THE SAMARITAN—“GOOD” OR GOOD CHOICE?
In St. John's Church in Waterbury, where I was Rector for 21 years, there is a stained glass window up the the balcony, just to the right of the pulpit, of the Good Samaritan. I could see it, up high to my right when I stood in the center aisle to preach. It was beautiful. It was always there. And for all it's beauty, it never told the whole story.
When the ‘good Samaritan’ as we know him, shows up, the preacher scratches his or her head and wonders what to say.
Everyone knows the story—our culture has even adopted the term “good Samaritan” to apply to laws that have been passed to prevent prosecution of people who were ‘just trying to help’ and may have caused harm instead. It is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible and most everyone knows ‘what the term good Samaritan means’ even if they don’t know the story.
There’s simply no way to talk about this parable that hasn’t been done and redone dozens of times before. So the preacher is left scratching his or her head and wondering what to say. Yet the story is radical and remarkable.
So, all else failing, let’s review, just so we are all clear about why this story is so radical and remarkable.
When the Assyrians, under King Sargon, invaded Israel, some 250 years after the time of King David, early in the 8th century BCE, part of the population of the Northern Kingdom was taken into captivity while the rest intermarried with the invaders. Thus were the Samaritans created. They were Jews who continued to read the Torah and follow Jewish law but did not accept the prophetic literature as scripture and did not think Jerusalem was the center of worship.
In Judea, just south of Samaria, Jerusalem remained the holy city. But both Samaritans and Jews worshipped the same God and shared a part of what we call “the Old Testament”. Yet, in spite of what they had in common, there was a remarkable antipathy between Jews and Samaritans.
How can we explain it? The more like you the Other is, the more you hate them.
Where I come from, the bloody feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys was the greatest example of this virulent kind of hatred. Anyone who has researched that great family feud realizes almost immediately that Hatfields and McCoys had been intermarrying for generations before the fighting started. The two families were all related by blood in some way before the first shot was fired. And, BECAUSE THEY WERE SO MUCH ALIKE, the hatred was hotter and the divide deeper.
Jews and Samaritans, by the time of Jesus, were the Hatfields and McCoys of the first century. As ‘alike’ as they were, each was “The Other” to the two groups and they hated each other absolutely. You see, “The Other” is not just someone far away and foreign…”The Other” can be the one close at hand and profoundly related. Take the Middle East today: who are the Muslims in the Islamic State killing? Other Muslims of a different sect.
Jerusalem was in Judea and Jericho was north-east and down-hill all the way and part of Samaria. It was a foolish trip to make alone because robbers and bandits were known to be waiting on that rugged terrain, hidden behind rocks to assault and steal. Few Jews took that road, but the man in Jesus’ parable did and, sure enough, was attacked and robbed.
Let’s let the priest and Levite who passed by ‘off the hook’ just a bit. A devout Jew avoids coming in contact with blood because it is ‘unclean’. And since they were traveling away from Jerusalem into Samaritan territory, who knows where they could have washed themselves and become Kosher again? They were simply “minding their own business”, may have thought the injured man was a trap set by hoodlums to entice them near enough to suffer the same fate. AND…remember this: THEY WERE CAREFULLY OBSERVING THE PURITY LAWS AND HOLINESS CODE OF THEIR FAITH.
But I’d bet most of you still think the Priest and Levite were wrong.
(It’s not all that different today, is it? The Anglican Communion and the Episcopal church are in an equally silly argument about “Who is Pure and Who is Holy” that is tearing us apart….But I have better sense than to “judge” people on whether they keep walking or stop.)
So, the Samaritan shows up. And if we demonize the Priest and Levite too harshly, we also elevate the Samaritan too much as well.
Who knows if he was, as we call him, a GOOD Samaritan?
He was most likely just an AVERAGE Samaritan, who, when faced with a decision, made one.
There are more than 100 Saint's days in our liturgical calendar. As far as I can tell about what made them a 'saint', is this, just like our Samaritan in Jesus’ story, they were merely average people who, when it came time to make a choice, made one.
Everyone in Jesus’ story had a choice to make and they all made one. The Priest and the Levite chose to keep on walking. The Samaritan chose to stop and help the injured man.
I suggest we all have choices almost every day that are not unlike this. And sometimes we choose to keep walking and sometimes, God bless us, we choose to stop and deal with the brokenness of our world for a while.
In Kurt Vonnegut's novel, The Sirens of Titan, a robot named Salo, who is traveling the universe looking for 'the meaning of life', finds himself on Titan, one of the moons of Jupiter with an Earth woman named Beatrice Rumford. (What Beatrice is doing on Titan is another story!)
So Salo asks Beatrice, “What is the meaning of life?”
And she answers, “The meaning of life is to love whoever is around to be loved....”
So this is what I suggest to you…and to me….Let’s be more attentive and present to the choices we get to make each day. Let’s take the story of The Good Samaritan out of the stained glass window and let it be something we all experience all the time.
We get to choose who our neighbor is. If you are a McCoy, the neighbor you choose might just be a Hatfield. If you’re a Samaritan, the neighbor you choose might just be a Jew. If you are who you are, the neighbor you might be challenged to choose might just be “The Other”—the one you never suspected or imagined.
And you get to choose…..You get to choose whether you'll love whoever is around to be loved...or not....
You get to choose….Keep walking or stop and deal with the brokenness of life. It’s really up to you. So be it and amen.