I have been the Good Samaritan, Sam actually. When I was in junior high school, our church youth choir put on a musical about the Good Samaritan entitled “Sam.” And I knew there was only one part for me, I HAD to be Sam. Especially because it was the title role and there was a solo and then I would get my name in the newspaper article and my friends would come to see me and it would be great! Well, when I got the part, I of course needed the right outfit and since we were going for a modern urban look, I went out a got a really great hoodie the first time they were in in the ‘70s. And I made sure my makeup was just right so when I walked out on that stage I would look good. And I would appear caring and then sing my solo in the spotlight. And I WAS good. And thinking how great it was to look good singing about doing good. I thought a lot about that word “Good.” I didn’t think at all about that word “Samaritan.” Or what that meant. And I suspect most of us don’t either. I mean, we don’t have any Samaritans walking down the street here, has anyone seen a Samaritan lately? But by not remembering that word in Jesus’ story we miss out on the depth of the story.
There are lots of ways people interpret this parable. Parables are the stories Jesus uses to demonstrate some greater truth. And many people focus on that word “good” in the Parable of “The Good Samaritan.” But the main thing Jesus is telling us this day is not “do good.” He’s not. The Bible does tell us to do good and to share good- that is very Scriptural and good, but Jesus is not telling the man who asks the question to just do a little good.
Because the story is told in response to a man who thinks he IS good, who knows all the rules. He asks Jesus what God really expects- what do I really have to do. Jesus responds by asking him what Scripture says- and he knows it- Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. It practically rolls off his tongue. Echoing those words God gives in Deuteronomy to the people that will lead to long life for the people and their ancestors. And apparently the man does not have a question about loving God. His question is about that neighbor part. Who is my neighbor? Loving a God we cannot see might seem easy.
Loving people right in front of us that we can see is something else.
What do I have to do? Who do I really have to love? What will it take? Mind, soul, heart and strength means “all in.” There has to be a limit. This is when Jesus tells the parable. That story of a road that is known to be dangerous, and people known to be sketchy, and the poor so desperate they will rob to survive, and enemies we cannot imagine we have to see, much less think they have anything to give us that we would want. It’s not a pretty picture- but it’s the way that leads to the man in the ditch, and people acting like that’s just the way it is. We want to hear- do a little good , show a little mercy and it’s OK.
Not so. In the larger narrative of the gospel of Luke we keep hearing that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Draw near.
And Jesus challenges all those limits- in that word Samaritan. Drawing near includes enemies. In some parts of the world and in our country, it may be easy to identify large groups of people who would fit our modern day “Samaritan” but I suspect for us here in Reading this day, I could probably ask each of you who that is and get a variety of answers. But we all have a person or group of people who we cannot trust, or don’t understand, those we cannot forgive. Jesus stands all that on its head and says your view of “neighbor” and your heart must be moved. How we see the poor, the unclean, the desperate, the dangerous, the enemy must be moved. This includes how we respond to them and how we see God in them- we have much to learn. And here in our own neighbor-hood the truth is we are not seeing everyone. And we miss out when we don’t see and embrace others truly.
Even our own mission statement, well intentioned, misses the mark. How many of you know it? For those who don’t the key part I want us to hear is that we say we “meet our neighbors at their greatest point of need.” But then what? Are we doing good, showing a little mercy, but then parting still strangers? Are we changed by God in this? And what about our greatest point of need? Do we imagine our neighbors meet us there and have things to offer to us, other places where we will both encounter God?
I have another Good Samaritan story. A man went to a city to do business, and while he was there he was ambushed, beaten, robbed and thrown from a moving car onto a sidewalk and left for dead. Dumped on a bust street, still in his business clothes, though they were now bloodied and tattered because the way we rob someone is to slit all their pockets. But on a street where it is not uncommon to see people in a heap on the sidewalk, he could just be another drunk, or a bum. There he is, a victim of people desperate enough to rob to survive. And other people dressed like him, walk on by as he lays there half dead. But an itinerant street vendor, sees him and crosses over to where he is. The street vendor may or may not have been an immigrant, who may or may not be illegal, he may or may not have been serving questionable food, making money under the table. He may or may not have warrants out for his arrest, and he may or may not have even been religious, much less Christian. And he had many things to risk. He left his cart- which meant he was missing all those lunch sales that feed him and a family. And his cart could have been robbed. And it could turn out that when the police come they say- this guy is a drunk, but we have your name on a list. Or the people that robbed the man, might have seen the street vendor start to help and come back for him. And he had no reason to get involved, much less help the man, call authorities and convince them to help.
But changed lives. Because the man laying there half dead was my father. Who is alive today because of that street vendor. And my greatest sadness is that we never learned his name and we could never thank him. Because in the world of important law abiding people, he was too insignificant to be remembered. It’s like he was unseen. Yet it was THIS man who went beyond all the limits to show compassion. And my father is alive because of it. When we keep those we assume have nothing to offer at a distance, we miss out on the life and love God intends for all of us. The story of the Unknown Street Vendor changed my life view. He lived out love your neighbor as yourself.
When we allow ourselves to be taught anew and open our eyes to the world, Christ teaches us real love and reminds of our real story. We are all helpless, in need in some way, and unable to save ourselves. But we are all given life and a future in Christ, and a place in the kingdom drawn near.
But that life will always feel incomplete when we don’t see our neighbors as we see ourselves, when we don’t draw near. “They” are “us” and we are ALL the ones God saves, and loves, and uses to give and to receive. And this is the neighborhood here- where people we feed share to feed others, where juvenile sex offenders crochet caps for babies in a NICU, where addicts watch this church and where everyday random people tell me they pray for us even though we do not see them here today. It is nothing short of life giving and miraculous and happening in places we’re not looking.
God is calling us to open our eyes to see God at work, and to share compassion and love with all our neighbors in the kingdom. Draw near.