Martha Stearns Marshall Preacher for 2015
This past October, people all over the country paused to remember one of the most heinous hate crimes that occurred over sixteen years ago. Many know the story of Matthew Shepard – a story reminding us of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. After a night out, Matthew Shepard was offered a ride home by two men in a restaurant, but never makes it to his destination. Little did he know, he had fallen into his own “band of robbers” who proceed to brutally attack him and desert him in a Wyoming field to die. Plenty of people passed by him before he was finally discovered some eighteen hours later by a cyclist who initially thought Shepard was a scarecrow. His face bloodied from the attack was clean only in the place where his tears had fallen. His injuries were far too sever for doctors to operate, and he eventually died from them. The reason this attack occurred? Simply because he was gay.
Though Matthew’s story doesn’t have a grandiose ending, it does invite us to ponder the question, “Who is my neighbor?” A question that is flooded with concerns of humanity and morality. Who is my neighbor? The circumstances in which it is set, the human types it introduces, the conditions it describes, find place in the histories of all sort and conditions of us all. Who is my neighbor? And here we find ourselves in the book of Luke, finding the answer to this question. Who is my neighbor?
This parable, considered to be one of the most famous parables of the bible, is one that will never become stale, never lose significance, and never grow old. It meets us in a way that other parables don’t. It is more than symbolic, it is a real life example of what it means to be a neighbor. Sometimes the sheer simplicity and familiarity of this parable blinds us to the greatness of its depth.
A certain lawyer tested the knowledge and authority of Jesus with two questions:
1. What must I do to inherit eternal life? And
2. Who is my neighbor?
By profession, a lawyer was one who was occupied with the Mosaic Law. It was his official business to interpret the law and guide people on how to relate their life to it. If a Jew had trouble, he would consult a lawyer or a scribe to see what the Law said on the matter that was troubling him.
Jesus’ reply to the first question, turns things back on the lawyer. “What is written in the law?” The lawyer has to answer correctly, after all he is the keeper of the law. So he counters, “Love thy God with all thy heart, and with all your mind and with all your soul. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There he had it, and even Jesus confirms, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” He had passed the test with flying colors. If the lawyer was anything like me, he would have gotten out while he was on top, but wanting further information based on his own response goes on to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” And this is where things start to get good!
As a lawyer, this man belong to a class of teachers that declared that no Gentile was a neighbor. For him as a Jew, neighborliness belonged within the covenant people. We are told that the lawyer asked this question as a means of justifying himself. In his mind I am sure there was a lurking suspicion that rejection of a Gentile, simply because they were a Gentile wasn’t right. And this isn’t too unlike the struggle that some of us have today. Who is my neighbor? It is easy to love those that look like we do, dress like we do, live where we do, worship where we do, and move in the same social circles that we do. But it becomes problematic when we have to move outside the realms of or comfort zone to embrace all those that we encounter with love, respect, justice and mercy. Enter the story of the Good Samaritan.
We find ourselves along a road going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jerusalem, meaning “the vision of peace” was the seat of blessing, of history, of religion, of privilege. Jericho on the other hand was the city of curse some fifteen miles from Jerusalem. The road between these two places was one that was rocky and dangerous. It was haunted by marauding robbers and unsafe for travelers. Priests and Levites, because of their religious calling, were never molested by the thieves. They passed through with ease. It was like they had a “get down the road safe” card from biblical monopoly.
It is along this thief infested road that “a certain man” was traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Who he was we are not told. He is just “a certain man.” The thieves strip him, wounding him and leaving him for dead. Those brutal robbers never expected another traveler to pass the spot on the dangerous road in time to save the half-murdered victim.
It is here that the Master story teller introduces a delightful touch: “By chance there came down a certain priest that way.” By chance. In the Providence of God, I am pretty sure that this wasn’t a “by chance” situation but carefully orchestrated. However, the priest clearly didn’t feel this way. He did not look at this situation as a mere coincidence or even as a God ordained meeting. The priest, who is, by law, supposed to bestow mercy even upon all things, even the beasts of the field. The priest who knows the law. The priest who preaches about loving God and his neighbor. The priest who can freely and safely travel down this road without disturbance. The priest, whom I imagine is in some sort of signifying garb to ensure his own safety. The priest sees the half-naked, bleeding man at his feet and heartlessly passes by. Not only does the priest not help this man, he jaywalks to the other side of the street!
