If there is a more familiar story from the Bible than this one, I don’t know what it might be. More accurately, if there is a parable from the Bible that has found its way into our culture and become a colloquialism that’s universally understood, I’m not sure what that would be.
When a stranger displays extraordinary acts of kindness toward another who is in danger, we recognize that person as a Good Samaritan. We even have laws that encourage people to act as a Good Samaritan.
A few days ago, I was driving to the Minnetonka campus and noticed a business called Samaritan Tire Store. There was no explanation of the name, not even on the website. Never mind that the word “Samaritan” is the description of someone who’s from a place, Samaria, just as “American” refers to someone from America. The implicit branding that comes with the name Samaritan for a company that provides tires and roadside assistance implies that it’s reliable.
The positive connotation that’s perhaps unwittingly attached to this ethnicity is because of this story….which is interesting because the original hearers of this story would not have assumed a Samaritan was good. In fact, they would have assumed the opposite.
So today, I’d like us to engage with the story together and see what we might discover about it through conversation and see if we might be able to recover the surprise or twist that it was meant to bring.
There were two stories in the news recently that I’d like to draw on to help us think about the story. I’m going to summarize them both and then invite your response. The question for you to consider is this: How is this a Good Samaritan story? What did you hear in this story that reminds you of the Gospel reading?
News Report #1
Gracie Bucher is an eighth grade student from Windom, MN. She runs cross country, and she’s really good. When she was a seventh grader, she almost qualified for state, so she was determined to make it as an eighth grader. On the day of the sectional meet, things weren’t clicking for Gracie; her legs felt heavy, and her chest was tightening, but she pushed on. As she approached the finish line, she started staggering, and then she fell to the ground. She pulled herself up, staggered, and then fell again. And again. And again. Meanwhile, her mom was on the sideline being pulled by magnetic force to help her daughter, but the people around her yelled, “You can’t go out, you can’t go out!”
Her coach was there and also wanted to help, but she knew the rules: if one runner assists another, both runners will be disqualified. All around, people screamed, “Don’t touch her! Don’t touch her!” So Gracie continued to struggle and to crawl as the crowd watched and agonized with her, and other runners ran by.
Then came Liana Blomgren from Mountain Lake. Liana is a high school senior, and last year she qualified for state. This was her last year and her last chance, but she saw Gracie stagger and fall, and then crawl and collapse. She knew Gracie wasn’t going to get to the finish line by herself. So Liana ran over to her, bent down and pulled her to her feet, and supported her as the two of them walked across the finish line together.
Indeed, both of them were disqualified from the race. Those are the rules, and rules are rules.
Gracie’s parents rushed to her side once she crossed the finish line, and they drove her to the hospital emergency room. It turns out, she had mono.
Gracie doesn’t remember much about the end of the race, but she does remember Liana telling her this, “You’re with me, I’ve got you.”
News Report #2
About 2 weeks ago in Olathe, KS, near Kansas City, a 24-year-old man by the name of Ian Grillot went to Austin’s Bar and Grill to watch a basketball game with friends. At half-time, an altercation broke out in the bar. A 51-year-old man yelled, “get out of my country,” at two 32-year-old men who had immigrated from India; they were engineers who had lived here for 10 years ago. The man thought they were Iranian, and he wanted to harm them. Ian dove under a table for a few minutes, and when he thought it was safe, he got up and chased the man, hoping to subdue him until the police came. It turned out it wasn’t safe, and Ian was wounded in the hand and then the chest. [He is going to be ok.] Ian has been called a hero, but he says he was only doing what anyone should do for another human being. There were others who helped, as well. [I’ll leave it at that, considering the range of ages present in the room.]
So two true stories that were recently in the news. Both involve people we would easily call Good Samaritans. What did you hear in these stories that make them Good Samaritan stories?
- There are sometimes rules that prevent others from assisting.
- There can be a cost to helping. Getting involved makes us vulnerable.
- People do bad stuff.
- Racism exists.
