To join with us by watching our online worship, please click here.
Several years ago, when I still lived in East Vancouver, I drove home after church one Sunday and encountered a road block at the top of my street. Behind the police cruiser parked across the road stopping traffic, I could see even more police cars and a fire truck, so I asked how much of the road was blocked wondering if I would be able to access my driveway from the other end of the street. When I was told a couple of blocks were cordoned off I turned around and took a detour which eventually led me to my home. When I had parked my car, one of my neighbours said there had been a fire on one of the rooftop patios in the townhouse across the street. The road was still blocked off just beyond our driveway, but since we couldn’t see or smell smoke in the air we assumed the incident was insignificant and I carried on with my plans for the rest of the day. It wasn’t until much later that day when I arrived home from having dinner with friends and the road was still blocked, that I began to realize what was happening across the street was anything but insignificant. We turned on the evening news only to discover that 19 units in the townhouse complex where we actually used to live had been evacuated in a 4 alarm fire. In fact the roof of our former home was completely gone.
The next morning, friends who live all the way out in Mission sent us a message on facebook: “Hey are you ok? We might be out of date but we’re pretty sure your townhouse complex was involved in the fire we saw on the news. If you’ve been displaced let us know if you need a place to stay.”
Now the thing that amazed me about this message was not just that they remembered the place that we had lived in several years ago, but they were offering to shelter us, even if it was 60 kms away. What was even more amazing was that it was now more than 12 hours since I had discovered that 20 of my neighbours had been evacuated from their homes right across the street from me, but it had not occurred to me that I could have made the same offer to any one of them.
Here was my Good Samaritan moment and like the priest and Levite in the parable I had passed by on the other side of the road.
The story of the Good Samaritan is such a well-known story, that even those who have never darkened the door of a church know the answer when asked the question what does it mean to be a Good Samaritan. A Good Samaritan is someone who stops to help or rescue someone else who is in need. We might not always do what the story tells us we’re supposed to do: stop in a snowstorm to push out the car stuck in the ditch, offer up a bedroom to our neighbour who has just been burned out, but we know what we’re supposed to do. Or do we? Do we really know what a Good Samaritan is or has the story become so familiar that we just assume we know the answer to the question?
The story of the Good Samaritan actually begins with a question, a question from a lawyer who asks Jesus what it is he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Note that he doesn’t ask what he’s supposed to believe, or how he’s supposed to “be.” He wants to know what he’s supposed to do. So he asks Jesus the question, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life, and in good rabbinic fashion Jesus responds to his question with another question. “What is written in the law?” He might have said “You’re a lawyer, you tell me” As it turns out the lawyer is a good one, he knows the answer to the question “You must love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength and with all your mind; and you must love your neighbour as yourself” To this Jesus says you’ve got the answer, now go and do the answer you know.
But then the lawyer asks another question and it’s this question that makes the story of the Good Samaritan what it really is, a story that is not just about knowing that when someone is in need we should help them, but a story that confronts us with every prejudice we’ve ever held.
Because the question that the lawyer asks is this one “tell me who is my neighbour”
Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking describes the lawyer in this way: When Jesus said to love your neighbor, a lawyer who was present asked him to clarify what he meant by neighbor. He wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question of loving one ever happened to come up. He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”
The moment the lawyer indicated he thought he could put a boundary on love, Jesus knew that although he appeared to know all the right answers to the questions he was asking, he didn’t really know how to live the right answer.
And so Jesus tells a story not just about helping someone in need, but a story that points out our human tendency to think and act along tribal lines and in so doing to leave one another lying in the ditch. Did you notice that everyone in this story except the half dead man lying in the ditch is described as being part of an identifiable subculture? The priest and the Levite are both Jewish, but divided along lines that put the Levite in a lower class and the priest in a higher one. The Samaritan would have been hated by both the Levite and the priest. By the time of Jesus, Samaritans and Jews had hated each other for 1,000 years, kind of like the Montagues and the Capulets of Shakespearean fame. Some scholars point out that even the innkeeper belongs to a subgroup setting him apart from others because the only people who would stay at an inn on the road to Jericho would have been those whose own families wouldn’t take them in. By changing their linens and emptying their chamber pots the innkeeper would have been in a class even lower than his guests.
