Brief Synopsis of the Readings: Moses spoke to his people in Deuteronomy: “Obey the voice of the Lord…and you shall return with all your heart and soul.” Further, “[T]he Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in our heart for your observation.” In Luke’s Gospel a lawyer, who wished to trick Jesus, asked what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded by telling him that he must love both himself and his neighbor. The man then asked who is his neighbor. Jesus responded by telling the now famous tale of the Good Samaritan: a traveler was mugged on his way from Jerusalem. Both a priest and Levite passed by and did nothing. But a Samaritan saw this man. He brought the man to an inn and told the inkeeper to care for this man and give him (the Samaritan) the bill.
We all live with certain fears: for some it’s closed in places, for others it’s great heights, and for others it’s spiders, rats, snakes, etc. But I think we can all agree that we fear the idea of traveling alone and finding ourselves the victim of violence. Ask anyone in ministry or social services and we’ll burst with stories of someone showing up at our door with a story of traveling, getting mugged, and needing help.
And with all humility, most of us reacted to these stories with a certain amount of cynicism. We assumed those who appeared at our door were simply people searching for a free meal or enough cash for some hooch. I speak of humility because in 1994, as a priest in Memphis, I answered the door on an early Saturday morning. A 40 something year old man told me that he was traveling cross country by bus when his trip was interrupted by a strike and all passengers were evicted from the both the bus and the bus station (less than a mile away). I steeled myself for a pitch for cash, but instead he asked to use the parish phone to find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He explained that he was a recovering alcoholic and more than anything else he needed a meeting.
He made his call and in the 30 minutes we had before his ride picked him up I put on a pot of coffee and we had a chance to talk. I don’t remember the details but we had a discussion about the vulnerability of travel. When we leave our home we leave those we love, those who support us, and those we know. And while we may travel to a place to others who love, support, and know us, the middle ground can be frightening.
Today many of us live comfortably with protections: credit cards, travelers’ checks, cell phones, social media, etc. But many people today don’t have that luxury. Many, like the traveler in today’s Gospel, need to depend on (to quote Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire) “the kindness of strangers.”
But when we depend on the kindness of strangers we don’t have the ability to chose who they are. We can’t depend on those we know, or those who agree with us politically, or those who look like us. At the risk of sounding like a follower of Christ, we need to depend on Christ. And that means we need to expand our view of who we love. We need to expand who we think of us as our neighbor.
We like to think of ourselves as familiar with the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” After all, we’re all familiar with the “Good Sam” club, drivers of recreational vehicles who band together for fellowship and resources. But the years since Jesus told this parable, much has changed. We no longer look at Samaritans with the same contempt as the followers of Jesus because we don’t know (m)any Samaritans.
But we do know modern day Samaritans. Imagine if a white nationalist was saved by a Muslim. The questions about this are endless. Would it convince the white nationalist that not all Muslims are terrorists (or that while terrorists may claim to be Muslims, they aren’t, any more than members of the KKK aren’t true Christians)?
And what about modern day Samaritan, the Muslim? Did he do the right thing because he wanted to give the stranger a different view of himself? Or perhaps he just saw someone in need and helped him.
As with many parables, we don’t know many of the details. While the Samaritan was “moved with compassion” we know nothing about the man he saved. Two men, a priest and a Levite, declined to help him. Did the man resent them, or all priests and Levites, for their lack of compassion? I hope not. This doesn’t mean that all priests and Levites were bad, just these two.
I do hope that this man came away from this experience with a newfound understanding of the Samaritan who saved him, and indeed, of all Samaritans. We don’t need to know why they were enemies (and if you want to know, Wikipedia is your friend), but we do need to know why we are called stop treating them like enemies.
Jesus told this parable after being asked the question: “Who is my neighbor?” The “scholar of the law” who posed the question “And who is my neighbor” really asked “who isn’t my neighbor. He was hoping to trap Jesus into telling him who he doesn’t need to care about. Our neighbors aren’t simply those who live near us, or look like us, or speak like us, or agree with us. This man, in a dark and vulnerable place, was called to see an enemy as a neighbor.
When I think of this parable I often think of Oskar Schindler. During World War II he ran a factory in Krakow, Poland. He employed Jewish prisoners because they were cheaper. He wasn’t a good man at the time, and he certainly didn’t see these Jews as his neighbors. But as he got to know them he transformed and he ended up saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews. They became his neighbors. I can’t imagine that anyone hasn’t see the 1993 movie Schindler’s List but if you haven’t, it’s worth a look.
Let’s face it: most of us live in a world where insulation is a given. We can control who we speak to, who we listen to, and who we believe. And this makes it easy for us to be the priest and the Levite. But we also live in fear that someday we will be the man who was mugged and was in need of help.
Let us pray that someday, in some place, in some situation, we can be the Samaritan. Let’s start now.