– Thanks. Those are great observations.-
When this whole conversation between Jesus and the lawyer started, the lawyer approached Jesus in order to test him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” or “ life in the coming age?” The lawyer is a biblical scholar who interprets the biblical law so Jesus puts it back in his court and asks, “What does the law say?” The lawyer responds, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s right,” Jesus says, “do that and you’ll live.” But the lawyer, wanted to justify himself so he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer was asking for parameters. How far do I need to go?
Jesus answers by telling the story of a Samaritan who responded to a man in need, along with the two who walked on by, and then Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who was in crisis?”
The lawyer responded by saying, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Mercy. That’s one of those church words that we don’t often use in everyday conversation. (In actuality, we may practice it a lot.) This story helps illustrate the concept. There are three parts to mercy:
- looking beyond yourself and seeing another person’s situation;
- being moved to imagine yourself in his or her shoes;
- caring enough about that person’s needs to set your own needs aside in order to serve the other.
In the parable that Jesus tells:
- The Samaritan sees the man and draws near. He doesn’t cross to the other side of the road and walk on by.
- He “looks with pity,” or better yet, he “has compassion” on the man. That is, he suffers along with the one who is suffering. It’s a gut reaction, and he is truly moved by the other person’s pain.
- And then he acts. He tends to the man’s wounds. He puts him on his own animal. He takes him where he needs to go, and then he arranges for the man’s care. He allows himself to be interrupted. He put his own needs aside and shared what he had in order to serve the other person’s needs.
To see another person’s situation, to be moved by compassion, and then setting your own needs aside to serve – that’s what it means to show mercy.
We are in the time of Lent now. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and is walking toward the cross. We are inviting you to set your face toward others, to see people we don’t usually see, and to see their needs as Sacred Interruptions.
When Jesus asked, which one of these was the neighbor to the man who was in crisis, did you notice that the lawyer couldn’t bring himself to identify the person by naming his recognizable trait, his ethnicity? The lawyer couldn’t bear to say that the hero in the story was a Samaritan – that God could act through someone that “we” deemed “outcast” or “enemy”. Instead, he answered that the one who had been a neighbor was the one who had shown mercy. We don’t expect our enemies to be agents of God’s work.
There is plenty of suffering right now. There are 65 million refugees in the world. More than there were following World War 2. More than have ever been recorded. We have an immigrant population in this country that is on high alert – they are stressed. The Bible is clear that the stranger or the alien in our midst is our neighbor.
Our nation is pretty polarized right now. As a woman from Southern Ohio said, “Our world is turned upside down; we’ve got our pajamas on backward.”
We seem to talk at each other or shout each other down. It’s much easier to find people who agree with us than to find common ground with those whose political perspective differs. For many of us, the one we have a hard time seeing as an agent of God’s work might be a neighbor or family member with a differing political view, rather than an ethnic background. But like the original hearers of this parable, we, too, are discomfited by the possibility that our adversary might be the one who brings God’s salvation.
These are important struggles that we’re having right now. Who might God be working through? And where do we find ourselves in the story?
- Are we the Samaritan who is moved by compassion to act? Or the ones who see the man but walk on by?
- Are we the injured one in need of help?
- Are we the innkeeper who is entrusted with caring for the one in crisis? We don’t tend to talk much about the innkeeper and the ongoing role they play. How might we as the church be the innkeeper?
- Or are we the lawyer who asks the question, expecting to justify ourselves?…essentially self-sufficient and without the need of God. If we can justify ourselves, we have no need for God.
Just as we might be surprised to find a Samaritan being the one to show mercy, we find God in unexpected places, like the cross. God came to us in the incarnation and became one of us. Jesus experienced all that it means to be human, all that it means to suffer. And God comes to us in the darkest, loneliest, most vulnerable places of our lives and gives us mercy. You see, we are all the man by the side of the road in need of mercy.
We are all recipients of God’s mercy, grace, and redemption. And so we give thanks – thanks for the one who says, “You’re with me. I’ve got you.” God give us the grace to see the extended hand and to offer ours, as well. And God gives us the grace to recognize God’s own mercy and love flowing through unexpected people. Amen.