I can still remember watching my children engage in this kind of tribal division when they were younger. I particularly recall a scene that took about 10 minutes to unfold at a waterpark. My boys were playing happily with another little fellow they had met at the park, running around with their water sprayers laughing in the sun, when out of nowhere another clan showed up with water guns three times the size as theirs, a family of cousins headed up by a 12 year old matriarch who quickly organized her team and her territory. At first our boys were invigorated by the challenge, provoking it in fact. But the head of the clan was serious about protecting her posse and in no time the gentle play of a summer afternoon turned sour. What could have been a time of good clean fun turned into a time of name calling and taunting, side taking and tears.
As human beings we have been created in such a way that we long to belong to one another. We instinctively turn towards those who act and look and think like we do. There is lots of good that can come from this kind of banding together in common thought and action. But in the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus paints a picture of the harm that this kind of thinking can cause, the kind of harm that causes neglect and self-interest, the kind of harm that literally causes some to die and others to survive. As an alternative he gives us another picture where our belonging to one another comes not from the colour of our skin or the creed by which we live but by virtue of our need for one another, our need for love and our need for mercy and compassion.
At some point or other we all come to a time in our lives when we are at the mercy of someone else, if not because we have literally been beaten and left in the ditch to die, because an illness has debilitated us, or the river has washed out our business or the fire has burned down or home, or because grief has overcome us or we have simply grown too old to manage our finances on our own or to make for ourselves our own meals. We know that we are supposed to be the Samaritan in the story but in fact we are more likely to show up in life as the one who is not identified by his tribe but simply with the generic title “the man” or “the one” because at some point or other we all find ourselves in need.
No wonder then, that in the story Jesus seems to suggest that for each man, each human being to inherit eternal life, to have a life that really matters and therefore endures, each human being needs to “do” love unto each other, to show compassion in concrete and active ways.
Barbara Brown Taylor when preaching about this story notes that Jesus doesn’t go into any detail about why the priest and the Levite pass by the beaten man on the other side of the road. Like the lawyer who prompts the telling of this story, they both would have known the Torah, the Jewish law inside out and backwards. They would have had lots of right answers to the questions they were asked about their faith. They may have passed by the half dead man on the road because they wanted to maintain ritual purity, or perhaps because they feared the man was just playing dead, lying in wait to rob them of their money. But their reasons for passing by don’t matter. Whatever they think or believe or have faith in doesn’t matter. All that matters is what they do. And what they do is see and pass by. It takes two verbs to cover the action of both the priest and the Levite.
In all likelihood the Samaritan would also have had lots of thoughts and opinions and right answers about the Torah and religious life but that also was of no importance to Jesus, at least not for the purpose of the telling of this story. What mattered was what he did. And here’s why he is the one we remember in the story, because what the Samaritan does takes a total of 14 verbs to describe. He comes near to the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, pours oil and wine on his wounds and bandages them. He puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes money out of his pocket and gives it to the innkeeper, and asks the innkeeper to take care of the bruised and battered man, saying that he will come back and repay whatever costs the innkeeper incurs on his behalf.
But it’s the first thing he does, at least according to Barbara Brown Taylor who actually counted all those verbs, that leads to all the rest. He comes close. That’s what puts him in the half dead man’s neighbourhood. He comes close enough to cross all cultural and religious boundaries. He comes close enough to put himself at risk of being fooled and wasting his time. He comes close enough to really see and know what has happened to the man, to have pity on him and to show compassion.
Whenever someone ends “up in the ditch” due to no fault of their own because of a life threatening diagnosis, a natural disaster or an act of violence, we often struggle to know how to be a good neighbour, how to come close. Sometimes we pass by on the other side of the road because we don’t know what to do. Do we deliver casseroles, offer financial support, encourage our governments to be more generous with the taxes we have paid to offer communities to rebuild. Do we tackle the bigger issues like gun control laws, law enforcement, environmental policies, better mental health services? Or do we simply hold the individuals and communities affected in our prayers?
Ultimately, it doesn’t what we do as long as we do something to come near, especially when that means crossing lines of race, creed and economic status, near enough to see, near enough to feel, near enough to recognize that the one lying in the ditch could just as easily be you or me and in many ways they are.
A few days after the fire at the townhouse complex across the street from where we used to live we noticed a sign posted on one of the telephone poles in the neighbourhood. There was going to be a benefit concert at the local pub to raise money for the folks who were burned out of their homes. All was not lost, there was still a chance to redeem the passing by I had done, to practice what I preach. So we dropped by the pub to put some money in the bucket for our old neighbours and friends, five of whom had no insurance on their houses and definitely needed the cash. But in the end it wasn’t the money that seemed to matter most, it was the fact that we had taken the time to cross the street, to stop by and listen to their stories, to show them that we care and to do the thing we knew all along that we should do.