21 August 2010

Proper 15 c - The Good Samaritan

Sunday, 11 July 2010

St. Luke’s Church, Burlington

We have heard the story of the Good Samaritan so many times. We know it almost by heart. It is one of the first Bible stories that we hear in Sunday School. The words, "Good Samaritan" are so well known within our culture that it has even found a place in the secular legal world, our Country having passed a "Good Samaritan Law" protecting those who try to help from being prosecuted when something goes wrong.

For many, the story is a nice warm favourite, yet it has very little to teach because it is too familiar. Yet perhaps what we really need to do is to look at it all the closer to find the truths of Jesus in the parable.

We forget that the image of the Samaritan had a completely different impact on the people of Jesus' time than it does on us. To the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking, the words, "Good" and "Samaritan" didn't belong in the same sentence. To those whom he was speaking, Jesus would just have to say the word Samaritan, and people would dredge up visions of a social outcast. This would be like the enemy.

Today, the Samaritan would be like the motorcycle‑gang member brought home by your daughter. This was at least the strength of Jesus' parable.

It is just earlier in the previous chapter of Luke's Gospel where Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, and the Samaritan town would not receive him or provide a place for him and his disciples to spend the night.

The parable is told by Jesus in answer to the questioning of a lawyer who wanted to test him. The lawyer first asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Really then, the Lawyer was interested in his own welfare, and not the needs of others. The story of the Good Samaritan turns the theme around not towards working out ones own salvation, but to being concerned for the needs of others.

The lawyer answers Jesus correctly about what one must do to inherit eternal life. He answers the same way that Jesus summarizes the law: To love God with everything we have and everything we are, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

But then the lawyer asks Jesus who his neighbour was. The man wasn't interested in finding out the true meaning of the summary of the law. Rather, he wanted to know the limits of what he had to do. He wanted to know how little he needed to do in order to get to heaven. Who did he have to include, and who could he exclude in loving as he loved himself. Well, you just know that Jesus wouldn't take this kind of questioning, without radically challenging this man's way of thinking.

Notice, instead of answering the question of who the neighbour was, Jesus told him the story of the Samaritan and the man who was robbed and beaten.

Instead of answering who our neighbour is, Jesus tells us how we should be a neighbour. How we should love others as ourselves.

I suppose that we are mature enough in our faith that we don't need to ask who our neighbour is. We know that God created all human beings, and we know that Jesus came down to earth and died to cover the sins of the whole world. Our neighbour is everybody, from our next‑door neighbour to the person we haven't met across the world. These are all who Jesus means as our neighbour.

I wonder if the question which we can ask ourselves about this parable is: who are we in the story? There are several characters in the parable. There is the victim, first on the scene. He is beaten up by robbers, he has all of his money stolen, and then he is left for dead. There are the robbers of course, but none of us would want to identify ourselves with them. There is the Priest and the Levite. They walk by on the other side because it would inconvenience them. They would be defiled if they touched a dead man, and perhaps, they thought he was already dead, and they would not be able to perform their religious duties. There was the Good Samaritan who helped the victim. And there was also the innkeeper who was paid to look after the victim.

The moral we always seem to get from the story is that we had better be the Good Samaritan. Yet it seems so often that we are one of the other characters in the story.

How many times does it happen to us that there is someone in need, yet we are too busy to be able to help ‑ we have our jobs to do, and there isn't time to get involved? How many times do we pass by a hitchhiker? How many times, if we are visiting in a big city do we pass by a beggar in the street downtown? How many times do we avoid a situation we see developing where we might be asked for help?

Yes there are times when we are the Priest or the Levite.

There are times when we are the other characters as well.

I remember when I had the opportunity, as a theology student, to go to Uruguay in the Southern Hemisphere for four months to have an experience of living and working in the developing world. Part of my desire to go was to find out how I could make a tangible difference with my life in relationship with people in need. Basically, I want to go to be a Good Samaritan.

It was a lofty goal, and of course in our youthful enthusiasm most of my fellow Theology students and I wanted and expected to change the world!

It wasn’t long after I got there that I found out that the Southern Hemisphere has some really nasty flu bugs for which we gringos have no immunity. I was as sick as a dog for over a week. My hosts cared so well for me. Taking me to the doctor, brewing special medicinal teas and looking after me. I imagine the care which I received was much like that given to the one who fell among thieves.

And perhaps you can understand how important the story of the Good Samaritan is to me from the point of view of the one who was helped by the Good Samaritan. It is in being the one in need, and being the one helped that we perhaps learn the most about how Jesus wants us to be neighbours to others. It is in the role of the one in need, that this parable isn't just something with a moral. In living through the parable as the one in need ‑ one is transformed by the parable.

Well, I still find that I play all of the parts in this parable. There are times when I actually get to be the Good Samaritan. There are plenty of times, being a Priest, I've felt more like the Priest or the Levite in the parable. And perhaps having been the one helped in the past you can understand how hard it is on me to play the role of the one who passed by at times.

Yet, I can tell you that having been the one who was helped when I thought I would be the Good Samaritan, this parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a good old Bible story that has nothing new to teach me.

Certainly, as Jesus points out to his disciples, what ever we do for the least of his brothers and sister, we do to him. And part of our baptismal covenant which we will say together is the promise that we will seek and service Christ in all people, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

During this week think about the times when you have played the different characters in this parable in your own life. And perhaps, in contemplating what you have experienced in this way, you can see more clearly how it is that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Amen.

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