The Parable of the Good Samaritan….probably one of the most well-known stories that Jesus told – at least in title, if not in detail. In fact, we even have a law that is referred to as “the Good Samaritan law”, meaning that if you, as a passerby, come upon the scene of an accident and stop to help an injured person, can’t be held legally liable for getting involved. But as it can so often happen, our very familiarity with this passage can cause us to glaze over it, skim the surface, and not stop to look and listen to God at work in and through this story. In fact, given all the events of this past week in our national life, I believe this story has a great deal to say to us.
There are a few details that will help to get the full impact of the story the people in the crowd knew right away, but that we may not remember or realize.
First, Jesus tells this story about who really is our neighbor, by way of engaging the trick question posed by a religion scholar “And just how would you define neighbor?”; and he answers the questions from God’s point of view about who it is that we should love as ourselves.
Second, the priest and the Levite had specific religious roles at the Temple in Jerusalem; they had to be ritually clean to perform their duties – touching a dead body or getting mixed up with human blood would have rendered them ritually unclean. Giving the half-dead man by the side of the road wide berth was the prudent choice, if they were to show up at the Temple ready to do their jobs.
Third, Samaria was a region in what is now modern Israel, in between Galilee in the north, and Jerusalem and Judea in the south. For many historical and religious reasons, people from Samaria were considered less-than, not good enough, beyond the pale, deficient in their understanding of faithful living by religiously observant Jews. There was hostility and enmity between these two groups of people who shared so much history. That’s often the way it is between people who share a lot of history, isn’t it? It’s the folks you are closest to with whom you often have the worst fights.
Samaritans were truly “The Other” to faithful Jews, who would avoid traveling through Samaria as they went back and forth between Judea and Galilee, and go out of their way and take the longer route through the Jordan River valley so they didn’t have to cross through the region. So to his first century audience, making the man from Samaria the one who fully embodied and lived out the abundant love and grace of God was shocking, perhaps even disorienting.
Well, we have lived though some shocking and disorienting events this past week with the news of the deaths of two African-American men by police officers for what started as a minor traffic violation or community life question; and then the deadly ambush of Dallas police officers by an African-American man as the officers were patrolling and protecting a peaceful protest about those very shootings. And actually, the protest was incredibly peaceful and calm. In recent years the Dallas police force has worked very hard to improve their policing among African-Americans, by working on their own attitudes and impulses. In fact, the protest was just ending, and the marchers and officers were taking selfies together, celebrating how well the march had gone, when shots rang out.
And all of this was magnified for the general public by the immediacy of video – some of it live streamed. What we saw in a very dramatic way is the painful reality that exists every day: that police officers feel vulnerable and at risk and far too exposed as they serve in communities of color; and that African-Americans (young men especially) and often Latinos, feel vulnerable and at risk as they go about their ordinary daily lives. Both these groups share a fear and vulnerability and a risk of violence that is long-standing, and that is (on one level) an expression and a flash point for the fear of The Other that is a theme in our society. That theme ebbs and flows, but in recent years it has been building to a crescendo again, perhaps taking many of us off-guard with the strength and passion of the anger, and hatred, and violence of word and deed that seems to be filling up so much of our psychic and emotional space. Has anyone been surprised by this swell of anger and hate? Has anyone not been surprised by it?
But it’s not new. Human sin is not new. Hatred and violence that are spawned by fear and a sense of vulnerability is not new. Our desire to turn away from pain and difficulty and risk is not new. What is new is our capacity to act out that fear and anger with deadly force more quickly and effectively than ever before.
So what do we do? What does Jesus ask of us? What is the Holy Spirit inviting us into?
To begin with, we need to look inside ourselves and find those places where we are afraid of The Other; our places of anger and grief for our lives and our world that may lurk in the shadows, but are powerful and painful. And as we look at that fear within ourselves, be aware that it is held and loved by God – held and loved enough for us to examine our fear, to ask questions about our anger and pain and not be afraid of what our feelings tell us; including not being afraid to talk about our experience of race and racism in an open and honest way. The author Brené Brown (University of Houston shame researcher, Christian, and Episcopalian) had this to say on Friday morning: “Instead of feeling hurt we act out our hurt. Rather than acknowledging our pain, we inflict it on others. Neither hate nor blame will lead to the justice and peace that we all want - it will only move us further apart. But we can't forget that hate and blame are seductive. Anger is easier than grief. Blame is easier than real accountability. When we choose instant relief in the form of rage, we're in many ways choosing permanent grief for the world.”
Once we know that the love of God really does encompass our deepest fears, we can remember that all people – all races, nationalities, ethnic groups, social groups, religious groups – all people are made in God’s image, all people are beloved of God, all people are our brother, our sister, at the most fundamental level possible. We are all one human family, for whom Jesus willingly went to the Cross, sacrificing his life for us. In Christ, there is no Other.
But God doesn’t want us to leave it there. We also have to act this reality, in our own interactions with our neighbors, our co-workers, the people with whom we come in contact every day. And we have to add our voices, our prayers, our influence, our actions to making decisions and attitudes, and legal and social standards that will bring greater justice, greater peace. Remember those questions in the Baptismal Covenant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? and Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Our answer is (say it with me): I will, with God’s help. We will, with God’s help.
This is the question at hand, and the time is now, today, every day. Let us take our courage in both hands, knowing it will never be perfect. Let us know that God’s love holds even our deepest fears and vulnerabilities. Let us live the love and peace and justice of God with our brothers and sisters in God’s big human family of all colors and kinds, not overlooking differences, not being color-blind but in the differences seeing the glory of God. And let us live in trust and hope and work for the fulfillment of God’s purpose in the world.
Let us pray.
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen
~ A Prayer Book for New Zealand
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 10, 2016