Happy Groundhog’s Day! It’s kind of a silly cultural tradition, this Groundhog’s day thing, probably most difficult for those of us in the north to let go of… where many of us take whatever whisker of hope we can get for a shorter winter… even if it comes from a groundhog in Pennsylvania named Punxsutowney Phil.
There was a movie by the same name in the early 1990s that was about a cynical TV weatherman (played by Bill Murray) who found himself reliving the same day over and over again. His predicament leads him through all kinds of emotions — anger, frustration, feeling desperate, confused… until finally something breaks open in him. He surrenders to the truth that there are some things outside of his control (truth for all of us I’ll remind you) and his perspective changes. For a good portion of the movie he’s under the impression that every day is the same. He wakes up and knows what to expect — he knows what’s going to happen — because he’s lived this day before. No surprises. Everything’s predictable. But eventually his focus shifts — from himself and what he thinks he knows — to a focus on others and what he doesn’t know. He starts to see his predicament as an opportunity to keep doing better for someone else.
Today’s story is one of the most familiar stories in the bible: the Good Samaritan. We hear the title alone and might think, like Bill Murry in the movie, “here we go again.” We think we know the story. Many of you could tell it by heart. It’s well known — inside and outside the church. We’ve known the Good Samaritan so well we’ve named nursing homes after him, rescue agencies and job centers too. There are even some countries that have Good Samaritan laws to ensure legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to those who are injured, ill or in danger.
The characters don’t surprise us any more (though they certainly did for those who heard Jesus tell it). But for us, these many years and countless times of telling later, we expect to hear about the lawyer who asks the questions, the guy left in the ditch for dead, the priest and the Levite who should do good (it’s their job, after all) but cross the road to the other side and walk on by instead, and the despised, rejected, good-for-nothing Samaritan, (for that’s how he would have been perceived) moves toward the one in need, shows mercy and does good. We know the ending too: Jesus asks the lawyer which one in the story acts like a neighbor and then he commands the lawyer: go and do likewise. And in that command we hear our Christian call to see those in need, draw near to them, and act with mercy. It’s the way of God.
It’s not a wrong conclusion. But it’s not the only one either. So I commend this story to you this week. Don’t let these few minutes of reflecting together keep you from wondering what else might be going on. Read the story again and again — and every time you do, pretend that you’ve never heard it before. Listen carefully. Sit with it awhile. Look for a detail you haven’t noticed before. What catches your attention? What do you wonder about? Where do you see yourself in the story? How does this story challenge you? How might it change you? Where do you see it playing out in your life, or in the world today? Live with these questions and your curiosity may uncover something new for you.
Here’s what I noticed this time around: this story doesn’t just invite questions. It also includes questions.
An expert in the law stands up to speak. The translated version says that he’s testing Jesus — but I wonder if the word “testing” means the same for us as it did for the first century audience. Pay close attention and there really isn’t any sign of tension between Jesus and the lawyer. The lawyer is engaging Jesus in respectful conversation to better understand the Torah. Jesus welcomes the debate. He doesn’t shut the lawyer down but offers a response that invites further conversation. That’s something to take note of for us… that Jesus welcomes our questions and the opportunity to engage in conversation with us!
Jesus, like a good Rabbi, answers the lawyers question with two more questions: What is written in the Law? How do you interpret scripture? The questions require the lawyer to think for himself. And in his answer Jesus learns more about who the lawyer is and what he believes.
“Love the Lord your God” the lawyer answers, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” “You have given the right answer,” Jesus says. Music to a lawyer’s ears, I would imagine. But not just a lawyer. Being right is something that brings a certain satisfaction to each of us. We research, and study, debate and argue. Our desire for rightness often gets in the way of good, healthy conversation. It no doubt contributes to our current polarized way of being as a culture — if I get it right and you think differently than me, well then, you must be wrong, right? More questions: What would the world look like if we could let go of our need to be right? How would it change conversations — in the public square or the school cafeteria or the senate floor? Instead of determining who was right, what would it look like if we all pursued what was best for the common good?
Over and over in the gospels we find Jesus reminding people that saying the right words, knowing the right answers, believing the right beliefs isn’t all there is. Jesus doesn’t just invite us to think good thoughts. He asks us to do good deeds. He doesn’t just ask us to believe in him. He asks us to follow him. “You have given the right answer.” “Do this and you will live.” Right answers accomplish nothing unless they lead to right action. Do this, love God, love others, do this, do love and you will live.
And that’s the hard part. We know it. The lawyer in Luke’s story does too. So he asks for help. “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer presses for a definition. He wants to get it right. He needs specifics to quantify love, to better understand what is required of him in light of God’s commandment to love.
Jesus tells a story instead. Jesus will not limit or quantify love. Your neighbor is not determined by race, religion or proximity but by vulnerability: your neighbor is anyone in need of mercy.
And then Jesus asks a new question. The lawyer asked: who is my neighbor? Jesus asks who, in this story, acted like a neighbor.
It’s a subtle shift. Do you hear it? Because now the neighbor is not just the one in need of mercy; the neighbor is also the one who provides for someone in need, the one who provides for our need, the one who takes care of us.
For every one of us has found ourselves in the ditch. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re there now — feeling beaten up, afraid, discouraged, worried, rejected, alone. We don’t like to admit this. We spend a lot of energy and resources to present our strongest selves. But we’ve all been there. And we can’t get out of the ditch on our own. We need help. We need God and we need others. Jesus’ reframed question stretches our imagination to include us and to challenge us. Jesus’ question requires our need to begin with honesty about our own vulnerability. Being neighbor is to act with mercy. It is also to receive mercy. Jesus asks you: who has been neighbor for you?
The Good Samaritan story tells your truth: someone has shown up for you, maybe not in a way you expect, because, really, who would ever expect God to show up, in the flesh for you? But that is what God has chosen to do in Jesus Christ. Jesus, the despised and rejected one came along for you. Jesus sees you, draws close to you, cares for you with mercy and takes you to a place of healing. As the Apostle Paul wrote, while we were still God’s enemies, God saw us in the ditch and had compassion, and in Jesus came to save us. (Romans 5:7-8) This same Jesus Christ remains in the world today, working in and through others — including you that all the world would be healed and made whole.
Let us pray: O God, we talk a good game about right and wrong, but we do not have the wisdom or the power in ourselves to be righteous. We lie helpless on the side of the road, and even our best moral instincts pass us by on the other side. Come to us, O God, come to us again in Jesus Christ. Lift us out of our brokenness, take us to the place of healing, and lead us to see and draw near to others, acting with the same mercy and compassion you have already shown us.