Along came another traveler, and with the tread of his footsteps, I am sure that this “certain man” is hoping that this would be the one to help him. The Levite was of the same tribe as the Pharisee, but of one of the inferior branches. The Levite who was a servant of the Temple. The Levite who was a minister of religious worship. The Levite who was an interpreter of the Law. The Levite who also had relatively free reign to come and go as he pleased down the thief infested road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The Levite should have been eager to assist the distressed soul he looked on yet left unaided.
These two spiritual leaders should have been the first to translate their faith in God into concern for the battered body of the traveler.
“But then,” Jesus says, “There was a Samaritan.” If you listen closely, you can hear the groaning of the lawyer. Why did Jesus need to bring a Samaritan into this story? The Samaritan a mixture of Jew and Gentile. The Samaritan, an outsider by all accounts. The Samaritan, one that the Jews would have no dealings with although they were the closest neighbors in proximity. I am sure the lawyer was both amazed and distraught when this character of the Samaritan is introduced. Jesus notes that the Samaritan is the only one on that lonely, dangerous Jericho road who is willing to befriend a helpless Jew. The very man from whom no needy Jew could expect the least relief, was the one who gave it.
What a picture that is painted of this particular Samaritan. “He came where he was, and had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” All of this from a Samaritan.
The usual trio should have been the Priest, Levite, and Jew. The insertion of the Samaritan was a stroke of narrative genius. Who is my neighbor? In effect, Jesus gave this question back to the lawyer to decide who was the true neighbor to the man who fell among thieves. How else could the lawyer respond, but the way he did, “He that showed mercy.” Then Jesus drove the point home by saying, “Now go and do likewise.”
Jesus’ narrative shifts our perspective. The question of who is my neighbor is a broad one. Neighbor here is not relative, not a member of the community, not co-religionist, not friend, not equal. Jesus having made the protagonist of this parable a Samaritan suggest that neighbor moves beyond one who “helps the helpless” or the proper object of love – but as one who acts lovingly. This sequel to and moral of this parable is to show that the divine command of loving our neighbor as ourselves is fulfilled by the tireless endeavor to extend love and grace without asking first who he is and in what relation he stands to us.
Life often throws the same question at us that the lawyer posed to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” How do we distinguish who our neighbor is? Without distinction of race or religion, education or vocation, socio-economic status, we define neighbor as those that are in need – mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically – those are our neighbors. It is not place that makes neighborhood but love. One writer says that “our neighbor is one with whom we may share the Lamb. We have neighbors on both sides, those who are saved and those who are unsaved – those to whom we can offer succor, those with whom we can hold fellowship.”
Did not humanity become God’s neighbor? Seeing a world of sinners robbed of their true nature, stripped of divine ideals, wounded by sins, unable to rise, God came down in the Incarnation where the sinner was and gave a corresponding example in act of the merciful Samaritan. Christ, through death and resurrection, covers our nakedness, binds up our wounds and heals them with balm extracted from his own heart. Placed in an area of safety, providing for our needs, and has promised to return, paying the debt that we have incurred.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a reminder for all of us that compassion has no boundaries. It is a reminder that neighborliness doesn’t take just courage, it just requires action. It takes eyes, ears and benevolent hearts to extend ourselves as neighbors. It may require a little vulnerability. It may require us to do something we have never done before. It may require us to go to a place we have never gone before. It isn’t always comfortable.
Who is my neighbor? White, black, Asian, Indian, Jew, Greek, Samaritan.
Who is my neighbor? The doctor, the lawyer, the preacher, the priest, the teacher, the unemployed
Who is my neighbor? The mother, the father, the sister, the brother, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the housed, the homeless.
Who is my neighbor? The healthy, the lame, the free, the imprisoned, the educated, the uneducated.
Who is my neighbor? You are my neighbor and I am yours.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’