walked on by, it always seems like an opportunity to promote in no uncertain terms the Gospel view of what it means to love your neighbour and what it means to be a neighbour. Jesus’ view of these central concepts hinges on the idea that strangers are as much our neighbour as the person we have known our whole life; and that our neighbour will not necessarily look or sound like us. Every time I preach this message it feels like our lives depend on it and yet, this time, I can not help feeling like this message is more timely than it has even been in my lifetime.
I need not belabour the point that we live today in a world in which nationalism, authoritarianism, and racism are on the rise. I need not belabour the point that for the last two and a half years in our nation we have had a president who flaunts the rule of law; who as a matter of policy promotes a racist and xenophobic agenda with no other aim than the accumulation and consolidation of power; and who has taken his principal rhetoric and slogan right from the play book of 1930s anti-Semitic American isolationists and Nazi appeasers.
Today we can not but hear the story of the Good Samaritan through the ears of our immediate context. The story, however, is not simply a story to resonate in this moment. It is no mere projection on my part that makes these connections. Immigration and the treatment of foreigners is a very old issue.
In the cosmopolitan world of the great Roman cities of the Mediterranean world, as we learn from Luke in Acts, it was quite usual to hear on the streets the languages of “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Lybia belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11). The great cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire, like our own great city, were filled by a diverse population from around the known world. Germans, Britons, Gauls, Persians, Medes, Africans, Balkans swelled the ranks of the Roman army and made up the population of merchants and traders that brought goods from all over the world to these urban centres. This is the context in which the story of the Good Samaritan would have been understood by Luke’s first Roman readers, and indeed would have resonated with that lawyer “who stood up and put [Jesus] to the test.”
Jesus’ interlocutor is being provocative. He wants to trick Jesus into answering contrary to the law, and Jesus seems well aware of this as he turns the question on the questioner. The lawyer then gives the textbook, Scriptural answer as to what sort of action in this world will lead to eternal life in the next: that you will love God and love your neighbour; and Jesus commends him for answering rightly. “But he, seeking to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘and who is my neighbour?’” The lawyer wants to know to whom he owes this duty because, obviously, it can’t be just anyone. The two are in agreement on the obligation to love God and neighbour, where Jesus pushes is in his expansion of the definition of the latter. Jesus’ story is as provocative as the man’s question, perhaps more so. It is intended to shock in its description of violence and indifference.(1)
We begin with the crime: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” The assault was sudden and brutal, so much so that for all intents and purposes the man likely seemed dead to those who might pass by, for indeed people did pass by, including a priest and a Levite, the most respectable of men. These men, versed in the law, in full knowledge of their Scriptural obligation to their neighbour, just kept walking; and not only did they just keep walking but they crossed the road to avoid going anywhere near the man. Perhaps they were worried about maintaining ritual purity through contact with a defiled corpse, yet they allowed such concerns and perhaps others for their personal safety to keep them from helping someone clearly in need(2), someone clearly deserving of compassion. These facts alone would have painted a picture deeply troubling to someone concerned with inheriting eternal life, who knew the obligation to one’s neighbour, for the man who was assaulted is implicitly a fellow Jew. There is little question that the victim was the priest’s and Levite’s neighbour.
The third person to pass by is identified by Jesus as someone very different from the victim or the priest or the Levite. He is named as a Samaritan. To back up for a moment, it is important to understand where Jesus has set the story. He states at the outset that the man “was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” a north westerly journey of a little more than fifteen miles in territory that is unequivocally Judean. The priest and the Levite, and, as I said we could assume, the man, were Judean Jews on their own turf. Simply on the basis of geography, therefore, the Samaritan is instantly coded as a foreigner.More than that, however, Jesus has not simply chosen any foreigner for his story. He could easily have chosen a Parthian or a Mede or an Ethiopian or Greek. No, he chose a Samaritan, that nation of close relations to the Judeans, with whom, as attested by historians like Josephus, there has been a long running feud about on a whole host “of disputes concerning the right way to read the sacred books, messianism, and above all, who was a real Israelite.”(3) In fact, Luke’s readers will have the fecklessness of the Samaritans in mind for we just heard about the their rejection of Jesus when he entered their village and “the people would not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (9:53). They would also remember Jesus’ words about what happens “whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you:” that you are to “go into its streets and say, ‘even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’” Jesus goes even further and says, “I tell you love, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.” Samaritans are not the ones you would expect to show this kind of compassion to a stranger, especially a Jew in the heart of Jewish country.
Yet, this is precisely what he does, and, in fact, at great personal risk. A recognisable stranger, travelling on a road where there has already been one violent attack, a member of a shunned class of people, nevertheless decides to make himself even more vulnerable and visible by taking the man to an inn. Jesus’ story is powerful because it ascribes agency and authority to the person least likely to be recognised as having either. It would be as if you were beaten and robbed right by the subway entrance at 86th Street and Broadway and no one helped you, even Father Towner and I crossed the street not to have to look at your pulverised countenance, and yet the guy in the Halal truck, perhaps an undocumented alien, jumps out to help you, calls 911, and goes with you up to St. Luke’s. Ultimately this story is not about who deserves our care. It is about who turns out to be our neighbour. Indeed, it would have been a shock to the lawyer and Luke’s readers that the one exercising neighbour love, the one to act unhesitatingly with compassion in conformation with the Law, the one who saw someone very different from himself as his neighbour, is the Samaritan.
It is always interesting to think about who turns out to be the person with whom we identify in a story. Generally speaking, we imagine that this story is calling us to be the Good Samaritan. "Don’t walk by those in need, act compassionately to those who need our help. For goodness sake, even that Samaritan was able to help the man, so it should be easy for someone like us to do the same." It isn’t that simple. It seems to me that we are called to see ourselves as the man who has been beaten and robbed, the one in need of assistance, one whom the powerful and righteous have decided it easier to ignore. We are called to see ourselves as ones who would be open to assistance from somewhere we least expect it. We are called to see ourselves as people able to imagine our neighbour as someone who is not like us, who is alien, different, perhaps even on the margins. Jesus demands we greet “everyone encountered—however frightening, alien, makes, or defenceless—with compassion.”
Jesus and the lawyer agree on the command to love God and love our neighbour. Jesus challenges us to have a truly expansive understanding of what that means and of who our neighbour is. We are called to welcome the alien and the stranger, to see all our human brothers and sisters and neighbours, made in the image and likeness of God, deserving equally of our help and themselves capable of helping us. For this story is not simply about how “we” treat those whom society others, but about how we are all neighbours to each other, how we are all given the authority to be ministers of that Kingdom which is near and that we stand up for this new and radical understanding not only in word, but in deed. This is a message as important and timely today as it was in that first-century Roman milieu and is the life to which the Gospel calls us.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Feria, 13 July 2019
(1) Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, 3 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 175. back to text
(2) Johnson 1991, 175. back to text
(3) Johnson 1991, 162. back to text
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume